Joseph Sipalan Apr 18, 11, 5:17pm – Malaysiakini
The on-going Lynas Advanced Material Plant project will produce 20,000 tonnes of radioactive waste a year once it becomes operational.
This will be 10 times more than the controversial Asian Rare Earth factory that was closed down in Bukit Merah 20 years ago, public health expert Dr T Jayabalan said.
The plant’s projected rate of radioactive waste production, Jayabalan (right) said, would spell environmental and health disasters as dumping huge amounts of such waste, regardless of radioactive levels, would concentrate the deadly effects.
He explained that direct exposure to such a large amount of thorium, even if proven by both Lynas and the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to be low in radiation, would be lethal as radiation levels build up according to the volume of waste piled together.
Both Lynas and the AELB have said that the plant would produce thorium – a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element – as a waste by-product from the plant’s operations in the Gebeng industrial area, some 25km from Kuantan, Pahang.
However, the Australian company and the national atomic power agency maintain that thorium has a low radiation level and is not harmful to people or the surrounding environment.
Jayabalan warned against buying into claims that thorium is safe, stressing that any prolonged exposure to increased radiation levels “no matter how minute” would be a health hazard.
“Perhaps AELB and Lynas are right, that rare earth is not radioactive because they remove the radioactive waste. What they will give you in Gebeng is this radioactive waste called thorium,” he told some 500 people at a talk in Kuantan on Sunday night.
“And perhaps the authorities are right, that thorium is a low-level (radioactive) waste and they tell you it is safe.
“These are terms used by the industry to confuse you… remember, there is no safe level of any radioactivity,” he said.
No safe haven
Jayabalan agreed that people are constantly exposed to “background radiation” – low levels of radiation from sunlight and other environmental factors – but stressed that bringing an additional source of radiation is akin to the death sentence.
He said the best defence from direct exposure to increased radioactivity was to “stay as far away as possible”.
However, this would not work with a second, more surreptitious killer that would be released when the ore containing the rare earth is crushed to remove the thorium.
Jayabalan explained that when the ore is crushed, it releases another radioactive element which exists as a gas – radon.
“Radon can travel thousands of miles… which means you are not protected anywhere in Malaysia because the wind will blow (it across the nation).”
Jayabalan, who was among those who fought to shut down the Asian Rare Earth factory run by Mistubishi Chemical from the early 1980s to 1992, implored the people to learn from the experience of the Bukit Merah residents, who he said continued to pay for the ill-advised venture with their lives.
Showing slides of many children and young adults who were casualties of radiation exposure from the Asian Rare Earth factory, he said these people were innocent and unknowing victims of a tragedy that could have been avoided.
‘Think of the future’
Bukit Merah is now the site of what is believed to be one of Asia’s largest toxic waste clean-ups, courtesy of the factory that produced an average of 2,000 tonnes of radioactive waste annually in the course of its operations.
Jayabalan said the company and the authorities, having found no viable solution to manage the waste pile accumulated, decided to dispose of it at a heavily-guarded dumpsite located within a limestone formation in the area.
“At that time, the authorities gave their assurance that it would be safe and that they would first hold trial runs. But once it starts, it will not stop… what you will get is a large amount of dangerous waste that will outlast you.
“Even Lynas says it can’t send it (the waste) back to Australia, meaning they know this is not an acceptable practice… we don’t want this in our backyard. Take it back to Australia,” Jayabalan said.
Lynas Malaysia has maintained that radiation experts from various government agencies, including AELB, the Department of Environment and Nuclear Malaysia have “presented findings” to show that the Lynas Advanced Material Plant in Gebeng would produce “safe, non-hazardous material”.
On two postings on the company’s Facebook page today, Lynas insisted that the plant causes “zero radiation exposure to the public” and that the company remains committed to its core values of creating a “safe environment for all”, particularly for those living in and around Gebeng.
It said there have been a lot of comparisons between its Gebeng plant and the Bukit Merah plant.
“These two plants are not the same. The Lynas raw material is not the same as the raw material processed at Bukit Merah. Due to the unique geology of Mount Weld and associated mineral deposits, the Lynas raw material contains naturally low levels of thorium, which is 50 times lower than the tin tailings used by Asian Rare Earth in Bukit Merah,” Lynas said.
“Lynas Malaysia Experts in radiation, including the DOE, AELB and Nuclear Malaysia, all presented findings showing the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant is producing safe, non-hazardous material. It causes zero radiation exposure to the public.
“We remain committed to our core values of creating a safe environment for all. Lynas Advanced Materials Plant causes zero exposure to radiation for the community living in and around Gebeng, Kuantan.”
Lynas has invested some RM700 million into the plant, which it intends to complete by September this year. The company projects the plant to generate some RM8 billion in annual revenue by 2013.