Asia Pacific

Lynas chief confident rare earth project will overcome obstacles

nick-curtis04-dec15MELBOURNE, Dec 15 — Lynas chief Nick Curtis is confident the Kuantan rare earth plant will overcome obstacles it now faces, saying his “stubborn nature had kept him focused as the hurdles keep rising”. 

In an interview with finance journalist Sarah-Jane Tasker of The Australian newspaper, Curtis said: “There is only one way forward and that’s forward.”

Curtis (picture), the Lynas executive chairman, said he first set his sights on building a processing plant in China to receive rare earth material from the company’s Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, but a move by the country to enforce quotas on exporting the product led him to search for a new site. 

Abu Dhabi and Malaysia made it to the shortlist in the 2006 search and it was Kuantan that Curtis believed to be the best location. 

“They (Malaysia) have a stable government and clear regulatory environment. We perceived there was less political risk in Malaysia than other places.

“We talked to the government and regulators and they welcomed us with open arms to the point where we got a 12-year tax holiday,” Curtis said.

While the attention on Lynas over the past 18 months has focused on the vocal opposition to the processing plant in Gebeng, it hasn’t been the only battle the company has had to fight, since he took over the reins 12 years ago. 

The company almost went under after the global financial crisis and the Chinese swooped in with a lifeline in 2009 that would have seen China Nonferrous Metals take control of Lynas. 

But Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board stopped that and Lynas had to turn to the market to raise about A$285 million (RM960 million) for its project. 

Curtis said when he decided on Kuantan, he did not foresee the series of problems, especially from a noisy opposition and environmentalists, but is confident Lynas can address the concerns of Malaysians. 

He said the Malaysian community’s fears about radiation from rare earths went back to 1992 and a Mitsubishi project called Asian Rare Earth in Bukit Merah, Perak. 

He told the newspaper the material from Lynas is completely different to what was processed at the Mitsubishi plant, which had used waste from tin mining as its raw material. 

That material contained high levels of thorium, a source of high levels of radiation, which ultimately led to that plant’s closure. 

“There is a mythology about rare earths as being damaging because of that Bukit Merah plant. Today, the regulations in Malaysia and anywhere in the world would not allow that plant to be built,” he said.  

He said he was also aware of the fallout from the Mitsubishi project but regulations were tightened in Malaysia following the controversy in the early 1990s, and an Atomic Energy Licensing Board was created. 

Lynas went through the regulatory process and its plant was permitted. 

Although there was what Curtis described as “noise” in 2007-2008 when the company was going through the approvals process, it subsequently quietened. But then, Japan’s tsunami last year caused the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and “the noise reignited”. 

“When Fukushima happened, the opposition in Kuantan, seeking political advantage, took out the Bukit Merah story, revived it and said this is what rare earths can do, and created intense fear in the community. 

“That took off like wildfire, particularly through the social media, which is hard to contain,” Curtis said. 

He said the company has since gone above and beyond to ensure the local population was well informed of the project and that it was safe. — Bernama

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