Debate over rare earth plant

Posted on April 10, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

The recent radiation threat from a damaged nuclear power plant in Japan has triggered off a protest in Gebeng where a rare earth processing plant is being built.

RAJA Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan has an unenviable job. As much as the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) director-general tried to answer questions posed to him at recent briefings on the Lynas rare earth processing plant in Kuantan, the crowd was unyielding.

Almost every reassurance over the safety of the project was greeted with loud jeers. It seemed the majority of those who turned up had already made their mind up about the plant and were only present to voice out their objections.

“They have the right to ask questions and to know (the answers),” says an unfazed Abdul Aziz after the third session. Besides the AELB, representatives from the Department of Environment (DOE) and Nuclear Malaysia were also on hand to give presentations at the sessions organised by the Pahang State Development Corporation (PSDC).

But if the hundreds gathered at these sessions claim to represent the estimated 500,000 Kuantan residents, then the message to the Australian company was loud and clear.

“Go back to Australia” is the gist of that message the people are sending to Lynas, which has invested up to RM700mil in the construction of the plant that is expected to be in operation in September.

Located in the Gebeng chemical and petrochemical hub, about 20km from Kuantan, Lynas will be extracting the rare earth (see graphics) from material mined at Mount Weld in Western Australia.

The rare earth will then be exported to places such as Japan, Europe and America where it will be used for the manufacture of products such as smart phones, flatscreen TVs, hybrid cars and even weaponry, potentially earning RM8bil a year from 2013 based on current prices.

Not welcome: Some residents who live near the Gebeng Industrial Area have put up a banner to protest against the Lynas plant.

“If I were Lynas, I would not come here. I have told them this is the last place they should consider,” says Abdul Aziz in reference to past problems with the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) processing plant in Bukit Merah, Perak.

The ARE plant owned by Mitsubishi Chemical was closed in 1992 and has been linked to several deaths associated with leukaemia and unexplained miscarriages involving young healthy women living in the vicinity of the plant.

More recently, the crisis at the tsunami/quake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has triggered radiation fears and is believed to be a catalyst in the mass protest against the Lynas plant.

The plant also drew flak after an article published in the New York Times highlighted the dangers of radioactive wastes left behind from rare earth processing.

Semambu assemblyman Datuk Pang Tsu Ming says he will highlight the people’s concern to the state and Federal governments.

“They are still not confident with the authorities’ explanation. We will not take any chances at the expense of the rakyat or environment,” Pang stresses.

He has suggested that an independent body of internationally recognised experts review the entire proposal and present their findings to the people.

The MCA also voiced caution over the rare earth plant, with party president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek calling for work to be frozen until an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study on the plant’s viability is conducted.

Dr Chua has urged the Government to stand firm on the issue and shelve the project if it posed any risk to the people and environment.

The main concern of residents is over one of the proposed plant’s waste products Iron Phospho Gypsum, which contains naturally occurring thorium.

“They are extracting the valuable commodity and leaving us with the waste,” says Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) president Nithi Nesadurai.

However, Lynas, which has been given a 12-year tax exemption from the Government, claims that the raw material contains naturally low levels of thorium 50 times lower than the tin tailings (Amang) used by ARE.

Abdul Aziz says that by international standards, this waste is not considered to be radioactive.

“Even if they dump it into the sea, it would not have gone against any convention,” he adds.

On claims that the waste is radioactive and thus hazardous, Abdul Aziz says that if this logic was applied, the petroleum and chemical industries would have to be closed down as well since their wastes contain similar radioactive substances.

Lynas has meanwhile assured that the public exposure of radiation to its plant will be zero while the average additional exposure for an employee at the plant will be only 0.2mSv/year (workers are allowed up to 50mSv/year).

“At these levels, there is no risk to health,” the company says in a statement.

In addition, Lynas says the residues will be placed in safe, reliable engineered storage cells that are designed so that there is no possibility of any leakage of the material into the environment. These cells will be monitored and regulated by both them and the AELB to ensure full compliance within the approval conditions.

Lynas has also agreed to place funds with the Malaysian Government to ensure management of any remaining residues as required by AELB.

Dr Ahmad Tarmizi, a lecturer in Radiological Health and Safety from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), says that thorium exists in the environment naturally.

“In Malaysia, most radioactivity comes from thorium,” he says.

He equates the risk of this plant to that of a plane crashing.

“Most people would not think of it in normal circumstances,” he elaborates, adding that the radioactive aspect was a minute one in the whole scheme or works.

He adds that while the Bukit Merah deaths were regrettable, there was no conclusive proof that the cancer was caused by radiation.

Unfortunately, many people are not totally convinced by these arguments because the word “radioactivity” has negative connotations.

Last month, Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh launched a signature campaign against the plant. Momentum has grown and a few weeks ago, a group of Kuantan residents took their protest to Parliament.

Some quarters believe the issue has been politicised by the Opposition, but Kuantan resident R. Rajan, 43, begs to differ.

“We can think for ourselves. With the Internet, we can learn the facts. We have also been watching television and seeing what’s been happening in Japan,” he says.

Kindergarten teacher Vincent Jiam, 40, only learnt about the Lynas plant via e-mail a few weeks back. Now he is head of the newly-formed Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia movement.

“They should go back and come back as tourists,” he says.

He has even made a trip to Bukit Merah to meet the families of victims.

“We are the ones who have to bear with any potential disaster. It’s not worth the dollars and cents,” says Jiam, who lives in Alor Akar, about 25km from Gebeng.

He adds that he would be more reluctant to purchase items that would require these rare earth elements.

“It would prick at my conscience. We need to defend future generations and certain sacrifices have to be made. They can say anything but words don’t mean anything to us,” says the father of three.

Accountant Andansura Rabu, 45, believes human error can never be ruled out. The father of four lives in Balok Perdana, about 2.85km from the plant.

“When things want to happen, they will happen. What if Lynas goes bust and has to leave the waste here?” he questions.

IT consultant Rahmat Yahya, 35, considers himself a layman on the issue. He understands the arguments from both sides but would rather not have the plant built in Gebeng. He lives in Kampung Sungai Karang, about 10km away.

“If they talk about guarantees, the nuclear tragedy in Japan still happened. It looks good on paper but it is better not to take any chances,” he cautions.

There are those who also question why Lynas came to Malaysia after obtaining approvals for this plant in China.

Lynas has explained that the Chinese government imposed export limits on all final products as well as export taxes, which Lynas deemed as unfavourable to its business interests.

According to the company, they were initially advised by Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA) to operate in Kemaman, in 2006. In fact, Lynas had designed the plant for the specific Kemaman location and obtained all approvals required by the authorities for this location including AELB, DOE and Majlis Perbandaran Kemaman (MPK).

While waiting for the Terengganu government to allocate the land, MIDA asked Lynas to consider relocating to Gebeng, Pahang, to which Lynas agreed.

The Gebeng plant obtained the PSDC’s approval in 2008 after a detailed review of the EIA and the Qualitative Risk Assessment.

Abdul Aziz has given the people his assurance that Lynas will only receive their operating licence if they fulfil the criteria set by them. Now, it only has the buiding licence.

“A pre-operating licence will be issued for Lynas to show proof of its claim that its raw materials are safe, non-toxic and non-hazardous,” adds Abdul Aziz.

Not everyone is against the plant, though. There are some residents who in fact welcome the Lynas plant opening in Gebeng mainly because of the job opportunities. Lynas has said they will employ 350 skilled and semi-skilled workers and another 100 contract workers. The supporting industries are estimated to create an additional 200 jobs.

Currently, there are over 1,000 people working at the construction site. A visit by Sunday Star to the site early this week found the plant still in the construction phase. Lorries and cement mixers are seen going in and out of the 2km dirt road leading to the factory.

Roslan Manaf, a resident of Kampung Batu Hitam, claims he is no longer worried after listening to the briefings by the authorities.

“A lot of youngsters in this area are unemployed. It is better for them to have jobs than waste their time,” he says.

Businessman Samsul Anwar concurs. He believes that there will be a spill-over effect from the jobs created and local folks will have new business opportunities catering to the workers.

Samsul is convinced the wastes are not radioactive but not everyone, he adds, will listen to explanations.

“If they are really against the setting up of the plant, they should also stop using all the latest electronic gadgets that are made with rare earth materials,” he says.

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