Kalgoorlie has firmed as the likely site of Lynas Corporation’s proposed $500 million rare earths processing plant after the company struck an agreement with the local council.

The news comes as the company seeks to relocate the cracking and leaching component of its Malaysian plant, where low-level radioactive waste has sparked a long-running controversy with residents and environmental groups in the South-East Asian country.

Under the terms of Lynas’ memorandum of understanding with the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the council will help the company investigate two sites for the plant that offer suitable water, gas, electricity, access roads and other infrastructure.

The City will also help Lynas secure a 100-strong, residential-based workforce for the plant.

Lynas hopes to begin operating the local plant by the end of 2022 or early 2023, with production transitioning from Malaysia in line with commissioning and ramp-up.

The Malaysian Government agreed last month to extend the operating licence of Lynas’ existing plant for six months on condition that the company relocate the cracking and leaching component within four years.

Lynas said on Friday it was still considering its Mt Weld rare earths mine, 30km south of Laverton, as another possible site for the plant.

Lynas production vice-president Kam Leung said the company expected to choose between the two options by the end of the year.

City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder chief executive John Walker said the City would do whatever it took to bring the plant to the Goldfields town.

The Goldfields Designated Area Migration Agreement between Kalgoorlie-Boulder, surrounding shires and the Federal Government is expected to play a major part in attracting skilled overseas staff to work at the plant.

Under the five-year agreement, Goldfields employers can sponsor skilled foreign workers to work for them in specified industries that are experiencing critical skills and labour shortages.

Mr Walker said the City would support Lynas using the DAMA to make sure it could attract the skills base it needed.

Speaking at last month’s Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie, Lynas chief executive Amanda Lacaze hosed down fears about the waste, saying the material had the same low radioactivity levels as a processing residue as it did in its natural state in the ground.

“The material is an iron phosphate material, its radioactivity is comparable to the rock phosphate that is used in fertilisers,” she said. “It has been vilified and politicised ... we don’t even have to placard it as radioactive here in WA.”

She said there were many other operations in WA that produced waste at much higher radioactivity levels and there was no issue with managing the tailings from them.

Lynas, which is the biggest rare earths producer outside of China, takes ore from its Mt Weld mine and ships it to Malaysia for processing before exporting its final products to Japan.

The company has annual capacity to produce 7200 tonnes of neodymium and praseodymium rare earths oxide, which are used in the permanent magnets that drive electric vehicles and wind turbines, and also have applications in electronic devices and in the military.

In March, the Federal Government identified rare earths as a critical mineral and announced a policy framework to promote investment and development of mining and processing opportunities for the commodities.


Image: Processing infrastructure at the Mt Weld rare earths mine near Laverton, supplied.