As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” — so why is a city in outback Western Australia embracing plans for a multi-million-dollar processing plant that Malaysia wants banned?
- Rare earths producer Lynas Corporation will build a processing plant in Kalgoorlie
- It currently processes the material in Malaysia, which has given the company until 2023 to find a new location
- The Kalgoorlie council has welcomed the project but others have raised safety and environmental concerns
Lynas Corporation produces rare earth minerals, which are essential for technological devices such as smartphones, wind turbines and defence weapons systems.
The company mines rare earths at Mount Weld in WA’s northern Goldfields and ships them to Malaysia for processing.
The cracking and leaching part of the process creates low-level radioactive waste, a subject of controversy and protests in the Asian nation.
In February, the Malaysian Government renewed Lynas’s operating licence with some key conditions, including that it must build a cracking and leaching plant elsewhere by mid-2023.
Lynas would then be banned from importing materials containing naturally occurring radioactive material; the company still plans to use Malaysia for later stages of its processing.
Race is on to build Kalgoorlie plant
When the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder heard Lynas was looking for a new site, it pursued the company and convinced it to move to the region.
City chief executive John Walker said the plant would be a “game changer” for Kalgoorlie and help diversify the local economy, which was reliant on gold mining.
Lynas has committed to using a residential workforce instead of fly-in fly-out workers, creating about 500 jobs in the construction phase and about 100 permanent roles.
“Obviously it creates jobs, long-term employment, different skills so we broaden the base of the people that want to be here and the residential-based employment.”
Construction on the plant is expected to start within months and could cost between $250 million and $500 million.
Pressure is on to complete the project within three years and it will be helped with a streamlined approvals process, after receiving formal support from the State and Federal governments.
WA’s lead agency status and the Commonwealth’s major project status were awarded after Australia and the United States signed a deal last year to collaborate on critical mineral production, including rare earths.
The countries recognised a need to boost supplies because China produces the lion’s share of the world’s rare earths.
The issue was thrown into the spotlight last year when China threatened to restrict rare earths amid an escalating trade war with the US.
In a separate project, Lynas has secured a contract to design a rare earths processing facility in Texas that would supply the US Department of Defense.
Safety concerns raised over plant
Lynas has repeatedly stressed the debate over its Malaysian operations is political and not scientifically based.
The company said four scientific reviews had been conducted, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deemed the residue risk to the public and environment as “intrinsically low”, and the radioactivity was so low that it was not required to be labelled as radioactive when being transported.
WA Mining and Pastoral Region MP Robin Chapple agreed the radioactivity was low, but said the problem was the type of radioactive component, which could become aerosolised.
“The waste will be stockpiled somewhere around Kalgoorlie,” he said.
Former Australian Conservation Foundation activist Lee Tan, who is researching Lynas for her thesis, welcomed the relocation of the plant from Malaysia to Australia.
She said while the waste could be managed appropriately in Australia, the public and environmental advocates should still be concerned because of the nature of the waste.
“Scientifically and from a health perspective, low-level radioactive material such as thorium and uranium, which are found in Lynas’s waste, are by no way safe,” she said.
Gavin Mudd, an associate professor in chemical and environmental engineering at RMIT University, said this would be the first time Australia had such a plant and stored its waste.
But he said he believed it could “meet a lot of the environmental standards that the community would expect” if certain measures were taken and the public could have “reasonable confidence” in the approvals process.
“We need to make sure we’re addressing things such as air quality, and not just for the normal sort of pollutants or contaminants … we also have to consider the radioactive nature of the minerals that are being processed,” he said.
“Make sure the technology, the pollution control within the processing plant and the overall environmental management achieves the sort of standards the community expects and that a facility would be legally bound to abide by.”
Associate Professor Mudd stressed the need for long-term monitoring of the waste site — a plan that acknowledged the waste would remain “in perpetuity”.
Lynas says it follows global best practice
When contacted about these concerns, a Lynas spokesman said “these kinds of factually incorrect claims have been made by various activists in Malaysia” and have been “found to be without foundation by the scientific review panels”.
“The Lynas team is working productively with the various regulatory authorities in WA, assessments are being undertaken, including a radiological assessment aligned with international best practice as guided by the IAEA,” he said.
A spokesman for the federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources said the Kalgoorlie project would be subject to a range of government regulations and development controls.
“These controls are established to serve the public interest by delivering desirable regulatory outcomes which include protecting the public from health and safety risks and managing environmental, social and other development-related impacts that may arise from a project.”
Where will the toxic waste go?
A Lynas spokesman said the company was keen to ensure the Kalgoorlie community was kept informed and that the plant’s by-product “will be stored in approved, purpose-built long-term storage facilities”.
But where is a mystery to the public.
A Lynas document from last month said it was “continuing to investigate offsite disposal options (including returning iron phosphate to Mt Weld) as well as re-use opportunities of iron phosphate as a soil conditioner”.
One option could be in the neighbouring Shire of Coolgardie, which is home to a low-level radioactive waste facility that has been run by the WA Government for several years.
In the same shire, a private company recently completed an EPA-approved waste disposal facility, which also accepts low-level naturally occurring radioactive materials.
Mr Walker from the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder said the Lynas waste could go to a different facility and the details had not been finalised.
“The city has options … we’re working with the Shire of Coolgardie as well; they’re very keen and well advanced on delivering a waste disposal opportunity,” he said.
A Department of Industry spokesman said the details would be released publicly when confirmed.