The Malaysian backlash against Lynas Corporation’s controversial plans to process radioactive rare earth residue 3000km from its Mount Weld mine has kicked up a notch, with locals planning fresh protests and the Australian media finally cottoning onto the stoush that has the potential to send the ASX darling’s share price into freefall.

A new wave of protests against the the Lynas plant by the Democratic Action Party are planned for Sunday in Gebeng, Pahang, where CEO Nick Curtis is forging ahead with the $205 million offshore refinery despite growing community concerns over the radioactivity of by-product thorium.

A panel of international experts have been commissioned by the Malaysian government to review the plant, potentially delaying a planned September switch-on date. Rare earths are used in numerous hi-tech applications ranging from smart phones to smart bombs.

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Local ire has also been stoked this week by a story on Tuesday in Malaysian news portal The Malaysian Insider, reporting the Pahang Bar Association had unearthed the minutes of a 2005 meeting of the Northam Shire outside Perth, which showed the council was vigorously opposed to a local treatment plant at the nearby Avon Industrial Park. Avon is connected to Mount Weld via the Great Eastern Highway.

The minutes, available online here, state it “vigorously opposes the siting of a hazardous waste disposal and treatment plant at the Avon Industrial Park (in Meenar) based on the negative perceptions that the location will cause to Grass Valley, the Town of Northam and the Avon region”.

However, Lynas has ruled out any connection to its operation, noting the minutes don’t mention it by name and it had “absolutely no interest” and was “not connected whatsoever” with the proposed development. Instead, it claims locals were simply debating the general suitability of the site for a waste management facility under the WA government’s overarching plan for state waste.

One of the questioners at the meeting, Peter Byfield, told Crikey this morning that he couldn’t recall any specific mention of Lynas, but that the proposal may have been discussed by the council in previous years.

The allegation is potentially explosive because Lynas chief Nick Curtis has repeatedly stated the firm had decided on Malaysia for the processing plant — not because of concerns over nuclear waste disposal in Australia, but because the country offered a port location with bountiful water, electricity and skilled labour.

Yesterday, Pahang Bar president Hon Kai Ping disputed that he had drawn a specific connection, “despite the convenience of distance as there is a highway running from Mount Weld, Laverton, to the town of Northam, with no necessity of shipping the ore overseas”.

But locals have rebelled, incensed at what they say is a lack of consultation and the unwillingness of Australia to accept the waste after the processing is complete. While Lynas says it will dispose of the waste safely, residents remain spooked by nearby plant run by Mitsubishi that shut down two decades ago but is still being cleaned up. Thorium has the potential to cause cancer in large doses.

Last month, Crikey wrote the first Australian account of the protests, an angle later picked up by The Australian. The New York Times has also been tracking the protests and yesterday the Australia Network ran an impressive wrap of the debate so far, with a cut-down version airing this morning on ABC News Breakfast.

Representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will visit Malaysia at the end of this month to assess the plant, which is scheduled to begin operations in four months time. But if locals have their way, shareholders could be on tenterhooks for a while yet.

The Lynas scrip, which has quadrupled in the last year on soaring demand for rare earths and a reduction in Chinese exports, remained steady this morning at $2.10.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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