Mitsubishi Chemicals, come clean on thorium waste issue! — Choo Sing Chye

Posted on March 11, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

-The Malaysian Insider-

MARCH 11 — I read with amusement the latest article on Mitsubishi Chemical’s recent US$100 million cleanup (1) of the radioactive waste in its former plant in Bukit Merah.

Judging from the way in which the story is presented or if we squint our eyes at a slightly wrong angle, we might mistakenly think that the whole episode rests on the premise that the largest radiation cleanup (2) is an act of great charity despite having no legal compulsion to do so. (3)

Largest radiation cleanup now? No legal compulsion to do so?

I am at a loss here.

Hadn’t Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE), a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Chemical Ind Ltd, already done a thorough clean-up in 1986 after being compelled to do so by the Ipoh High Court through a Temporary Court Injunction?

Okay before I proceed any further, I wish to present a clearer picture of this issue.

Here it is:

On October 14, 1985, the Perak Anti Radioactive Action Committee (PARAC) had successfully obtained a temporary court injunction from the Ipoh High Court against Asian Rare Earth Company.

Conspicuously, it was an undisputable fact that it was obligatory for ARE to do a clean up before it could restart operation again.

The 12 conditions laid down in the Temporary Court Injunction were:

1. Establish an above-ground temporary enclosed storage building for the Thorium Hydroxide waste;

2. Ensure that the type of containers, for the waste for temporary storage is the same, as the chosen for the permanent storage, to avoid the need for repacking;

3. Store the waste in the temporary storage building above the ground, high enough to protect it from flooding;

4. Establish and maintain an exclusion zone of 10 meters with controlled access, around the temporary storage building;

5. Equip the temporary storage with ventilation before entry of operating personnel;

6. Ensure that the handling, transportation and deposition of the waste be suspended during severe rain and windstorms;

7. That the containers already filled and awaiting transportation to the storage facility are covered and protected from possible flooding;

8. That before transportation to the storage area, the full containers are checked for damage, surface contamination, and if necessary, decontamination;

9. That the lead-lined box proposed to be used for transportation of the waste is washed down frequently and that the wash water be collected and returned to the process, or properly treated;

10. That after any accidental spill of the waste in the transport box, and periodically otherwise, the box be checked for surface contamination and if necessary decontaminate;

11. Have strict housekeeping procedures approved by the competent authority which are complied with during the whole operation, so as to keep radiation exposures of the workers and of the public as low as reasonably achievable, social and economic factors taken into account;

12. Ensure that the services of a qualified radiation protection officer is secured and who is given clear responsibility for, and authority in, enforcing sound radiation protection practices in the operation, and for the necessary monitoring.

Subsequently in 1986, ARE engaged Dr Fowler, a nuclear energy consultant from the United States to tackle this thorny issue, i.e. to satisfy the 12 conditions imposed by the High Court of Ipoh.

Then out of nowhere came a complimentary feature article in the New Strait Times, on October 3, 1986, which shot out of the editorial page like a double-barrel shotgun — “Safety Measures Beyond What’s Necessary”.

In this feature article, ARE supposedly claimed to have invested a further RM5 million on the building of special facilities at the plant and the new dumpsite in Kledang.

Below is the gist of the 1986 NST feature article:

1. ARE had built new dumps at the Kledang Range and special facilities;

2. ARE plant and the surrounding areas were certified safe;

3. ARE is a chemical plant and not a nuclear plant;

4. Thorium Hydroxide may have future value as a nuclear fuel material;

5. The dose per year for humans is 500 mrems.

First Contradiction:

In the said NST article ARE claimed to have built a new dumpsite at the Kledang Range.

Then why in the recent The Malaysian Insider story tells of “engineers (having to) cut the top off a hill in a forest reserve nearly five kilometres away, buried the material inside the hill’s core, and then entombed it under more than 20 feet of clay and granite.”  (4)

Don’t we have dumps already in 1986 built by ARE?

Second Contradiction:

In the same article, it states in no uncertain term that the ARE plant and the surrounding areas were certified safe by Dr Fowler’s (ARE’s consultant).

He reported that the radioactive reading in Ipoh was 65 per cent below the public safety limit (BPSL), at the plant’s premises and entrance nearest to Bukit Merah, 70 per cent BPSL. And within the factory mineral store showed a reading of 70 per cent below the safety limit for workers.

Finally in the vicinity of the office, the reading was 80 per cent below the safety limit for the public and most workers receive no more radiation than the public.

Really??

If the plant and the surrounding areas were certified safe, why the hell did Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd need another cleanup in its former plant?

“In the current cleanup operation, workers in protective gear have already removed 11,000 truckloads of radioactive material, hauling away every trace of the old refinery and even tainted soil from beneath it — down to the bedrock as much as 25 feet below, said Anthony Goh, the consultant overseeing the project for one of Mitsubishi’s contractors, GeoSyntec, an Atlanta-based firm.” (5)

Removing of tainted soil down to the bedrock, the using of  robots and workers in protective gear, these all sound very serious to us — very serious indeed.

There is another equally serious issue which was masked from the public — the illegal dumping of the thorium waste.

Thus when we talk about the 11,000 truckloads of radioactive material being removed recently, (6) we must also not forget about the 1986 illegal dumping.

Apparently in the 1986 illegal dumping controversy, thorium waste was illegally taken out of the factory by a fleet of lorries own by several contractors employed by ARE.

Now the most important question is that how many lorry loads of thorium waste were taken out in the 14 month period and dumped illegally?

Dr Sadao who was invited by the PARAC had this to say:

[I] had met at least one lorry driver who had been told to dump radioactive thorium cake outside the plant.

The man took me to an area where he was told to dump the thorium and my tests showed radioactive levels of a very high degree.

He also told me that other lorry drivers were involved in dumping the thorium in areas outside the factory.  (7)

The reply by ARE general manager, T. Shigenobu:

“The dumping of radioactive wastes in areas outside the factory’s premises was done indiscriminately by lorry contractors contrary to the company’s instructions…

“The agreement with the contractor engaged to dump the Thoria was terminated due to his failure to follow instructions, disagreement on the charges and also the change in the method of housekeeping by the company…”(8)

Mitsubishi Chemical should by now deal with this issue openly and honestly. It is the very least thing to do for the people of the affected areas, notably Bukit Merah, Menglembu and Papan.

People are asking why the present RM303 million cleanup when Mitsubishi Chemical claimed in 1986 that the plant and surrounding areas were certified safe by a nuclear scientist from the United States?

Was the 1986 cleanup a fraud?

It is shameful to let radioactive poisoning to linger on for 25 years without doing anything about it until now.

References

1. The Malaysian Insider. “In Bukit Merah, Mitsubishi seeks to undo old harms.” (March 10, 2011 Online Report)

2. ibid.,

3. ibid.,

4. ibid.,

5. ibid.,

6. ibid.,

7. The New Straits Times. (30 October 1986 Press Report)

8. The New Straits Times. (14 November 1986 Press Report)

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