KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 13 – Australian miner Lynas may lose its temporary operating licence (TOL) if it fails to remove all residue and by-products from its Kuantan rare earth refinery out of the country, according to the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB).
A spokesman from the regulator told The Malaysian Insider this week that failure to comply with the condition to completely remove the residue, which is a legally binding condition, may cause AELB to suspend the licence.
Yesterday, the Cabinet endorsed a ministerial statement issued earlier this week instructing Lynas to ensure all residue and by-products from its rare earth refinery are removed from the country.
Putrajaya’s latest statement came after Lynas executive chairman Nicholas Curtis insisted the company’s operating licence does not require it to ship out of Malaysia any residue produced from its refinery in coastal Gebeng near Kuantan in Pahang.
Curtis also said that Lynas would push on with plans to develop a permanent disposal facility (PDF) here despite an ongoing storm over its potential waste hazards.
Lynas is now in a difficult position as Curtis had also said that Malaysia is treating the miner as a “political football” ahead of the country’s elections that must be called by next April when the Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s mandate expires.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider this week, the AELB spokesman said it was only interested in the shipping out of all the residues that Lynas Corp will produce at its controversial rare earth plant in Kuantan, and not concerned about the countries where Lynas will export its residue.
Critics have claimed the residue is radioactive waste, and want the plant shut down. When asked if Lynas had given AELB the details of its export plans such as the countries where it will export its residue, the regulator’s spokesman who declined to be named said “no”.
“No, they have not come to that stage yet because they have not produced the waste...they have not come to the stage of producing it,” he told The Malaysian Insider over the phone.
He clarified that Lynas has not started its operations at the Kuantan plant, but was only doing a trial run. Despite widespread opposition to the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) owing to environmental and health concerns, the government went on to issue a temporary operating licence (TOL) to Lynas on September 8, allowing it to do its initial feeding of the kiln earlier this month.
Lynas has told AELB that it would export all the residues produced. “What we don’t want them to do is only export part of the residue.
“They are going to export the whole residue out of the country...that is what we want,” the AELB spokesman said.
“The conditions of the licence is very clear,” he said, saying that the residues that need to be taken out of Malaysia would include those converted into commercial products.
The rare earth refinery in Gebeng remains a thorny issue for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government, especially in the run-up to the general election due within months.
Despite repeated efforts to reassure the public of the plant’s safety, residents and environmental activists continue to conduct high-profile legal and popular campaigns against the controversial plant that has faced stiff and persistent opposition.
The resistance towards the plant has also provided the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) ample fodder with which to target Kuantan, which it already wrested from BN in the previous general election, as well as other areas in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s home state of Pahang.
Lynas fired up its kiln earlier this month, with the AELB saying this week it will place its officers at the plant to monitor the trial run.
Lynas has been ready to begin operations since early May but faced delays due to environmental and safety disputes, which are pending in court.
The Sydney-based company has repeatedly said its plant is safe and is not comparable to a rare earth plant in Bukit Merah, Perak by a unit of Mitsubishi Chemicals in 1992, which has been blamed for causing birth defects and a high rate of leukaemia cases among workers and residents nearby.