DENGKIL, May 17 — Local regulators must wait for the science minister to decide on an appeal but not a parliamentary review of Lynas Corp's controversial rare earths plant before issuing a license to the Australian miner.
The Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) had said yesterday it is under orders from Datuk Seri Maximus Ongkili to suspend the temporary operating license (TOL) for the RM2.5 billion project until he disposes of an appeal from three residents living near the Kuantan plant.
But AELB director general Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan told reporters today the parliamentary select committee (PSC), which will end its tenure on July 18, will only "study safety, health and environmental issues" and "the process and implementation of licensing procedures."
"The PSC is studying whether the current laws and standards are appropriate but it will not look into the issuing of the license (to Lynas). The 'stay of execution' is only until the ministerial appeal is completed," he said.
An aide to Maximus told The Malaysian Insider the science, technology and innovation minister will decide on the April 17 appeal hearing "soon" but is currently preoccupied with ministerial programmes in Sabah and the local Kaamatan harvest festival until May 21.
The committee on Lynas was approved in Dewan Rakyat in March amid opposition furore over the alleged lack of terms of reference and suspicion that the nine-man panel’s will be used to “whitewash” the issue.
Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers also questioned the point of the select committee given that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had already said the government will not be bound by the panel’s findings.
The terms of reference says that the nine-man panel will "study safety, health and environmental issue related to the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant" and "study the process and implementation of licensing and approval procedures based on laws and safety standards being enforced."
But Raja Aziz pointed out that the AELB would still have to approve the issuing of the license if Maximus dismisses the residents' appeal.
"So it will have to brought to the board to see whether it wants to wait for the PSC or not," he said.
Lynas had said last week it was on track to start up its rare earth plant in Malaysia next month after Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin, chairman of the PSC on the refinery that has raised fears of radiation pollution, called it “the safest rare earths plant in the world.”
It also said in April delays in obtaining the license for its RM2.5 billion facility, which was initially approved in January, may have “very serious consequences” for RM80 billion worth of rare earth orders as it is “sold out for the next 10 years.”
The Sydney-based firm said last year the first phase of its plant, which was initially slated to fire up last September, will produce rare earth worth RM8 billion annually.
Prices for rare earths, highly sought-after for high-technology products such as smartphones, wind turbines and bombs, have since dipped slightly as the market reacted to record highs resulting from export quotas imposed since 2009 by China, which controls 97 per cent of production.
The AELB had said in January it would approve a TOL, which allows Lynas to operate for an initial two years, subject to added conditions including identifying a suitable long-term waste disposal site.
This was despite Lynas insisting it can reprocess its residue, which it says has only very low levels of radiation, into safe commercial products.
Lynas has said the plant would be ready to fire up operations within three weeks of receiving the go-ahead.
It has faced fierce protests over the past year from local residents and opposition politicians who say that the plant will cause radiation pollution despite the company insisting it has met and exceeded local and international safety standards.