Lynas must meet M’sian AELB standards

Posted on March 12, 2011. Filed under: Pollution, Waste |

-The Star-

PETALING JAYA: Australia’s Lynas Corp has to meet strict standards set by the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licencing Board (AELB) to secure a licence to operate its rare earth ore processing plant that is under construction in Gebeng in Kuantan.

To get the licence, Lynas has submitted an application for pre-operations.

“It is still incomplete but they are beginning to provide documents,” said AELB director general Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan.

The licence will only be issued after and “inter-agency assessment is done.”

But before it begins operations, a pre-operating licence will be issued for Lynas to show proof of its claims that its raw materials are “safe, non-toxic and are non-hazardous.”

“The board will have to verify and decide but of utmost (concern) to us is the safety and security of the workers, the community and the environment.

“If they (Lynas) do not meet the conditions set by the government, then there is little we can do to help,” Raja Aziz told StarBizWeek yesterday.

The Gebeng plant was thrust into the limelight after a New York Times report said the “long term storage of thorium waste was still unresolved. The ore to be imported for processing in Malaysia will have 3% to 5% of the thorium per tonne found in the tin mine tailings that Mitsubishi had processed.”

This raised alarm bells and the critics are unconvinced – to them, the risks of radioactive pollution is very real because refining rare earth minerals usually leaves thousands of tonnes of low level radioactive waste behind.

The stringent rules and layers of monitoring imposed by Malaysia is vital as it cannot afford a second tragedy after the contamination caused by the Mitsubishi Chemicals plant near Ipoh.

The plant – Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth – was shut down aftera protest in 1992 and now the cleanup is complete. Raja Aziz said the site had been handed over the local authorities.

Lynas promises that it will set a “precedent for leadership in environment performance.”

“We are dedicated to zero harm and care and well-being of our people and the communities in which we operate is at our core.

“We have agreed to place funds with the Malaysian government to ensure safe management of any remaining residue as required by the AELB,” Lynas vice president of corporate and business development Dr Mattew James said in an email.

He added that the raw materials from Mount Weld has naturally low levels of thorium and according to Nuclear Malaysia, it is 50 times lower than the different raw materials used at Bukit Merah.

How dangerous is this waste?

“This is not radioactive waste. It is under the category of industrial waste which contains normal radio active elements and they are just the same as your granite walls in your house and the water in the ground. We are very careful as a precedent has been set in Perak,” Raja said.

Lynas, based in Sydney, is investing US$230mil to build the world’s biggest rare earth ore processing plant in Gebeng. This plant will provide materials critical for the manufacture of high tech goods. This is the first such facility to be built out of China for decades.

The aim of the plant is to reduce China’s monopoly on the global supply of 17 rare earth metals essential for making products like flatscreen TVs, mobile phones, hybrid cars and even weaponry.

The raw material for processing will have to come from Western Australia.

Lynas got MIDA’s approval to set up the plant here three years ago and it will enjoy a 12-year tax holiday.

The report said about 2,500 workers are rushing to complete the construction so that operations can begin this year.

Asked how Lynas will clean up the waste from the plant, Raja Aziz said: “We have been monitoring and taking environmental samples (from the onset).

“We will make sure there is subsequent monitoring of the operations if (their application) is approved as it must not have an impact on the environment. That is our guarantee.

“We are not promoters but concerned for the public. We monitor the situation all the time and its impact on the workers, the public and the environment.

“If there is an impact, we have provisions to suspend the licence (if it is approved),” Raja said.

He said even before the construction began, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Radiological Impact Assessment reports had been undertaken.

“It is a performance-based EIA, not prescriptive. This means we, and some other government agencies, have to monitor and measure the levels of radioactivity (all the time).

“There were no concerns in the EIA as (Lynas) is convinced that the radioactive levels will be below the (permissible) levels, but we will have to check it for ourselves,” Raja Aziz said.

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