Malaysia has told Lynas, the Australian company operating a rare earth elements processing plant on the country’s east coast, that it must remove the radioactive waste that accumulated as a result of its activities over the past six years if it wants to continue to operate.
The “management of the waste residue from the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) should be given priority to ensure the wellbeing of the community and the environment”, the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change said in a statement.
The residue, some of it radioactive, has been building up at an open landfill at the Lynas site near the city of Kuantan since the processing plant started operations in 2012.
“The Ministry is concerned with the increasing risk of arising from the continued accumulation of residue without a viable solution to manage its accumulation in the near-term,” the statement continued.
“For this reason, the Ministry will not allow the unlimited accumulation of residue at LAMP. The accumulated Water Leached Purification (WLP) Residue, which contains radioactive materials must be removed from Malaysia.”
While Lynas was considering recycling the waste as a soil conditioner, the ministry said the duration of the studies was too short to reach a conclusion on the plan’s safety. It said the waste would need to be removed from Malaysia by September 2, 2019, when Lynas’ temporary storage licence expires.
The decision is likely to come as a blow to Lynas. The Australian-listed company had been campaigning hard to convince the review committee, government and the public that the plant was safe. It employs 600 people at the site.
The company said it was too early to comment. “We will release a statement once we have reviewed the report,” it told Al Jazeera.
Lynas had previously said that the processing facility was run on a philosophy of “zero harm”, urging “fairness, objectivity and transparency” in the review.
Rare earths are a crucial component in many of today’s gadgets, including mobile phones, televisions and cars, but there are only a handful of producers around the world.
Malaysia’s decision could have international ramifications, especially since China has already moved to limit domestic rare earths production in the second half of this year.
Lynas’ plant has been controversial from the start, triggering protests by activists and local residents concerned about the effect on public health and the environment.
They welcomed the government’s decision.
“I would say the review committee has assessed the situation correctly,” said Tan Bun Teet, chairman of Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas, which has campaigned against the plant since the beginning.
“They have made a very rational recommendation. For a corporation such as Lynas, operating on a huge scale and producing a large amount of waste, it’s only pertinent that they have a workable and viable plan to manage waste safely.”
The previous government awarded Lynas a temporary operating licence despite the public unease, but the company agreed it would “if necessary, remove from Malaysia all waste generated by the Lynas Advance Material Plant during the temporary operating licence’s period”.
The site currently has WLP residues totalling 451,564 metric tonnes and neutralisation underflow residue (NUF) of 1.113 million metric tonnes, the government said.
WLP is solid waste that contains natural-occurring radioactive material of 6.2 becquerels per gram that Malaysia required to regulate under the Atomic Energy Licensing Act 1984 because its radioactivity exceeds 1bq/g.
With reporting by Florence Looi