Malaysians fear fallout
from Australia deal By Baradan
KUANTAN, Malaysia - Malaysians
protesting against an Australian-owned rare-earth
refinery that will generate radioactive waste are
determined to agitate until the project is
"It is time to shut down the
Lynas plant," said Wong Tack, chairman of the
Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering Malay) or HHC that
is leading a mass movement against the
On February 26,
the HHC organized its biggest-ever mass protest in
the coastal town of Kuantan, capital of Pahang
state, attracting 15,000 ordinary Malaysians as
well as prominent public figures, including Anwar
Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Pakatan Rayat
Wong Tack said that if the
government "continues to dither", the
HHC would organize an
even bigger protest at Gebeng, site of the Lynas
Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP). The HHC proved
its strength in October 2011 when it organized a
2,000-strong rally at Taman Gelora beach.
According to Wong Tack, Malaysia is seeing
a "green revolt" as people truly fear that the
plant will produce radioactive thorium waste that
would seriously harm the environment and endanger
Anwar said his opposition
alliance planned to seek an emergency motion in
parliament to urge the cancellation of the
project. "We won't sacrifice our culture and the
safety of the children."
minerals, used in the electronics industry, find
their way into everything from laptops and mobile
phones to missiles. Their prices shot up after
China, the world's biggest producer, restricted
exports last year.
But processing the
rare-earth ores mined in Australia will result in
the concentration of radioactive elements such as
thorium and uranium, which if not properly
disposed of can prove hazardous to the environment
and to health.
Dr Michael Jeyakumar, a
legislator belonging to the small opposition Parti
Sosialis Malaysia, said the country was already
suffering from the dangers of indiscriminate
dumping of industrial waste as a result of
uncontrolled and rampant industrialism.
"The people have given notice they will
not be a dumping ground for radioactive waste for
this Australian company," he said. "This Lynas
project is going to lay waste our land and our
health and the health of future generations for
"The government has to listen
to the protesters ... there is no way the
government can justify this act of madness," he
The LAMP plant is due for completion
in June and start shipping in ore from the Port
Weld mine in Western Australia. LAMP hopes to
break China's near-monopoly on the world's supply
of rare-earth metals.
starts, LAMP stands to generate profits in excess
of US$3 billion a year because of the demand for
these metals. LAMP has already signed agreements
to supply Japanese firms.
Lynas, which is
listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, saw
its stock prices tumble when protesters filed for
court action in the Kuantan High Court against the
government for giving LAMP a temporary operating
Prime Minister Najib Razak,
reacting to the Gebeng protests, said the LAMP
plant was harmless and the project was subject to
review by a government panel. Najib also said,
however, that the government was looking for an
"isolated region" in the country to store the
radioactive waste, thereby admitting that there
was a problem.
Thorium, which is
radioactive, is already being used to power
experimental nuclear reactors in India, where it
occurs naturally and in abundance.
of the Earth president S M Mohamed Idris said
Lynas chose Malaysia to site its plant because of
lax laws on the control of radioactive materials
and the distribution of responsibility among four
different ministries and an atomic-energy
"Our Atomic Energy
Licensing Board [AELB] is in no position to handle
the Gebeng plant, its mechanics and the technology
involved, and also the waste produced," he said.
Last June, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) undertook a safety study of the
Gebeng plant and recommended numerous measures for
Lynas to take, including the submission of plans
for a permanent disposal facility for the
radioactive waste. While Lynas is yet to
follow several of the IAEA recommendations, it has
managed to obtain a temporary operating license
from the AELB and has been given a generous 18
months from start of operations - expected in June
- to come up with disposal plans.
current plan is to contain the waste in special
drums that are to be placed in trenches at the
For many Malaysians the plan
brings back memories of the Japanese
Mitsubishi-owned Asian Rare Earth plant in the
1980s, which was closed down after spirited public
protest. The Mitsubishi rare-earth plant was
ordered shut after an increase in birth defects
and leukemia cases in children of former workers.
The radioactive waste, contained in drums, had to
be dug up and re-interred in a hilltop site.
The member of Parliament for Kuantan,
Fuziah Salleh, said the public was strongly
opposed to the LAMP plant out of fear of
Fukushima disaster last year [in Japan], they fear
damage to their health from radioactive waste,"
she said. "Even if the radioactive waste is
shifted to a remote, unpopulated site it will
remain dangerous for many years. Why bring it here
in the first place?"