The fierce backlash in Malaysia over Lynas Corporation’s construction of a controversial rare earth refinery plant has spread to Sydney, with a dozen protesters flying in to picket the company’s head office.
The protesters fear the plant will cause extensive damage to the health of residents and the environment of Kuantan, in the state of Pahang in central Malaysia.
”We are here to bring awareness to the Australian public about a corporate citizen’s actions in Malaysia,” the protest organiser, Tan Bun Teet, said. ”The residents of Kuantan will be saddled with tonnes and tonnes of radioactive waste.”
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The executive chair of Lynas, Nicholas Curtis, met the protesters after the demonstration and sought to reassure them that the company had their best interests at heart.
An independent review completed last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency found no breaches of international standards but made 11 recommendations – including a long-term plan for permanent radioactive waste management.
But Kuantan residents fear a repeat of their country’s experience with a rare earth plant built in Bukit Merah. It closed in 1992 and has been blamed for birth defects and a surge in cases of leukaemia, and the largest radiation clean-up in the industry’s history.
Lynas is leading an international race to break China’s global stranglehold on rare earths – a range of 17 elements crucial to the production of smartphones, iPads, hybrid cars and flatscreen TVs.
In September, China imposed a two-month embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan during a diplomatic row, prompting rare earth prices to skyrocket and sparking a global rush to find other sources.
Underlining the increasingly politicised nature of the commodity, news that the Japanese bank Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group emerged with a stake of just under 10 per cent in Lynas worth $324 million made global headlines yesterday.
The 9.99 per cent stake is held mainly through Morgan Stanley, of which Mitsubishi owns 22 per cent. Mitsubishi holds about 0.3 per cent of Lynas in its own right.
The Japanese trader Sojitz has also signed on to receive close to half of the rare earths produced by Lynas.
But the emergence of the Japanese bank, part of the Mitsubishi group of companies, as a 10 per cent Lynas shareholder will provide more fodder for Malaysian activists. The toxic rare earth plant in Bukit Merah was operated by the group’s Mitsubishi Chemical.