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Radioactive Fallout From iPhones and Flat-Screen TVs?

An Australian producer of rare earths used in cutting-edge devices says its new plant in Malaysia won't do local harm. What I found out there suggests otherwise.

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EST

After returning to Kuala Lumpur from tranquil Kuantan, the capital city seemed even more crowded, noisy, and sweltering than I remembered it. From my hotel room, I could hear tourists belting out Whitney Houston hits at a neighboring karaoke bar. I headed out for a walk. Over a snack at a food stall (which I thought was going to be ice cream but somehow ended up being a dark brown herbal jelly) I kept thinking about the Lynas pamphlet the fisherman had shown me—could the company really assure the Kuantan people that the refinery was safe? And could their government?

"If I don't do something I'm worried that my grandson will say, 'Grandfather, the first time you kept quiet. The second time you kept quiet, too. Why?'"

I tracked down an engineer who worked on the Kuantan plant. (He requested that I not reveal his name, employer, or other identifying details about his work.) Early on in the construction process, the engineer said, his team noticed that the moisture content in the concrete of 22 tanks—which would hold acids, rare-earth elements, and the radioactive waste—was too high for the lining to be applied. When the engineers notified Lynas of the problem, it dispatched a team to deal with the issue, which proceeded to set about drying the concrete with fans and blowtorches. "After a few weeks of this, we noticed that the moisture would reduce, then go back up again," the engineer said. So his team conducted an inspection and found that there were no moisture barriers under the tanks—the moisture from the ground was seeping in. Upon further inspection, his team also found cracks in the tank that ran from the floor to the top of the wall. It also discovered "honeycombing," or areas where the concrete had not been properly compacted. These were problems, he said, that ultimately lead a Dutch contractor, AkzoNobel, to pull out of the project. (According to a New York Times report, Lynas denied that AkzoNobel's withdrawal was related to the design problems.)

"My personal opinion is that the plant can operate safely," the engineer noted, "providing that it's effectively engineered." 

Lynas denies the allegations of design flaws; spokesman Jury wrote in an email that the company's change of contractors was a "commercial decision" and assured me that the new contractor, Trepax Thailand, "is applying the vinylester lining to meet the international industry standard." 

Raja Aziz, head of Malaysia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board: Image by AELB MalaysiaRaja Aziz Image by AELB MalaysiaI still wondered, though, whether the Malaysian government had made sure the tanks had been fixed, so I attended a press conference with Raja Dato Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the head of Malaysia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board, the body that will decide whether Lynas will get a license to operate. I asked Aziz, who never seemed to break a sweat or stop grinning, even as a room full of reporters pelted him with pointed questions, whether the board had looked into the plant flaws. Aziz responded that the plant had been inspected by a registered engineer. When I asked for the engineer's name, Aziz declined to give it. Why wasn't the report available to the public? I asked. "Because it's Lynas' document," Aziz said. "But if it's Lynas' document, then Lynas was the one who looked into the allegations made in the New York Times?" I asked. He demurred, so I asked again who inspected the plant.

"I looked into the allegations," he said. 

"You personally looked into them?"

"We looked into them."

"So then why can't you tell me the name of the engineer who inspected the building for the safety flaws?"

"That's for you to find out."

Right. When I later asked Jury about the alleged inspection report, he said he didn't have it and referred me back to AELB, the Malaysian Department of Environment, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On the day that I left Malaysia, a group of Kuantan residents filed suit against the AELB, alleging that the body had a conflict of interest in a deal it made whereby it would receive 0.05 percent of the revenue generated from the Lynas plant. When the news site Malaysian Insider asked Aziz about the suit, he responded, "I don't know anything about it. Ask MITI [the Ministry of International Trade And Industry]."

Over the course of my trip, it had become abundantly clear to me that all this obfuscation had not inspired confidence in the local population. In Kuantan especially, there was much eye-rolling about the secrecy surrounding the refinery, and the frustration was palpable: Many said they didn't even see the point in protesting when they knew the government was going to do whatever it wanted anyway.

Malaysians also know that rare earths are in high demand. And that puts them in a tough spot. As one reader wrote (in slightly broken English) in the comments section of my last dispatch, "Malaysians are not against new, green technology that rare earth material supports. Just asked for these technology to be clean from cradle to grave, particularly when you're processing it in another's backyard."

You can bet that Malaysians—and perhaps the rest of us whose smartphones, cars, wind turbines, and missiles rely on rare earths—will be watching closely to see how this situation plays out. For now, though, I'll leave you with one last anecdote: On my last night in Kuantan, I talked to a 62-year-old man named Chow Kok Chew who had moved to Kuantan 30 years ago—from the town of Bukit Merah to get away from the former rare-earth refinery there. He said he was dismayed when he found out about the plans for a new refinery in Kuantan. Since then, Chew has been spending most of his spare time reading up about the plant—and encouraging his friends to do the same. "If I don't do something," he said, "I'm worried that my grandson will say, 'Grandfather, the first time you kept quiet. The second time you kept quiet, too. Why?'"

A beach in the town of Balok, just a short distance from Lynas' rare-earth refineryA public beach just a short distance away from where Lynas' refinery will release its wastewater

 Reporting for this story was partially funded by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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