Minister: Govt does not support return of radioactive by-product

Posted on April 12, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

-The Star-

PETALING JAYA: The Western Australian Government does not support calls for the waste produced at the Lynas rare earth plant in Kuantan to be sent back to Australia.

“The Western Australian Government does not support the importation and storage of other countries’ radioactive waste,” said Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore in the state parliament last Tuesday.

Moore said this to questions by Robin Chapple, the Member for the Mining and Pastoral Region, following calls by Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh for thorium waste from the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Kuantan to be returned to Western Australia.

Chapple said the rare earth should be processed at the Lynas Corp mine site at Mt Weld, Western Australia, and the radioactive thorium waste stored in the mine pit.

Currently, ore from Mt Weld is shipped to the Gebeng Industrial Area in Kuantan to be refined into its final product.

Radioactive waste containing thorium produced as a by-product at the refinery would be stored in Kuantan.

“The general public is not aware of these issues and I am sure (they) would be appalled of using another country to dump our waste,” said Chapple in an e-mail when commenting on the issue.

“Processing could be done in Western Australia but it would very likely be opposed by the people living in the vicinity.

“Australians will not support radioactive waste being returned here,” said Chapple.

Fuziah has been a loud opponent of the rare earth project, built by Australian company Lynas Corp, with repeated calls for the company to take back the radioactive waste produced when extracting the rare earth.

Dr Gavin Mudd, senior lecturer for Environmental Engineering at Monash University, Melbourne, said claims that rare earth ore imported from Australia had a low thorium content were a way “to downplay the significance of such issues”.

Lynas claimed that the thorium contained in its ore is 50 times lower than what was in the tin tailings used in the now closed Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh.

“The main question is the natural concentration in the area used for ore processing and waste disposal. (The average thorium content in the Mt Weld ore) is almost certainly higher than background or natural soil concentrations,” said Dr Mudd.

He was also sceptical of the low figures quoted by Lynas on the annual radiation exposure of its workers and said he had expected the figures to be much higher.

Dr Mudd reiterated the main point of concern posed by local experts that all radiation exposure was cumulative and added up over a lifetime.

Toxicologist Dr T. Jayabalan said proponents of the project were using the term “low-level radiation” to allay fears.

“But the fact remains that it is still a form of radiation and it is carcinogenic,” said Dr Jayabalan, who has treated leukaemia patients whose illnesses he and others have attributed to the old ARE refinery.

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