“We don’t want your radioactive pollution!” Malaysians tell Australians

 Thousands of green-clad protesters took to the streets in the eastern Malaysian city of Kuantan on Tuesday to protest against the construction of an Australian rare earth minerals treatment plant, whose activities they worry will severely pollute their region.


Protest against an Australian rare earths minerals treatment plant in Kuantan, in Malaysia. 


Thousands of green-clad protesters took to the streets in the eastern Malaysian city of Kuantan on Tuesday to protest against the construction of an Australian rare earth minerals treatment plant, whose activities they worry will severely pollute their region.


The construction of the plant by Australian mining company Lynas is nearly complete. When it is done, it will be the biggest rare earth mineral treatment plant in the world. The minerals are an indispensable component of many high-tech products like cell phones, missiles, electric cars, and wind turbines. However, in their raw state, they are radioactive, and their extraction and treatment is a highly polluting process.


This lucrative business was, up until now, dominated by China, which controls 97% of the world’s rare earth mineral production. The industry has had disastrous environmental and social consequences. The fragile ecosystem around the northern Chinese city of Baotou, the country’s main rare earth production zone, has been devastated.


On February 1, Malaysian authorities gave Lynas a temporary two-year licence authorizing it to begin production in its Kuantan site. The plant will treat rare earth minerals extracted from the Mount Weld mine, in western Australia. Malaysian environmentalists expressed concern at the decision, saying that the company should refine the materials on its own territory, which it already has the necessary license to do.


Meanwhile, Lynas has tried to reassure protesters by stressing that the Malaysian government will be closely monitoring the plant at all times, and has full authority to close it if it does not respect production standards. The company also argues that the intensity of the radioactive waste produced by rare minerals is so low that it is of no danger to humans. However, protesters are worried about the question of waste – and where it will be stored. Australia has already indicated that it does not want such waste on its territory.



“The road to the treatment plant is barred,” wrote this photo’s author @juanajaafar on Twitter.

“This plant would be a disaster, both for the local economy and the environment”

Fuziah Saleh is a Malaysian MP representing the Kuantan region. She has been at the forefront of “anti-Lynas” campaigns.


Fuziah Saleh (in the middle) at a protest in Kuantan on Sunday.



“Police say only 3,000 people marched on Sunday, but organizers counted over 30,000. According to me, there must have been at least 20,000 out there – families, groups of friends, nonprofit organisations, political activists. I had never seen such massive mobilization over an environmental topic in Malaysia.


Malaysia has a lot to lose and nothing to gain by hosting this plant. It would be a double disaster, both for the local economy and the environment.


Lynas management must think we are fools. They obtained a tax cut over the next 12 years, even though there was no real reason to grant them this favour. It’s unacceptable. In Australia, there are nuclear safety authorities regulating these areas, but visibly, it Malaysia, it’s just politicians.


Lynas claims that rare earth minerals are great because they are used in green energy industries like wind turbines. It’s true – but that doesn’t make their extraction and treatment any less radioactive.


“The plant will create 350 jobs, but threatens to destroy far more in the fishing, tourism and agriculture”


The company claims that the plant will be good for the local economy’s development, but it will only create 350 jobs, and threatens to destroy far more. People in the area depend largely on fishing, tourism [an upscale Club Med hotel is located several kilometres away from the site], and farming – all sectors that are threatened by rare earth mineral pollution.


Lynas is just taking advantage of loopholes in Malaysian environmental standards to maximise its profits. The company could just install its plant in Australia – it has a rare earth treatment licence there, too. But they don’t because they’d be forced to build the plant in the desert and build hundreds of kilometres of pipes to transport gas and water. The Malaysian plant is much cheaper for them, and environmental regulation will be much less tight.


However in terms of safety, the impact would be far smaller if an accident happened in the middle of the Australian desert. In Kuantan, over 700,000 people live within a 30-kilometre radius of the plant. And the risk of waste contaminating drinking water is high. There is no water in the desert – here, there is water everywhere. Not to mention that Australia won’t even be dealing with its own waste – when Lynas leaves, Malaysians will have to live with the waste left behind.


“We contest both the licence emitted by Malaysian authorities and the conclusions of their report on radioactive waste”


We will do everything to stop Lynas from getting the plant into production, and we will not compromise. In 2008, when the company got its building permit, I was one of the only voices speaking up against the plant. Thankfully, the movement has since gained momentum.


Today, I was at the main courthouse in Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia’s capital] to support the initiative of a group of Kuantan residents. They are asking the court to cancel Lynas’ production licence. If they succeed, they may effectively block the plant from starting production. We have launched several lawsuits: we contest both the licence emitted by Malaysian authorities, and the conclusions of their report on the potential environmental impact. We don’t want to leave any more loopholes open for Lynas. I don’t want the city I was born in, and which I represent today, to be destroyed.”



A crowd of protesters in Kuantan on Sunday, February 26. Photo published by @NajwanHalimi on Twitter.


Another photo of Sunday's protest. Photo published by @Snowpiano on Twitter.



Photo published by @juanajaafar on Twitter.


Protesters lied down on the ground in protest. Photo published by @delCapo on Twitter.