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Malaysians Fight Radioactive Waste From Oz

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUANTAN, Malaysia, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - Malaysians protesting against an Australian-owned rare earth refinery, that will generate radioactive waste, are determined to agitate until the project is abandoned.

“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 controversial refinery.

On Feb. 26, the HHC organised its biggest ever mass protest in this coastal town, capital of Pahang state, attracting 15,000 ordinary Malaysians as well as prominent public figures, including Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Pakatan Rayat coalition.

Wong Tack told IPS that if the government “continues to dither” the HHC would organise an even bigger protest at Gebeng, site of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP). The HHC proved its strength in October 2011 when it organised a 2,000-strong rally at the Taman Gelora beach.

According to Wong Tack, Malaysia is seeing a “green revolt” as people truly feared that the plant will produce radioactive thorium waste that would seriously harm the environment and endanger people’s health.

Ibrahim told the gathering in Gebeng that his opposition alliance plans 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.”

Rare earth minerals, used in the electronics industry, find their way into anything 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 can prove hazardous to environment and health.

Dr Michael Jeyakumar, a legislator belong to Parti Sosialis Malaysia, a small opposition party Malaysia 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 be not a dumping ground for radioactive waste by this Australian company,” he told IPS. “This Lynas project is going to lay waste our land and our health and the health of future generations for mere profit,” he said.

“The government has to listen to the protesters…there is no way the government can justify this act of madness,” he said.

The LAMP plant is due for completion in June and start shipping in ore from the Port Weld mine, in Australia. LAMP hopes to break China’s near monopoly on world’s supply of rare earth metals.

Once production starts LAMP stands to generate profits in excess of three billion dollars a year because of the demand for rare earth metals. LAMP has already having signed agreements to supply Japanese firms.

Lynas, which is listed in the Australian stock exchange, saw its stock prices tumble when protestors filed for court action in the Kuantan High Court against government for giving LAMP a temporary operating licence.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, reacting to the Gebeng protests, said the LAMP plant is harmless and that the project is subject to review by a government panel.

Razak said 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.

Friends of The Earth president S. M. Mohamed Idris said Lynas chose Malaysia to site its plant is because of lax radioactive control laws and the distribution of responsibility among four different ministries and an atomic energy regulatory agency.

“Our Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) is in no position to handle the Gebeng plant, its mechanics and the technology involved as also the waste produced,” he told IPS.

In June last year 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 licence from AELB and has been given a generous 18 months from start of operations – expected in June – to come up with disposal plans.

The current plan is to contain the waste in special drums that are to be placed in trenches, at the Gebeng plant.

For many Malaysians the plan brings back memories of the Japanese Mitsubishi-owned Asian Rare Earth plant in the 1980s that was closed down following spirited public protest.

The Mitsubishi rare-earth plant was ordered shut, after an increase in birth-defects and leukaemia cases in children of former workers. The radioactive waste, contained in drums had to be dug up and interred in a hilltop site.

Member of parliament for Kuantan, Fuziah Salleh, told IPS that the public is strongly opposed to the LAMP plant out of fear of radioactive poisoning.

“After the Fukushima disaster, last year, 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?”

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