A couple months ago, we looked at a controversy in Malaysia, in order to highlight the global need for a “thorium bank” – an international operation that could take thorium off the hands of rare earth miners and facilitate its availability as a nuclear fuel. It’s time to revisit the Southeast Asia country, because the need is literally heating up.
A review: Thorium is a mildly radioactive element that could replace uranium and offer safety, waste and efficiency advantages over conventional nuclear, especially when run in reactors that are markedly different than today’s solid fuel, water cooled behemoths. Thorium typically co-exists in the same minerals as rare earth elements, the 17 metals that are crucial to the manufacture of everything from missiles to iPhones.
That co-existence can deter important rare earth mining, because operators have to spend to responsibly extract and store the thorium. Many regard this as nothing but a burden because there isn’t much of a market for thorium, although there could be a market once regulators approve thorium as a nuclear fuel.
In Malaysia, as we noted in December, four Malaysian government ministers said they would revoke the license of Australian rare earth company Lynas Corp. to process rare earths at a brand new plant in Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast, unless Lynas started exporting the “waste” – presumably, thorium…
Fast forward to this week. The Malaysian Insider is reporting that environmental group Himpunan Hijau “is threatening to burn down Lynas Corps’ controversial rare-earth refinery.” It attributed the threat to the group’s chairman Wong Tack, who warned of the action out of “anger and frustration” if the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition retains power in upcoming national elections.
Himpunan Hijau is backing the rival Pakatan Rakyat party because it has pledged to shut down the plant.
“If Pakatan (is) in power and still refuses to close down the plant, they (the people) will be even more frustrated and angry… Our position is we will have another uprising, bring down Pakatan and burn down the plant,” he said.
It’s one thing to exercise concerns over the potential environmental hazards of rare earth mining. And it’s certainly understandable that suspicions could arise over good intentions when a company from a foreign country arrives to profit from mineral extraction.
But outright thuggery and arson?
Here’s a better answer: An international effort to assure the environmentally sound mining and processing of rare earths – including the extraction and storage of thorium. As we noted in December, at least two such initiatives could accomplish that.
The “thorium bank” proposed by Jim Kennedy and John Kutsch, co-directors of the Illinois-based Thorium Energy Alliance, would oversee and store thorium gathered from rare earth processing operations. It would assume liability for thorium and would help assure a reliable supply chain of thorium for a thorium nuclear power future, and work alongside a rare earth co-operative that would look after safe rare earth processing and the extraction of thorium from the rare earths. (Kennedy is also president of Missouri thorium and rare earth company ThREEM3).
A separate plan by Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute of Applied Sciences calls for a tax on international rare earth consumers to fund the safe extraction of thorium from rare earths, through what Kamei calls the Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies.
To state the obvious, either of those proposals sound a lot more level headed than Himpunan Hijua’s incendiary solution. Malaysian police would probably share that sentiment. As I was preparing this post, news broke that they are investigating the threat.
Let cooler heads prevail.