IAEA to probe safety of Malaysia rare earth plant

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) - Malaysia said Friday the International Atomic Energy Agency has appointed a nine-member team to help the government probe whether a rare earth refinery being built by Australian miner Lynas Corp. carries any threat of radioactive contamination.

Public protests have escalated amid concerns over risks posed by low-level radioactive waste from the plant in central Pahang state, even though Lynas insists it would have state-of-the-art pollution controls.

The plant could become the first such facility outside China in years. Officials say it may curtail China’s monopoly on the global supply of 17 rare earths essential for making high-tech goods including flatscreen TVs, mobile phones, hybrid cars and weapons.

Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed said the team, led by Finland’s Tero Varjoranta, who is a director at the IAEA nuclear energy department, would visit Malaysia for six days from May 29 to assess the plant’s compliance with international safety standards.

Other members include three experts from the IAEA, four others from Europe and one from India.

The panel will submit its report to the government by end of June, after which the findings will be made public, he said. Lynas will not receive government approval to operate or import any raw material into Malaysia until then, he said.

“We will continue to give the highest priority to safeguarding the health and safety of the people and the environment at all times,” he said.

Malaysia’s last rare earth refinery in northern Perak state was closed in 1992 following protests and claims that it caused birth defects and leukemia among residents nearby. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.

The Pahang plant is meant to refine slightly radioactive ore from the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, which will be trucked to the port of Fremantle and transported to Malaysia by container ship.

Lynas has welcomed the review and has said it believed the refinery, which could meet nearly a third of world demand for rare earths, would be on track to start operations late this year.

China has about 30 percent of rare earths deposits but accounts for 97 percent of production. The United States and Canada also have rare earths but stopped mining them in the 1990s as cheaper Chinese supplies became available.

Foreign manufacturers were alarmed when Beijing temporarily blocked rare earths shipments to Japan last year after a Chinese fishing boat captain was detained near disputed islands.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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