Lynas under the spotlight

Posted on June 2, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

ALONG THE WATCHTOWER By M.VEERA PANDIYAN
veera@thestar.com.my

THE UN atomic energy panel studying the health and safety aspects of the proposed Lynas Corp rare earth processing factory in Gebeng, Pahang, is expected to wind up its work tomorrow.The nine-member team, led by Dr Tero Varjoranta, director of the In­­ternational Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology Division, has met 22 groups, including local residents, political parties and the business community besides visiting the site of the project.

They looked at ore transportation, radiation protection for workers, safety and waste management as well as people living in the area and the environment.

The project is on hold and the Government has said it would not issue a pre-operating licence to Lynas or allow imports of ore to be processed pending the panel’s review.

But many would have preferred that a study be done before the decision was made to approve the RM700mil Lynas Advanced Materials Plant and give the Australian mining firm a 12-year tax holiday.

Strong public pressure to scrap the plant is the only reason that the experts are here.

As Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia president S.M. Mohamed Idris noted: “Swift approval for such a complex project would raise serious questions.”

There is a good deal of allegation that Gebeng would end up as a dumping ground for radioactive by-products.

The Gebeng plant, aimed at supplying a third of the world’s demand for rare earths, was originally scheduled to be in operation by September with ore shipped from the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia.

China now produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, essential raw materials for the fabrication of high-performance magnets and parts in hybrid and electric cars, wind-turbines and sophisticated electronic equipment.

While the project has its supporters — some of whom made their rowdy presence felt on Tuesday during public submissions to the panel — opposition to it has been intense with public forums, marches and protests.

To its credit, the panel did its best to keep politics out of its technical mission throughout the three-day study.

It rejected a petition of 52,000 signatures from a PKR MP and also declined to accept a memorandum submitted by the MCA.

Based on Lynas’ estimates, 106 tonnes of thorium waste could be generated each year, as well as residue to be some 1,655 parts per million from the total of 64,000 tonnes of water leached purification process.

But apparently, thorium is not all bad news.

An increasing number of nuclear scientists, engineers, chemists, physicists and even environmentalists are looking at thorium as an asset, not a liability, if used in the right form — as nuclear fuel.

South Africa’s North West University School of Nuclear Science and Engineering Prof Eben Mulder says thorium has the potential to trigger a “nuclear renaissance”.

It is supposedly safer and produces much less waste. Better still, it actually feeds on radio- active plutonium waste, one of the most awful substances on earth, as part of its power-generating process.

There are currently no thorium reactors in operation but they have worked in the past, in both the US and the former Soviet Union.

China, India and Russia are now in the process of developing them.

Its proponents say that liquid fluoride thorium reactors can help reduce the tendency to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The technology is 50 years old at least. The original 8-megawatt LFTR (then called molten sat reactor or MSR) was created by the US Ato-mic Energy Commission at Sandia’s Los Alamos and Oak Ridge Laborato­ries.

> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandi­yan likes this quote by Albert Einstein: The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches.

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