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Asean Affairs   30 June  2011

Malaysian rare earth plant said to be safe

By  David Swartzemtruber

AseanAffairs     30 June 2011

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There is good news for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as the plans to develop a rare earth refinery in the country have passed the muster of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Australian firm, Lynas Corporation Ltd., plans to take ore from Australia and process it into rare earths in Gebeng, Pahang, Kuantan, Malaysia. The IAEA said the plant is safe but Lynas must make improvements in 10 “various technical areas” before it can proceed to the next licensing phase of the project.

The Lynas project is not the first rare earth plant in Malaysia and the earlier one, developed by Mitsubishi, was a disaster. The Mitsubishi plant closed in 1992 but left behind victims of leukemia, whose illness can be traced back to the plant, according to Malaysian doctors.

Mr. Nicholas Curtis, Lynas chairman, says the new Lynas plant, will process ore that has only 3 to 5 percent of the radioactivity that the Misubishi ore contained. That radioactivity is in the form of thorium and the long-term storage of the thorium is still an open issue. However, Lynas plans to mix the radioactive part of the waste with lime to dilute it to a thorium concentration of less than 0.05 percent — the maximum permitted under international standards to allow the material to be disposed with few restrictions.

The new plant is also designed to keep its 450 workers safe through increased automation in the manufacturing process.

Lynas says the new, US$230 million plant will meet one-third of the world’s needs for rare earths, which are used in the production of various high-tech products used in many fields, in- cluding aviation. Currently, China has a monopoly of the production of rare earths and in recent disputes with Japan has cut off the supply of rare earths to that country. The world will thus gain a new source of rare earths freed of political strategy.

If rare earth prices stay at current levels, the refinery will generate $1.7 billion a year in exports starting late next year, equal to nearly 1 percent of the entire Malaysian economy.

Although there was immediate objection to the refinery because of the bad taste left by the Mitsubishi plant, the opposition intensified following the recent Japanese nuclear power disaster.

At that point, Razak moved to ask the IAEA to appoint a team of experts to review the safety of the project. Malaysia’s prime minister must certainly be pleased with the outcome of the review.

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This year in Thailand-what next?

AseanAffairs   04 January 2011
By David Swartzentruber      

It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health. More


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