Malaysia rare earths plant provokes radiation fears

Posted on May 30, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

The China Post

KUALA LUMPUR–In the quiet town of Gebeng in Malaysia’s central state of Pahang, a new rare earths plant has evoked fears of radiation contamination as residents desperately seek to stop the construction of the world’s largest such refinery.

The plant is expected to meet up to 30 percent of the world’s demand for rare earths outside China.

Rare earth elements, a group of 15 metals, are used in electronic devices for the defense, alternative energy and communications industries.

The 700-million-ringgit (US$233 million) refinery is being constructed by Australia’s Lynas Corp., which plans to ship rare earth ore mined from Western Australia’s Mount Weld to the Gebeng plant by September.

News of negotiations between the Malaysian government and Lynas began surfacing in 2008, but it was only earlier this year that public outcry peaked after it was discovered that construction had already begun on the 20-hectare plant.

The main concern is the possibility of contamination from low-level radioactive waste from the rare earth refining process.

Gebeng is an industrial town of 10,000 people located 265 kilometers from Pahang’s capital of Kuantan.

While the Malaysian government and Lynas have stressed that the facility will have state-of-the-art technology for contamination control, opponents claim crucial questions remain unanswered especially regarding the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

“We have read the facts, we know about the risks, and we have simply decided that this is not what the people of Pahang want in our backyards,” said Jonathan Wong, the spokesman for the Stop Lynas citizen’s movement.

“Lynas itself has not seen the people, they have not even come up with a solid plan to manage the waste, and they expect us to just accept that they know best,” Wong told the German Press Agency dpa.

Those opposing the Gebeng plant have pointed to the Asian Rare Earth plant built in the northern state of Perak in the 1980s by Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp as an example of the refinery being a “disaster in the making.”

That facility was blamed for the unusually high number of birth defects and leukemia cases among the 11,000-strong population living nearby. It ceased operation in 1992 after protests from locals and environmentalists.

The owners were never sued and no compensation has been paid to the plant’s alleged victims.

Almost a decade later, Mitsubishi is still cleaning up the radioactive waste from the area in a project estimated to cost at least 300 million ringgit.

Lynas has been quick to distance itself from that disaster by stating that different ores of lower radioactivity would be used in Gebeng, but critics complained of the apparent lack of transparency in the mining company’s dealings with Malaysian authorities.

“There has been no full public disclosure of this proposed project,” said SM Mohamed Idris, president of the Friends of Nature environmental group.

“A detailed environmental impact assessment was not required due to a loophole in our law,” he said.

The government is keen to continue with the Lynas project as the refinery is expected to generate up to 5 billion ringgit (US$1.67 billion) a year in exports as well as hundreds of jobs.

Protesters insist that radiation contamination is too high a price to pay for any economic gain.

“If the government failed to regulate the Asian Rare Earth plant, what makes us believe it will be different now?” said Wong.

“They are asking us to take a gamble with our lives and those of our children.”

Authorities eager to allay public fears said last month that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was assessing the threat of contamination from the planned plant.

The government assured the public it would only approve the operation based on the findings of the agency’s nine-member panel scheduled to visit the proposed site on Sunday for six days.

But the move has failed to win over the critics, who claim that officials from the nuclear watchdog would be pro-nuclear and therefore fail to produce a fair assessment of the Lynas plant.

Calls for local and environmental groups to be represented in the monitoring team have also gone unheeded, critics said.

“While it is agreed that IAEA scientists are experts in many fields, we believe their findings will be a biased report and on that ground, we reject it,” Wong said.


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