April 19, 2012 (Source: New York Times) — The Australian company building a rare earth refinery in Malaysia is trying to counter critics who are concerned that the plant could pose radioactive hazards, laying out detailed responses Thursday that it said refuted the many “false allegations” made about the plant.
The company, Lynas, said the first phase of its project would be ready to open in two weeks. But it is unclear when the plant will begin operations, as the Malaysian government has withheld the company’s temporary operating license while it hears appeals from people opposed to the facility.
The plant, which has been plagued by delays and protests by residents worried about possible health and environmental risks, is designed to help break China’s stranglehold on the production of rare earths. Another project is under construction in the California desert near Death Valley.
The first phase of the plant cost 1.5 billion ringgit, or $489 million. The second phase is expected to cost an additional 1 billion ringgit.
China mines and processes more than 90 percent of the world’s current supply of rare earths, minerals that are used for a wide range of high-technology products, including smartphones, smart bombs and electric cars. They are found in nature with radioactive contaminants that must be separated and disposed of during refining.
Lynas says its ore, mined in the Australian desert, has a lower concentration of these contaminants than many rare earth deposits elsewhere.
On Thursday, journalists were given a rare glimpse inside the plant, and Mashal Ahmad, managing director of Lynas Malaysia, offered a detailed presentation intended to answer more than 20 allegations, many relating to the safety of the plant and the radiation expected to be produced.
Mr. Mashal said that the company had carried out testing to ensure that the plant met international safety standards and that the waste produced in the refining process would be well within the levels considered safe. He said that an air monitoring system had been installed on the site and that the results would be available online. “We have nothing to hide,” he repeatedly said.
Responding to critics who have asked why Lynas was not building the plant in Australia, Mr. Mashal said the company had received a license to build a plant in Perth but had decided to come to Malaysia for economic reasons.
The company had planned to complete the plant by last September, but it was confounded by construction delays.
A person familiar with the project, who requested anonymity because of the controversy associated with it, said Wednesday that electrical wiring at the project had still not been completed.
Part of the problem is that some components were ordered late and could not be manufactured quickly, the person said, though Lynas has denied that. It would be very difficult, though not impossible, to run the refinery while continuing to install further wiring.
The plant has received a temporary operating license from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, but activists are calling for the license to be revoked. Maximus Ongkili, the science, technology and innovation minister, heard an appeal Tuesday by applicants who want the government to withdraw the company’s permit.
In a statement released after the meeting, the ministry said Mr. Ongkili would study the documents submitted and the applicants’ arguments. “He will also consult related experts and authorities before making a decision on the appeal as soon as possible,” the statement read.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court had previously dismissed an application by 10 residents seeking judicial review of the temporary license. The judge ruled that it would be premature for them to do so when they could still appeal to the minister.
Mr. Mashal, the Lynas Malaysia managing director, said he had not received any indication from the government when a decision would be made on the license. He said further delays would have a “serious commercial impact” on Lynas, its suppliers and its customers.
He added: “I have every confidence the country, the government, the people, the authorities will respect the rule that has been established, the rules that make us want to come and invest in this country.”
Mr. Mashal said the company needed to receive the license as soon as possible because it would take a month to import the raw material from Australia.
The plant has also encountered strong resistance from the Malaysian political opposition, which announced last month that it would boycott a parliamentary committee set up by the government to investigate public concerns about the safety of the project.
Critics have derided the committee, which was intended to be bipartisan, as an attempt to “whitewash” concerns about the plant before elections that are widely expected to be held in June.
Tan Bun Teet, who is involved in the appeal to the minister and is the chairman of the lobbying group Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, said the government should withdraw the company’s license. “We will take court action if the minister does not revoke the license,” he said.
In February, activists held demonstrations in several Malaysian cities, including Kuantan and Kuala Lumpur. They are planning another protest in the capital on April 28.