Assistant News Editor
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 11 — Australian miner Lynas Corporation has been awarded two key licences by Malaysia’s radiation regulator to import and store rare earths ore at its Gebeng refinery despite its temporary operating licence (TOL) being suspended, the Kuantan High Court was told yesterday.
The award of the import licence and the residue storage licence by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) stunned a group of Kuantan residents and environmentalists who initiated legal proceedings to challenge the authorities and put a permanent end to the Australian giant’s plan to fire up its RM2.5 billion refinery in Gebeng, Pahang.
“We were shocked to learn about this. We were never aware of it.
“This contradicts what Raja Abdul Aziz said previously in a media briefing on September 5 when AELB awarded Lynas the TOL,” said Tan Bun Teet, president of the Kuantan-based grassroots movement Stop Lynas Save Malaysia (SMSL), which is campaigning against the miner.
Tan said Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan, the director-general of AELB, had been reported telling reporters that Lynas may have been given the TOL but would have to apply for the other two licences separately, in what then seemed a bid to assure the public that the authority was making sure all safeguards were in place before allowing the company to operate.
The anti-Lynas lobbyist said the lawyer for the miner also demanded to be reimbursed because his client had suffered “substantial losses” from the TOL being put on hold.
Lynas had been issued the TOL last month and had been expecting to start operations this month.
“But this proves the AELB is working hand-in-glove with Lynas,” Tan told The Malaysian Insider when contacted yesterday.
Lawyer Hon Kai Ping, who was present at yesterday’s hearing, said he was also stunned when the lawyer for Lynas, Tan Sri Cecil Abraham, had casually informed the court of the three-licence approval while submitting the company’s bid to be made an intervenor in the SMSL suit against the government.
“He had said that the matter is academic because all three licences have been issued,” Hon, who is representing SMSL in the judicial review, told The Malaysian Insider.
On September 5, Raja Abdul Aziz was reported as saying the “pre-operating stage” of the plant, which will begin once Lynas fulfils several key conditions of its TOL, was necessary to decide if a permanent waste disposal facility (PDF) was needed.
“The permanent disposal site is only for the worst-case scenario if Lynas cannot sell recycled waste… We will be able to determine if their declaration is right or the worst-case scenario is right,” he said then.
But he stressed that Lynas will have to specify a site and submit plans for the PDF even before it begins operations, or risk losing its TOL.
The TOL was given to Lynas after more than a year of sustained public protests.
The radiation regulator stressed, however, that Lynas will not be allowed to fire up its controversial refinery until it fulfils the conditions of the pre-operating licence within the next 10 months.
These include paying the first of five instalments on its US$50 million (RM155 million) deposit to the government and the appointment of an independent third-party assessor by AELB, which Lynas will pay for.
It added that even once these conditions have been fulfilled, the Australian mining company will have to obtain a separate permit to import the raw material from Mount Weld, Australia.
Following that, the plant will be monitored for two years, during which Lynas must meet safety requirements before AELB issues a full licence to ramp up operations.
Lynas had said in April that delays in obtaining the licence for its facility, which was initially approved in January, may have “very serious consequences” for the RM80 billion worth of rare earth orders already received as it is “sold out for the next 10 years.”
Unprecedented public anger against the Lynas plant has been fertilising Malaysia’s green movement and could affect voter sentiment ahead of key national polls that must be called soon.
Earlier this year, thousands of people gathered for a peaceful demonstration in Kuantan calling on the government to stop the plant from being fired up.
The rare earth plant — the biggest outside China — has been ready to fire up since early May, but the company has been embroiled in environmental and safety disputes with local residents since construction began two years ago.
Plans to start operations in September last year were scuppered when Putrajaya bowed to public pressure last April and put the project on ice pending the review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In July last year, the AELB adopted 11 recommendations set out by the review of the refinery and said it would not allow Lynas to begin operations or import rare earth ore until all conditions, which include a comprehensive, long-term and detailed plan for managing radioactive waste, were met.
Lynas Corp failed to meet any of the conditions in its first proposals, according to the regulator.
The Sydney-based company is looking to break China’s 90 per cent grip on rare earth metals crucial to the manufacture of high technology products such as smartphones, energy-efficient light bulbs and fuel-saving cars.