Radiation actually a NORM

Posted on June 25, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

KUALA LUMPUR: For most of us, the word “radioactive” brings to mind images of a very dangerous substance which we should shun, what more handle.

Radioactive substances can cause cancer and death. The atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, the nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the radiation leak at the nuclear power plant in Fuku­shima, Japan, all involve radioactivity.

Incidents such as these strike fear in people. It may be difficult to change the public stigma.

Unbeknown to us, however, radioactivity is present around us naturally and we are exposed to radiation in our daily lives.

For example, we are exposed to radiation from soil and rocks, and space (in the form of cosmic rays), and from the food we consume daily, such as fruits and vegetables. Our bodies consist of natural radioactive substances such as Potassium-40 (K-40).

Data gleaned from UNSCEAR 2000 (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation to the General Assembly) states that on the average we are exposed to natural radiation to the tune of 2.4 milliSievert (mSv) annually.

All soil in the world contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), particularly Uranium-238 in the range of 16 to 110 Becquerel/kg [Bq/kg] (equivalent to 0.016 to 0.1 Bq/gm) and Thorium-232 in the range of 11 to 64 Bq/kg (equivalent to 0.011 to 0.064 Bq/kg).

In Malaysia, the natural uranium content is in the range of 49 to 86 Bq/kg (equivalent to 0.049 to 0.086 Bq/gm) and the natural thorium content in the range of 63 to 110 Bq/kg (equivalent to 0.063 to 0.1 Bq/g).

What is radioactivity?

Radioactivity or radiation resulting from radioactive substances is a form of energy emitted by atoms or molecules through space or matter as particles or electromagnetic waves.

Radiation goes by many names, among them light wave, radio wave, infra-red ray, microwave and X-ray. Ionising radiation includes Alpha particles, Beta particles, Gamma rays, X-rays and Neutrons.

Radioactive substances are formed in two ways, naturally in the form of natural radioactive substances such as uranium and thorium in the environment (soil, vegetation, water and air) and man-made in the form of, for example, Technitium-99m which is used for medical purposes and Iridium-192 which is used in industries, including in the generation of nuclear power.

The latest issue involving radioactive substances in Malaysia is the Lynas project.

Briefly, Lynas (M) Sdn Bhd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lynas Corporation Ltd of Australia. It is in the business of producing and selling rare earth.

The output from the processing of rare earth is used by hundreds of industrial applications, for example batteries for laptop computers, mobile telephones and hybrid cars, cathode-ray tubes for TV monitors and computers, fibre-optic cables, aerospace applications and magnets for generation of energy from wind.

But there has been a dispute over the residue containing NORM.

The reason for the fear of the people is that Lynas proposes to import Lanthanide ore from the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia for processing and extraction in the Gebeng industrial site in Pahang.

It is regrettable that the public has been fed with confusing information, leading them to equate the processing of rare earth by Lunas to that by Asian Rare Earth (ARE).

The Government has taken precautionary measures to prevent any recurrence of the ARE incident. Various government agencies, among them the Department of Environment, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Department are responsible for ensuring the people’s safety and health as well as the quality of the environment.

In Malaysia, Lynas (M) Sdn Bhd is not the only company engaged in the processing of minerals. Others include Petronas Carigali (M) Sdn Bhd, TOR Mineral (M) Sdn Bhd, Tioxide Hunstman (M) Sdn Bhd and Samsung Corning (M) Sdn Bhd.

Processing of rare earth is an activity which also takes place in Africa, India, Canada, Vietnam, China and Brazil.

As such, it is unfair to associate radiation only with danger.

The fact is that radiation has brought much benefit to man, particularly in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. — Bernama


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