We've made a big mistake, says Lynas boss

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Lynas boss Nicholas Curtis has conceded that his company made the mistake of failing to adequately engage the community in Kuantan over their fears of radioactive waste from its controversial rare earth plant.

"We made a mistake, and it was a big mistake, of thinking that because we have met the (Malaysian) standards (of safety), that it was enough. It was not enough. Our obligation is to continue to engage the community in Kuantan."

The Lynas chief's mea culpa came after the emergence of stringent opposition to the plant, which is being built in Gebeng Industrial Estate, about 50km from Kuantan. The RM700 million plant will be completed by the end of September.

"I respect that emotions have got very high, but these are emotions, not facts," said Curtis. According to him, the detractors of the project are "pushing emotional stories for political gains".

It may be a bit late, but the Lynas boss is determined to reach out to the Kuantan residents who are sceptical of the plant.

"The only way we can dampen the emotions is to correct the mistake of not engaging sufficiently. I'm asking for an engaged conversation about their concerns, and for them to have a dialogue with us."

Curtis was in Kuala Lumpur this week for a one-day charm offensive, where he met with a number of editors from both the mainstream and alternative media, including Malaysiakini .

He will be meeting with Kuantan parliamentarian Fuziah Salleh, one of the key protagonists against the plant, on July 1.

Kemaman was a mistake too

Curtis dismissed suggestions that the plant was not built in Australia, where the rare earth mine is located, because of public protest.

"Do you have evidence of that? It's a good emotional catch, but it's not true. We are a global business.

"We have a mine (Mount Weld in Western Australia). But the ore deposit is 800km from anywhere. We can hardly build a big chemical plant in the middle of the desert. We have to fly people in and out, and our average employee cost is very high.

"We can build it on the west coast of Australia. But is that the best way to actually process the material? The answer is no. I don't sell one gram of our material in Australia. Everything we sell is either to Japan, United States or Europe."

Curtis admitted that he was taken by surprise by the ferocity of the opposition to the plant, which emerged early this year.

According to him, this was sparked by a "perfect storm" of the radiation leaks in the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan coupled with Malaysia's bitter experience with a troubled rare earth plant in Bukit Merah 20 years ago.

There is another unmentioned factor - the acute political climate ahead of a snap general election. The plant is, after all, located in Prime Minister Najib Razak's home state.

Curtis also conceded making another mistake - Lynas had originally planned to build the rare earth processing plant in Kemaman, Terengganu.

"Kemaman is too isolated. Gebeng is a much more correct place. This is a 30-year plant. It would take us one year longer if we move it. We chose to take the pain then, and we have to redo the environmental impact assessment."

Not a question of stay or get out

For Lynas, it is not a question of "stay or get out". "It's about how to manage the process in a way which is absolutely safe for the community," said Curtis.

But he hopes that "the emotion of politics" could be taken out of the controversy.

"We welcome an open debate. We have nothing to hide. I don't agree with the view that we should not have any level of radiation. That's nonsense, that's not true. Radiation exists everywhere. The question is what is the standard of radiation that does not pose any health risk to the community.

"In the Bukit Merah case, it was 70,000 ppm (parts per million) of radioactive material to 50,000 ppm of rare earth. In our case, it is 500 ppm of radioactive material to 180,000 ppm of rare earth. The proportionality is very different."

Curtis also seeks to reassure Malaysians that the radioactive waste storage facility, to be located in Gebeng, is safe.

"We believe that we have a residual storage facility designed to last 500 years, and it will not pose any hazard to anyone."

However, Curtis said that he was still open to suggestions of improvement.

The Lynas founder is nevertheless unfazed by plan by protest group Save Malaysia to go to Australia to lobby against the plant.

"It is a Malaysian issue, not an Australian issue. I'd love people to come to Australia, but I'm not sure what they hope to achieve."

All eyes on IAEA report

The Lynas plant is expected to go online in three months.

In the bid to overcome growing opposition, the government has set up an independent panel appointed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct a review on the radiation safety at the proposed plant.

The 10-member IAEA team is set to submit its findings to the Malaysian government by June 30 after spending a week early this month holding public consultation sessions and visiting the plant site.

Curtis is placing hope on the IAEA report as a basis of a "serious conversation" on what is to be done.

"We will certainly cooperate with the outcome of the report. If we are, in any way, asked to do things about the plant to make it safe for the community, we will do it. We are not here to harm the community. We are here to benefit the community."

When told that the government will come under tremendous pressure to delay the commissioning of the plant due to the upcoming elections, Curtis said:

"I would hope that the government is strong enough to deal with the facts. I'm not going to pre-empt the IAEA study. But I do hope that the debate is based on facts, not emotions."


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