Some 3,000 Malaysians staged a protest on Sunday against a rare earth refinery being built by Australian miner Lynas over fears of radioactive contamination.
It marked the largest rally against the $230 million plant in eastern Malaysia, and could pose a headache to the government ahead of national elections widely expected this year.
Authorities recently granted Lynas a license to operate the first rare earths plant outside China in years. The plant in Pahang state has been the subject of heated protests over health and environmental risks posed by potential leaks of radioactive waste.
Lynas says its plant, which will refine radioactive ore from Australia, has state-of-the-art pollution controls and plans to start firing up by June.
Protesters, including opposition lawmakers, vowed Sunday to pressure the government to scrap the project. Many wore green T-shirts with the words “Stop Lynas” and some shouted “Destroy Lynas” during the two-hour rally in the Pahang state capital of Kuantan.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said his alliance would seek an emergency motion in Parliament to urge the government to cancel the project. He also pledged the opposition would scrap the plant if it wins national polls expected by June.
“We don’t want (this project) to sacrifice our culture and the safety of the children,” he told the crowd.
Lynas says its refinery could meet nearly a third of world demand for rare earths, excluding China. It also may curtail China’s stranglehold on the global supply of 17 rare earths essential for making high-tech goods, including flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, hybrid cars and weapons.
Malaysian activists and Pahang residents have sought a court order to halt the Lynas plant.
An International Atomic Energy Agency team, which assessed the Lynas project last year, found it lacked a comprehensive long-term waste management program and a plan to dismantle the plant once it is no longer operating.
Malaysia’s last rare earth refinery by Japan’s Mitsubishi group, in northern Perak state, was closed in 1992 following protests and claims that it caused birth defects and leukemia among residents. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.