KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today unveiled the team that will conduct an evaluation of the controversial RM700 million rare earths refinery in Gebeng, Pahang — a review necessitated by mounting opposition from surrounding residents and environmentalist groups.
Malaysia had earlier asked the Vienna-based agency for assistance in addressing public concerns about the project by forming a panel to review radiation health and safety factors.
The panel will be headed by Dr Tero Varjoranta, the IAEA’s director of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology at its Nuclear Energy department.
Other members of the panel include Dr Magnus Vesterlind, Dr Horst Monken Fernandes, and Hanna Kajander — all of whom are attached to the nuclear agency.
Asides from its own personnel, the IAEA panel will also include outside experts Jan van der Steen, Dr Leo M. Lowe, Dr PM Balagopala Pillai, Dr Dennis Wymer and Ulric Schwela.
The multinational panel was announced today by Minister of International Trade and Industry Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, who also pledged that the government will reveal the panel’s finding in its entirety upon completion.
The review was initiated by the government to alleviate growing public pressure to scrap the Lynas Corp plant as environmental activists say it could make Malaysia a dumping ground for radioactive by-products from the refining process, creating health risks.
Lynas has said it does not foresee problems with the month-long review and expects to be able to keep its scheduled September opening of its facility.
Public health concerns over the Lynas plant were exacerbated by Malaysia’s previous dalliance with rare earth minerals in Bukit Merah, Perak.
The Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Perak has been linked to birth defects and at least eight cases of leukaemia in the past five years, seven of which were fatal.
Nearly 20 years after it was shuttered, the plant is still the subject of a massive RM300 million cleanup exercise.
Lynas’s Gebeng plant was supposed to process rare earth concentrate shipped in from the firm’s Mount Weld site in western Australia.
Rare earths are crucial to production of high-tech goods from fibre optic cables to smartphones and electric cars.
Company officials have said annual output from the Malaysian plant would hit 22,000 tonnes, meeting roughly a third of total global demand outside China by 2013.