Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Case Against Lynas

Thursday, 05 May 2011

Malaysia is littered with ventures where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. If the people of Malaysia are not vigilant, the Lynas plant may very well turn out to be the next radiation disaster. 

By Soo Jin Hou (Kuantan Environmental Watch Group)

If everything goes as planned, by September this year, the largest rare earth refinery in the world will start operating in Gebeng Industrial Zone, some 25 km away from Kuantan town, home to almost half a million people. This plant will cast a shadow over Kuantan town. Real estate price will plunge, residents who are able to relocate will flee and those who are not will be in constant fear of radiation exposure.  

The authorities have learnt nothing from the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) debacle in Bukit Merah, Perak. The ARE plant was operated by Mitsubishi Chemical and it extracted rare earth from old tin mine slag. Unfortunately the waste contains high level of thorium, which is a perpetually radioactive substance because its half life is 14.05 billion years! The residents there blamed the plant for birth defects and eight leukemia cases, 7 of whom have since died. As a result of strong public opposition, the ARE was finally closed in 1992 and is currently undergoing a massive RM303 million cleanup.

It is not difficult to see why the authorities have not learnt their lesson from the ARE disaster. Until this very day, the authorities refused to acknowledge that the radioactive waste was responsible for sudden escalation of health problems among the residents. On 26 April 2011, Deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Fadillah Yusof claimed that the waste in Bukit Merah poses no threat to the public or the environment. This is in stark contrast with the evidence, whereby the 8 leukemia cases occured within 5 years in a community of 11,000.  

However, the massive cleanup effort belies the government’s assertion. If the waste is safe, why would such an extensive cleanup be necessary? When the cleanup is completed, the waste will finally be buried deep inside a nearby hill under 20 feet of clay and granite. If the waste poses no threat, why the need to bury it?

Similarly, for the new rare earth refinery, the point of contention is the waste management. Since the beginning, public disclosures from the authorities and Lynas Corporation from Australia, the owner of the plant have been sparse and contradictory. Despite the huge stake Kuantan residents have, no public consultation was held prior to approval of the project. In fact, if not for a report in the New York Times on 8 March 2011, many residents would still be oblivious to the existence of this plant.

Lynas will import rare earth ores from Mount Weld in Australia to be processed in Gebeng. The finished products will be exported overseas while the radioactive waste dumped in Gebeng. From the press statements, one can surmise that the waste management is not even finalized yet. 

On one hand, Lynas’ executive chairman Nicholas Curtis claims that they have permission from the government to store the waste onsite forever. On the other, AELB’s (Atomic Energy Licensing Board) director general Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja refutes that claim in saying that the plant can only store waste temporarily. If the onsite storage is temporary, where will the waste be shipped to next? It will definitely not be bound for its place of origin Australia, after Western Australian minister for mines and petroleum, fisheries and electoral affairs Norman Moore flatly rejected calls to take back Lynas’ radioactive waste.

Moreover, Raja Aziz claims that Lynas’ waste is safe enough to be scattered everywhere if Lynas can keep the thorium level in its waste to 1,600 parts per million. Then again, if the waste is safe, why is it necessary for Lynas to build storage pools for it, and why does Raja Aziz refuse permission for Lynas to store the waste permanently? The most plausible explanation is that neither Lynas nor AELB are confident that the ‘safe’ thorium level can be met. If that is the case, the authorities have betrayed the people of Kuantan by exposing them to unknown and unnecessary health risks.

The flippant attitude of the authorities is on full display in a town hall style meeting with Kuantan residents, where Raja Aziz said that Lynas will only be told to cease operation if they breach the threshold thorium concentration limit. Yet, he admitted that there was no fixed safety requirements for radiation, and that the concentration is just an indicator. How can such a project be approved without due consideration to the health and safety of the residents? To allay fears of radiation exposure, Lynas harp on a Radiological Impact Assessment report that claims that the waste is safe. However, until this day, this report has not been disclosed to the public for scrutiny.  

It would not be difficult to imagine that if Lynas is willing to incur substantial transportation cost to ship the ores all the way from Australia to be processed in Gebeng, the waste is probably something nobody wants in their backyard. This explains Lynas’ rather secretive modus operandi. Despite the claim of low thorium levels, Lynas will be processing 10 times the amount of ores compared to the ARE. 

Environmentalists contends that the much larger volume causes thorium levels to build up over time, to which Lynas has yet to provide any reply. Lynas also conveniently skipped the issue of radon gas, another potent carcinogen, which is discharged when the ores are cracked. Finally, Lynas refuses to disclose whether they will process uranium bearing ores in Gebeng from their newly acquired Malawian mine in Gebeng. 

Malaysia is littered with ventures where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. If the people of Malaysia are not vigilant, the Lynas plant may very well turn out to be the next radiation disaster. 

Ulasan: Takziah kepada penduduk Pahang. Negeri PM pun tidak ada siapa yang kisah.

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