Malaysia

Lynas haunted by ghosts of Fukushima and Bukit Merah, says CEO

By Clara Chooi
March 20, 2012

The LAMP was fundamentally different from the ARE refinery and the Fukushima nuclear plant, said Curtis. — File picThe LAMP was fundamentally different from the ARE refinery and the Fukushima nuclear plant, said Curtis. — File picKUALA LUMPUR, March 20 — Lynas Corporation has insisted that “misinformation” and lingering fears from past radiation disasters were the main catalysts of the opposition against its RM2.5 billion rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan.

But chief executive Nick Curtis lamented to a group of Chinese and alternative media representatives last night that it was unfair to punish the company for incidents that “have nothing to do with us”.

He pointed out that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) is not a nuclear power station as is the case with the Fukushima Daaichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, which suffered a severe nuclear meltdown following last year’s tsunami and released harmful levels of radioactive materials.

He stressed that LAMP’s practices and materials are also vastly different from those of Mitsubishi Chemical’s Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, which was shut down two decades ago and has been linked to eight cases of leukaemia due to radioactive exposure, seven of which were fatal.

He said during the gruelling two-hour dinner discussion that if Kuantan residents were to keep an open mind towards the facts of the issue, they would be able to see that the plant poses no health or environmental risk.

His assistant, Wee Tiat Eng, Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd senior manager (engineering services), even performed a live demonstration by reading the radiation levels of the criticised the rare earth’s “water leach purification” (WLP) residue, which is said to be dangerous, and comparing it with a banana.

MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, who attended the function with several other ministers, also stepped in to say that a person undergoing an X-ray exposes himself to 500 times the radiation found in the rare earth residue.

But Curtis’ assurances appeared to reach a doubtful audience and the embattled CEO was forced to repeatedly field questions over whether the Australian mining firm saw Malaysia as a dumping ground for its radioactive waste; whether Lynas would accept a decision to shut down its plant; and what its “plan B” was in the event of a Fukushima-like disaster.

“You bring up Japan, again. One slight frustration that we have here is this — this (LAMP) is not a nuclear power station.

“The risk you are talking about is part of the risk of tsunami, or an event that causes the distribution of this (radioactive) material.

“And that is part of what we engineer against,” Curtis said, again making his case for the safety of LAMP.

“The engineering of the site is done very specifically with 100-year flood events and various other engineering standards to ensure that if there were catastrophic events, it would be safe,” he assured attendees.

“Secondly, our material is not the same as Japan’s (Fukushima plant). Nothing like it, we have nothing to do with it.

“People have ignored the facts. The word radioactivity has been misused in this context [because] of Fukushima. The emotions were high. But Fukushima has nothing to do with us.”

When pointed to the lingering fears of Malaysians over the disaster in the ARE plant, Curtis nodded in acknowledgement but repeated that the incident was not tied to Lynas.

He highlighted that, at the time, Malaysian laws were more lax than today, adding that the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) had not even existed at the time.

“I accept that there are lingering fears. We underestimated the penetration within the Malaysian community of a story that happened well over 20 years ago. And I regret and I’m sorry for that and I do understand the pain,” he said.

“But again, I have to turn to the facts: Rare earths are not a bad product, they are a good product.

“They enable our lives to go forward; they are a product that enables cleaner society, healthier society. They are good products. They can be done cleanly and safely.

“I was not at Bukit Merah. Bukit Merah should not have happened. So you cannot compare us with Bukit Merah. The nature of material was fundamentally different,” he said.

Lynas Corp is expected to fire up operations of its refinery in Gebeng by year-end but widespread opposition from local residents could delay the mining firm’s plans.

Earlier today, Parliament approved the formation of a select committee that has been tasked to look into the various aspects of the plant.