One of the trends we highlighted in our most recent State of Green Business report, published last month, was how companies and governments alike are waking up to the risks posed by the current state of rare earth minerals.
The elements, which are key components of high-tech products from computers to hybrid car batteries, are almost entirely mined in China, and that country has recently begun using its stranglehold on global supply strategically: Embargoing shipments to Japan during a trade dispute, and limiting exports so as to keep its supply at home.
The situation has reached a point where the benefits are outweighing the risks. A case in point: Malaysia is currently at work on what will be one of the world's largest rare earth minerals refinery, potentially capably of processing one-third of the world's demands.
As Keith Bradsher writes in the New York Times, it's a bit of a devil's bargain.
For Malaysia and the world's most advanced technology companies, the plant is a gamble that the processing can be done safely enough to make the local environmental risks worth the promised global rewards.
Once little known outside chemistry circles, rare earth metals have become increasingly vital to high-tech manufacturing. But as Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind.
So the world has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries — processing factories that are barely regulated and in some cases illegally operated, and have created vast toxic waste sites.
The new plant is being developed by an Australian mining company to process materials mined in Australia -- but sent abroad to avoid running afoul of Australia's politically powerful Green Party and other concerned environmentalists.