KUANTAN, Apr 18, 2011 (IPS) – Fears of radioactive poisoning have fuelled a protest against an Australian mining company building the world’s largest rare earth processing plant outside China.
The protest is directed at Lynas Corp., which will ship rare earth ore from its mine in Port Weld, Western Australia, for processing in the plant in Gebeng outside this city, a fishing port some 250 kilometres north of capital Kuala Lumpur.
Protesters said the plant would produce high amounts of the radioactive waste thorium that will endanger them and future generations.
Lynas Corp. and Malaysian government officials however said thorium content in the waste would be low and entirely manageable, and that there would be no health issue because high technology and state-of-the-art radiation monitors will be used to control emission.
The company said it is planning to store the waste in “safe and hardened containers” at a 12-acre site close to the processing plant until a permanent solution is found.
Kuantan City lawmaker Fuziah Salleh, who is leading the protest, refused to support any decision to store the waste within her constituency or anywhere else in Malaysia.
“Malaysia should not be the dumping ground for radioactive waste. We reject the waste and we want Australia to take back the waste,” she told IPS.
Lynas director of communication Matthew James said in a statement that radiation fears were unfounded because the Port Weld oxide is naturally low in thorium content.
“The Lynas raw material is safe, non-toxic and non-hazardous,” James said.
But Salleh rejected James’ assurance. “The thorium content is high,” she said in a statement, adding Australian officials had confirmed this to her.
Rare earth minerals are used in precision equipment like laptops, flat screen television, mobile phones and missiles.
Demand has been high since China, which controls 95 percent of the production, imposed export controls last June to conserve resources and supply the domestic market.
Lynas plans to start production at Gebeng in September after getting a final processing permit from the government. The company expects to export rare mineral worth an estimated 4 billion ringgit 91.3 billion dollars) annually starting 2012.
What is further fuelling the protest against Lynas is Malaysia’s experience with another rare earth plant, this time in northern Perak state, some 30 years ago.
That plant near Bukit Merah Township was ordered shut down after higher than normal incidences of birth defects and leukaemia surfaced among babies born to residents in the area.
Protesters said the thorium waste at Bukit Merah that were stored in drums in shallow holes in the ground is still being cleaned up three decades later, underlining the long-term dangers of thorium.
“Lynas might come and go but we will be left to deal with the waste for many, many decades,” said Salleh.
Lynas Corp. said it would be using raw materials with thorium content 50 times lower than that used Bukit Merah. “This is due to the unique geology at Mount Weld,” James said.
Government and Lynas officials have been trying to allay residents’ fears by holding several town hall meetings in March and April to explain and clarify issues.
Residents – among them fisherman, farmers, small businessman, teachers and government employees – said they were open to expert testimony that the plant would be safe, but they were adamant that the thorium waste be shipped out.
“The waste must not be stored here or anywhere in Malaysia,” said fisherman Yusuf Ahmad. “Why not process the ore in Australia and keep the waste there,” he told IPS, echoing a widely held belief that Lynas came to Gebeng because it failed to get all the production licences in Australia.
“We want jobs, we want progress but we don’t want the nuclear (sic) waste. See what’s happening in Japan,” Yusuf said referring to the nuclear disaster there following a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
Salleh said Lynas probably moved to Kuantan because of Australia’s tough environmental law and powerful Green party, two elements missing in the Malaysian context.
Lynas, however said the plant, which cost 220 million dollars, had all the necessary approvals to operate in Australia but moved to Kuantan to take advantage of good port facilities, a skilled workforce, and abundant water and other resources.
The government is keen to allow Lynas to start operations because it needs foreign investments, and to promote a whole new range of manufacturing in the state using the rare earth minerals produced at the plant.
The growing public protest is a major headache for the government, which suffered major reverses in the 2008 general election, and is on a drive to win back public support with numerous populist measures.
There is also fear that the Gebeng plant would impact on the well-established tourism industry along the east Malaysian coastline which enjoys some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country.
“Tourism earnings will also take a beating once the news spread overseas that a plant producing thorium waste is in operation near the coast,” Vincent Lau, a local resident who lives 30 kilometres from the plant, told IPS.
Residents are unconvinced there is a “safe and manageable side” to thorium unless a permanent solution is offered to the still open question of where to store the waste. Until then, the protest is expected to continue. (END)