Public opposition to a plan by an Australian mining company, Lynas, to build a rare earth refinery in Pahang, Malaysia, was on show at a protest outside Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on May 20.
Lynas plans to ship ore from its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, through the port of Fremantle, to Malaysia. There it will be refined to extract rare earths, which are widely used in the manufacture of computers and electronics.
The refinery will produce about 230,000 tonnes of solid waste a year. The waste, containing radioactive thorium and a range of heavy metals and toxic substances, will be dumped in Malaysia.
Malaysian Socialist Party MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, told Green Left Weekly there was strong community opposition to the Lynas rare earth refinery plan.
“This whole Lynas deal has been done in a very non-transparent way,” he said. “They’ve already made a deal to bring this ore from Australia to refine here in Malaysia, then export the rare earths, then keep the waste here.
“It has been done without consulting people yet it is almost like a done deal. They have already built the factory and it is quite close to a highly populated residential area.
“The people of Malaysia have made their opposition to this sort of project very clear.
“About 20 years ago in Bukit Merah, there was a similar refinery set up to process [local] tin mine tailings and refine rare earths from it. The major issue is the thorium in the residue, which is going to remain radioactive for years.
“The local people went to court and finally stopped the whole exercise.”
Jeyakumar said it was “not on [for] Lynas to try and do this now in Pahang, without consulting people and without resolving the issue of how to keep radioactive waste safely.
“People are going to mobilise. You can see this is an issue that is getting people very agitated.”
Dr T Jayabalan, an environmental activist and an occupational health and safety consultant working at Malaysia's National Poison Centre, told GLW that 55,000 signatures were collected for a petition against the Lynas rare earth refinery, precisely because of the earlier experience with a similar project.
He said: “During the course of operations of the previous Mitsuibishi-run rare earths refinery in Bukit Merah (in the state of Perak), the local people suffered many health problems such as miscarriages, leukemia, cancer and lots of other illnesses.
“People mobilised [and] were able to take the case to court and ultimately prevailed after a 12-year struggle forcing the factory to close down. Mitsubishi was forced to clean up the whole area, which was contaminated.
“Now the same sort of plant is being set up in the state of Pahang, very close to a residential area, using basically the same operation extracting rare earths from ore exported from Australia.
“These rare earths are found in deposits with transuranics such as thorium, with a half-life of 14 billion years, [along with] uranium with a shorter life and radium.
“All these are found intimately bound with these rare earths. In extracting them, what they do is get the rare earths and then leave a residue of concentrated thorium, uranium, radium and a whole lot of other highly toxic material including lead and arsenic.
“The rare earths will be taken by Lynas to be sold and shipped off to other countries. This will be very profitable because 95% of rare earth refinery is done in China. No other country wants to experiment with this sort of process.
“Somehow Lynas was able to sell this idea to Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which wants foreign direct investment at any cost. So they facilitated the setting up of this factory."
Jayabalan said the Malaysian government had given Lynas a 12-year tax-free status.
“In other words", he said, “it doesn’t even have to pay royalties. And they will only create 200-300 jobs.
“Hasn’t the Malaysian government learned anything from what happened in Bukit Merah? We don’t need these few hundred jobs and we don’t need the waste.
Jayabalan also said “there are also a lot of other chemicals that are used in the refining process and it uses large volumes of water. Dangerous gases and hazardous chemicals will be released into the land, air and sea.
“At the end of the day, nobody will buy our palm oil, nobody will want to come as tourists here, the fishermen will not be able to sell their produce and a whole range of other things will be destroyed just to for a few crooked businessmen who cannot do the same thing in Australia because of tighter safety laws.
“There has been deception and there have been lies. At first this company said that the waste material was not radioactive. It is ‘zero radioactive’, they said.
"Then they changed their story to it is only radioactive to the workers and that it was just like background radiation.
“So we suggested that they send back the waste to Australia but they say no way can we take the waste back.”
Jeyakumar told GLW: “The Socialist Party of Malaysia thinks that this campaign feeds into the broader campaign against nuclear energy.
“The Malaysian government has a plan to open two nuclear reactors in the 2020s. They are allocating 20 billion ringgit to do that. So we think this campaign is a precursor to a broader campaign for safe alternatives to coal and gas.”