- PM launches new-look Proton Perdana as govt's official car
- 20 years on, no one forgets Highland Towers
- 2013 SEA GAMES: 8th day results involving Malaysia
- Najib leaves for Tokyo
- Mandela family 'humbled' by thousands turning out in cold, rain
- 11 commando trainees, 2 instructors to get Pingat Gagah Berani
- Saudi beheads man for incest
- Tears as Mandela lies in state
- MCA's '3 kingdom' battle
- 'Anwar unfit to be leader'
- Why judge those who help sincerely?
- Demolished without any warning
- Haniff Omar's son dies after falling into drain
- Mukhriz launches Ansara Club
- RTD confiscates 24 vehicles in joint ops More
SAFE: French tourist town has been home to a rare earths plant for decades
EVER heard of La Rochelle? Some may have heard of the chocolate brand with the same name. But not many, I suspect, know that La Rochelle is a popular tourist town southwest of Paris. In fact, very few outside France know that La Rochelle is more than just a holiday spot. It is more than just a coastal township where holiday yachts of the rich and famous are parked.
Many would be surpr ised that La Rochelle has for decades been hosting a rare earths processing plant, similar to the one planned in Malaysia.
A recent visit to the facility in La Rochelle put to rest any lingering doubts about the plant's safety.
Earlier, we had looked high and low for a rare earths plant similar to Lynas. We first tried China, the largest supplier of rare earths in the world. None in China is sited close to a residential community like Lynas.
The big rare earths plants in China are either in a desert area or close to the mountains. There, the radioactive residues are just buried either in the desert or the mountains. But the La Rochelle facility, which belongs to France's Rhodia Group, has for years been operating like Lynas. Forty years to be exact. And there has been no adverse health and safety report in the tourist town.
The Rhodia company is an active player in the rare earths business. It is a leading processor of rare earths. It sells rare-earths-based formulations for use in catalytic convertors, light bulbs and other value-added industries such as optics and flat-screen televisions. In fact, it's the only fully integrated industrial player to have manufacturing operations and raw material supply both within and outside China.
In 10 years' time, Rhodia plans to further diversify its sources of rare earths. It has recently launched a project to recycle rare earths contained in high-performance magnets as well as in low-energy light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. It is optimistic about the future of the rare earths business.
The plant in La Rochelle has been in operation for more than 50 years. In the early years, the plant processed rare earths ore concentrates from Australia and China just like Lynas would. For 40 years, the plant was operated in this manner, producing cerium for the world market.
The radioactive thorium residues have been stored within the plant's 40ha site for the past 50 years. During storage, the residues are regularly monitored by the country's regulatory authority, the equivalent of our Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB). The plant operates under strict European health and safety standards. They believe the stored thorium salts will become a fuel of the future.
How does the plant enjoy peaceful coexistence with the La Rochelle community? Their secret lies in their active engagement with the locals. Twice a year, the local people are invited to view the operation of the facility.
They are given special briefings on measures taken to safeguard the health and safety of the plant.
They also organise tours for schoolchildren. Such transparency has helped remove safety doubts among the local community.
In 1996, the plant changed its business model from upstream processing to more downstream processing.
This was done for economic reasons. They could not compete with the cheaper rare earths coming from China.
What is clear is that the rare earths processing facility in La Rochelle has been operating for more than five decades without harming the population. Instead, La Rochelle has thrived over the years as an attractive tourist destination not only for the French but also for holiday-makers from other European countries and even as far away as the United States.
Through the deployment of stringent health and safety standards, the chemical plant has been of no consequence to the local community.
Instead, it has contributed to the local economy not only in terms of job opportunities but also tax revenues.
After visiting La Rochelle, it beats me why there are still people who are so hung up on Lynas.