Thousands rallied yesterday in Malaysia against an Australian miner’s rare earths plant in the biggest protest yet over fears it could produce radioactive waste harmful to humans and the environment.
Australia’s Lynas has almost completed building the plant near the coastal town of Kuantan in eastern Pahang State to process rare earth ores imported from Australia.
China currently supplies about 95 percent of world demand for rare earths, which are used in high-tech equipment from iPods to missiles and have seen prices soar in recent years.
Lynas hopes to begin operations within a few months, producing an initial 11,000 tonnes of rare earths a year and effectively breaking the Chinese stranglehold on the materials.
However, more than 5,000 people, many wearing green and holding banners reading “Stop pollution, stop corruption, stop Lynas,” gathered in Kuantan to call for the plant to shut down, chanting: “We want Lynas to close down.”
Lee Tan, an activist who helped organize the rally, said: “The plant is dangerous because it produces huge amounts of waste that is radioactive,” adding residents were worried the waste could leak into the ground and water.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also attended the protest and his colleague Fuziah Salleh said the plant should be relocated “in the middle of the desert.”
Hundreds gathered elsewhere in Malaysia, including in Kuala Lumpur.
Lynas’ Web site was also hacked with a Malaysian flag and the slogan “Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia” replacing the usual site.
Lynas insists the plant is safe and any radioactive waste produced would only be low-level and not harmful to human health.
The company is receiving a 10-year tax break for the plant and has said having it in Malaysia offers better economics than Australia.
The government has said it is monitoring the plant closely to ensure its safety.
Tomorrow the Kuala Lumpur High Court will start hearing an activist challenge to block the plant.
Opponents point to a similar rare earths plant in Malaysia’s northern Perak State which was forced to shut down in 1992 over protests from residents who blamed it for birth defects in those living close to the plant.