THE 17 RARE-EARTH ELEMENTS aren't as rare as was thought when they were discovered in the 1800s. But they often perform specific, crucial functions. For example, "virtually all polished glass products" depend on cerium, according to the US Geological Survey; the element is also vital to catalytic converters. Other rare earths help form the world's strongest magnets. If you hold a chunk of magnetized neodymium, a chunk a few feet away will fly through the air to meet it. Because rare-earth magnets are so strong, a little goes a long way. They're the reason your smartphone has computing power that would have filled two rooms just 30 years ago yet today fits in the palm of your hand.
Walk down the aisles of your local Best Buy and you'll be hard-pressed to find a phone, laptop, or TV that doesn't contain at least one of the rare earths. The elements are also key to all kinds of green technology: Neodymium is found in wind turbines; hybrid and electric cars often contain as many as nine different rare earths. Yttrium can form phosphors that make light in LED displays and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Rare earths are also crucial for defense technology—radar and sonar systems, tank engines, smart bombs.
Elements of Style
The rare earths lurking inside your hybrid car and smartphone.
But here's the catch. Rare earths always occur alongside the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, and safely separating them is a complex process. Miners use heavy machinery to reach the raw ore, which contains anywhere between 3 and 9 percent rare earths, depending on the deposit. Then the ore is taken to a refinery and "cracked," a process wherein workers use sulfuric acid to make a liquid stew of sorts. The process is also hugely water- and energy-intensive, requiring a continuous 49 megawatts (enough to power 50,000 homes) and two Olympic swimming pools' worth of water every day.
Workers then boil off the liquid and separate out the rare earths from rock and radioactive elements. This is where things get dangerous: Companies must take precautions so that workers aren't exposed to radiation. If the tailings ponds where the radioactive elements are permanently stored are improperly lined, they can leach into the groundwater. If they are not covered properly, the slurry could dry and escape as dust. And this radioactive waste must be stored for an incomprehensibly long time—the half-life of thorium is about 14 billion years, and uranium's is up to 4.5 billion years. Reminder: Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old.
Not coincidentally, the refining tends to happen in areas where weak environmental rules mean that companies can process the elements on the cheap. Take the Baotou region of Inner Mongolia, where most of China's rare-earth mines are clustered, and where waste has leached into waterways and irrigation canals, according to several independent investigations. Communities around one former mine in Mongolia blame at least 66 cancer deaths on leaked radioactive waste, and local people complain that their hair and teeth have fallen out.
All this so that my friends and I can settle an argument about the order of Metallica's first three albums from the comfort of our bar stools.
KUANTAN, THE TOWN WHERE LYNAS has built its new rare-earth refinery, is a popular vacation spot—laid-back and unpretentious, with uncrowded beaches and delicious seafood. By early fall, Lynas' rare-earth ore will begin to arrive.
Shipping ore thousands of miles is extremely expensive. But the company says the cheaper labor, electricity, and chemicals in Malaysia make it worthwhile. Malaysians who oppose the plant see a much more troubling dynamic. "Australia is a first-world country that wants the developing world to do its dirty work," says Fuziah Salleh, Kuantan's parliamentary representative and an outspoken critic of the Lynas project. "Our environmental laws are very lax, and Lynas knows exactly where to take advantage of it. If you look at Australia, there are very strict laws about controlling the waste, dust, and air quality. But here in Malaysia—even if we have those laws—it is very hard to enforce."
Lynas emphasizes that this refinery will be "completely different to the Bukit Merah rare-earths plant" and that "there are now much higher standards in place which mean Bukit Merah could never be repeated." Last year, the Malaysian government asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to recommend a list of 11 safety requirements and standards that should be in place in order to operate. But Lynas was allowed to open its refinery without meeting the most important one—a long-term storage solution for the waste. Instead, Lynas says it will treat the highly acidic liquid waste before releasing it into waters that support a thriving mangrove ecosystem and fish that local residents depend on.
"Lynas doesn't care what happens to us," one fisherman tells me. "They just want their money."
That hasn't done much to reassure the people of Kuantan. "Lynas doesn't care what happens to us," one fisherman tells me. "They just want their money." They are also less than thrilled that their government has promised Lynas a 12-year tax holiday.
But even more dubious is what Lynas proposes to do with the radioactive solids: Isolate them—the company is not forthcoming with any details as to how—before diluting them with soil or concrete and selling the mixture as fertilizer or construction materials.
"They have yet to establish it is either economically or practically feasible," says Dr. Peter Karamoskos, a radiation safety adviser for the Australian government. Noting that Lynas' waste is six times as radioactive as levels recognized as safe, he does a quick calculation: "By the end of 10 years of 1 million tons of waste, where are you going to find 6 million tons to dilute it with? Where are you going to find the clients to take up that stuff? Where are their contracts? Any builder who touched this waste would be out of business immediately. You can argue that if you diluted it adequately you could use it. However, remember the problem is that buildings get demolished. Once you start doing that, you release that back into the environment."
No wonder the plant has become a rallying cause for the opposition parties in upcoming elections. Even in Kuala Lumpur, 150 miles from the plant, I saw bumper stickers bearing the words "Save Malaysia! Stop Lynas!" and here in Kuantan, the slogan is everywhere—on flyers in store windows, on T-shirts, and even on umbrellas.
Among the local protesters is an environmental consultant and Kuantan native named Lee Tan, who now lives mostly in Australia but hasn't forgotten a single crevice of her hometown. A stout, cheerful woman in her early 50s, Tan takes me to a roadside fish stand in the nearby village of Sungai Karang, where a handful of families sit around plastic tables as kids dart around underfoot and a few hungry cats lick their chops near the trash area out back. This is a Muslim village, and Tan and I are the only women not wearing a tudung, the Malaysian headscarf. The shop's owner, 31-year-old Jamil Jusuf, is making his specialty: fried fingers of selayang and padang fish dusted with spicy meal, wrapped tightly in leaves and grilled over an open flame. Jusuf says he first heard about the refinery from tourists. "They told me that the waste will go right where I get my fish from," he says.
Over at a fishing dock on the Balok River, just a few hundred yards from Lynas' waste release site, a fisherman says that he has heard that the opposition party, which is largely made up of ethnic Chinese, is using the Lynas issue to get more votes; the Malay-dominated government has been very supportive of Lynas. He produces a beat-up booklet bearing the Lynas logo. "Lynas has come here many times to hand out pamphlets," he says. Later, Tan translates the pamphlet for me. "The Lynas plant will not be dangerous to the public, the surrounding area, or its workers," declares one bolded heading.
The next day I snag a meeting with a senior government spokesman, who agrees to speak if I don't publish his name. I ask him what locals will gain from having the plant nearby. "A lot, a lot," he says, before admitting that Lynas will only employ about 300 people. "But because Lynas is here, some other industries will also come."
"The Malays are not worried," one government official told me. "Because we have been telling them that this project is safe, so why would they fear?"
"Siemens," he says. I ask whether the German electronics conglomerate has made a formal commitment. He concedes that it hasn't.
"So have any other companies officially said they would come?"
"Thus far, no other commitments yet."
And what of the plant's potential chilling effect on tourism? He brushes that aside. "Fears created by the opposition have influenced a very tiny segment of the people, especially among the Chinese," he says. "The Malays are not worried, because we have been telling them that this project is safe, so why would they fear?"
FROM KUANTAN, I HEAD BACK to noisy, frenetic Kuala Lumpur. In my hotel room, I can hear tourists at the karaoke bar next door belting out Whitney Houston hits. Tourism accounts for around 6.7 percent of the country's GDP. Over the last decade, the number of foreign tourists has more than doubled, making it the ninth most visited country in the world, just shy of Germany. That it's a Muslim country makes it an especially popular destination for visitors from the Arab world. I wonder if radiation fears will hurt tourism.