By Shannon Teoh
KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 — An environmental group has questioned the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) review of a controversial RM700 million rare earth plant in Kuantan, saying that it also approved the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Ipoh which was linked to a surge of birth defects and cancer in the surrounding area.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) also said that the United Nations body had vested interest in the matter as it is “an agency that was set up to promote nuclear energy and lends support to the nuclear industry.”
President S. M. Mohamed Idris said that the nine-man review panel invited by the federal government to study the refinery being built by Australian miner Lynas Corp “did not have a health expert to study the potential public health impacts resulting from pollution and radiation from the plant.”
“The same was the case with the Asia Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah whereby the IAEA also gave the green light for the plant to proceed work, only to produce radioactive contamination and disastrous health s to the surrounding community, resulting in unnatural and untimely deaths,” he said.
The refinery in the Gebeng industrial zone has raised concerns of radiation pollution among local residents and environmentalists who fear a repeat of the ARE plant which went ahead despite public protest in the 1980s.
Despite being forced to shut down in 1992, it is still undergoing a cleanup exercise costing over RM300 million and has been linked to seven leukemia deaths in the past five years.
Although both the Najib administration and Lynas claim that the review led by the IAEA deems the project to be safe, opposition MPs and Kuantan residents insist that the 11 recommendations made by the panel show otherwise.
Lynas has said that it expects the recommendations set out in the report to be met by the end of the year, allowing it to begin selling the rare earth metals by the beginning of 2012.
The Australian miner has said that its plant — which will extract rare earth metals crucial for high-technology products such as smartphones, hybrid cars and wind turbines — will create a RM4 billion multiplier effect annually and will hire 350 skilled workers, 99 per cent of whom will be Malaysian.
Although reports say the plant may earn RM8 billion for Lynas, more than one per cent of the Malaysian GDP, critics have questioned the real economic benefits of the project, pointing to the 12-year tax break the Australian company will enjoy due to its pioneer status.