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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs        12  March 2011

Lynas must meet Malaysian standards

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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 an "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 said.

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 Matthew James said in an e-mail.

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 radioactive 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.

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