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Reconciling with Rare Earths in Malaysia

Guest article by Bernadetta Devi

“Rare Earths” are a group of 17 elements that are currently used in a wide array of modern technologies, ranging from hard disk drives to lamp phosphors to hybrid car batteries. At present 90% of these minerals are mined in China due to a range of economic and environmental factors. In 2012, an old rare earth mine in California reopened and the next major rare earth mine is on track for going into full production in 2013 at Mount Weld, Western Australia (owned and operated by Lynas Corporation). The ore from the Mount Weld mine will be milled and processed in Malaysia and this remote processing operation has caused considerable environmental conflict in Pahang state.

This article is authored by Bernadetta Devi, my colleague from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining who visited the Lynas Corporation Ltd processing and refinery plant in Malaysia in October, 2012 to develop an independent perspective on the current status of the rare earths industry within Malaysia and to identify opportunities for research that could mitigate environmental conflicts on this issue, given its importance for providing important materials for green technologies worldwide. The article provides independent analysis and was not solicited by any particular stakeholder in this case.

A 'rare earth' processing plant near Guangzhou, China: Majority of the world's rare earths are still mined and processed in China. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Context

The rare earth industry within Malaysia has been the focus of intense political scrutiny, social activism and media interest during the past 2 years, in light of the Malaysian Government approval of the construction and operation of a $1 billion rare earths processing and refinery plant at Kuantan in Pahang State.  This facility is owned by Australian corporation Lynas and  commonly referred to as the “Lynas Advanced Materials Plant” (LAMP).

In August 2012 the first phase of the LAMP was completed to accommodate 30,000 tonnes of raw materials that are shipped from the Lynas Corporation Mount Weld mine site in Western Australia.  It is envisaged that the processing of the raw materials will see Lynas produce rare earth oxides at 11,000 tonnes per annum.    The second phase of the LAMP project is still being constructed and when finished, the production of Lynas rare earth oxides will be doubled.  The company has commenced its first production following the November 2012 decision by the Kuantan High Court to allow processing to proceed (which continues to be under appeal but likely to move forward).

Current Debate

At present, there is a clear polarization of the debate surrounding the Lynas LAMP plant and its activities.  For example, the Lynas proponents consistently point to the significant contribution the LAMP will provide to the Malaysian economy.  Those against the LAMP argue there will be considerable negative implications to the environment and society in Pahang State arising from the operation of the LAMP and this will in turn have a negative effect on the Malaysian economy.  Most notably, The Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the National Professors’ Council recently produced the report ‘Rare Earth Industries: Moving Malaysia’s Green Economy Forward’ based on the inaugural rare earths symposium held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2012.  This report identified two important drivers for the rare earths industry in Malaysia:

1)      The rare earths industry can contribute to, and support the development of, a green economy both domestically and globally.

2)      As a nation, Malaysia will significantly benefit from the contribution of rare earths to the global market.  This is an important point to consider as the global supply of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) is dominated by China (approximately 97 per cent of global production).

With the advanced technologies and perceived benefits, the rare earth industry is seen as a promising new growth area under Malaysia’s New Economic Model of the 10th Malaysia Plan aiming to transform the country to a developed nation by 2020. Lynas, (a company that is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange) is a key contributor to the undertaking of the 10th Malaysia Plan as the Plan seeks to derive its objectives from predominantly private sector investment.

The government policy on Lynas however has received strong criticism from a number of stakeholders including opposing political parties.  The most identifiable movement against the LAMP is that of the Stop Lynas Save Malaysia (SLSM). This NGO has received widespread media attention and political coverage in their rejection of the LAMP which they state is essentially flawed and dangerous due to:

-          A poor project approval process that did not adequately engage with Malaysian civil society and the communities in the vicinity of the LAMP.

-          Government approval for the LAMP which was not based on any evidence based studies

-          The potential for future high-risk uncertainties, namely health, safety and environmental concerns from the operation of the LAMP

-          The Government providing a 12 year tax holiday for Lynas and this will reduce the flow-on economic benefits to the Malaysian people.

Essentially, for the past two years the opposing parties have continuously questioned the decision to allow Lynas to construct and operate the LAMP facility in Malaysia.  Lynas, however, have been open in its responses to this question, with its Chairman recently stating (during the Lynas Corporation 2012 Annual General Meeting) that Lynas  undertook a ‘thorough due diligence process’ to choose a 100 hectare, dedicated petrochemical industrial park in the Malaysia’s East Coast Economic Corridor that considered factors such as:

-          Adequate physical infrastructure that support the chemical industries

-          A readily available workforce that is specialised in chemical refining

-          Close  proximity to key rare earths markets

-          Regulations that support a value-adding industry

Continuous monitoring data at LAMP facility in Malaysia to address concerns about pollution. Photograph by Bernadetta Devi

By locating LAMP in the Malaysian East Coast Economic Corridor, Lynas considers the LAMP will create a cluster of secondary positive economic impacts through high technology industries which align with the Malaysian government’s vision in its economic policy.  Furthermore, Lynas and the Malaysian academia believe that with its advanced technologies, LAMP activities will have very small concentration of radioactivity in the residues of rare earths processing and refinery.  Importantly, Lynas continues to develop its technology to promote sustainable development within the rare earth industry including innovation in recycling residues from the LAMP activities.

The exhaustive list of conflicting arguments from both parties could be seen as valid based on values, beliefs and needs that are followed by each party.     However, the inability between both parties to fully appreciate the needs and concerns of the parties differing viewpoints is effectively protracting the debate and conflict.  It is therefore necessary that workable strategies are developed from both sides of the debate to bring to the table to create a sustainable long-term solution to this issue.

Opportunities from Conflicts

A brief analysis of the Lynas case based on feedback received during the field visit showed that there have been some changes within Malaysia in relation to heavy industries.  Those changes potentially can assist the improvement of rare earths industry as well as heavy industry in general.

1)      Evidence based policy making – Lynas has been scrutinised by many different ‘independent’ bodies. Despite debate on the objectivity and dependency of the chosen bodies that scrutinised Lynas, the involvement of these bodies could be seen as a process to improve the evidence-based policy making in Malaysia.  Although Lynas’s scrutiny process did not occur until the LAMP was almost fully constructed, it is hoped, that evidence-based policy could always be utilised to assist the Malaysian Government create their policies specifically for Lynas or other similar heavy industry enterprises.  Essentially, an evidence-based dialogue always promotes enriches decision making process in so long as there is accountability and transparency throughout this process. Ongoing oversight authority from academic bodies who will monitor the progress of the plan will be important in building and maintaining trust.

2)      ‘Better’ environmental measures and mitigations for heavy industries – Feedback received stated that Lynas has adhered to more stringent environmental requirements in comparison to other companies.  Lynas has implemented advanced environmental measures to monitor and mitigate their environmental impacts for example, the digital air monitoring which is an extra requirement that is specific to Lynas  and the latest technology to capture the emitted gases.  It is worth considering that this requirement imposed on Lynas has not been imposed to other heavy industries that co-share with Lynas due to aggregate cumulative impacts in the Gebeng Industrial Park.  To answer the pessimistic argument on the capacity of Malaysian Government in enforcing its environmental regulation, it is important to have an independent monitoring of the aggregate environmental impacts in Gebeng.

3)      Better multi-stakeholders engagement and consultation – The legacy of Lynas not undertaking a Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) has severely affected the social performance of  Lynas.  This, however, has assisted the Malaysian Government to review its EIA process and legislation requirement e.g. to include automatically any radio-active potential waste from heavy industry to conduct DEIA.  The significance of DEIA is on the public consultation aspects. However, this public engagement in many cases is not sufficient to promote the company’s “social license to operate.”  It is important for companies to continuously and voluntarily promote community and multi-stakeholders engagement in their activities.  As the middle class with better education in Malaysia society increases, they are demanding for a more transparent and open decision-making process, particularly for matters that could affect the environment where they live.  During this visit, it was revealed that the demand for public involvement in the decision making should be undertaken earlier in the investment planning process by the Malaysian government.

4)      Information sharing between technocratic and social-humanities disciplines – it is apparent that there is a need to have an integrated research in the rare earths field that considers the technology / technical aspects of rare earths and social / humanities implications.  Social studies may aid technocrats to ensure meaningful findings that suit the needs of the local community and vice versa. As the rare earth industry continuous to grow, this has also attracted international research institutes to develop a research focus on this field.  For this, the Malaysia research institutes and interested NGOs will be of strategic importance to collaborate in such initiatives.

Conclusion

Lynas has a vision of being “the global leader in Rare Earths for a sustainable future.” There is potential for regional economic development to occur in Malaysia alongside this vision. However, risk communication and conflict resolution strategies will need to be more proactively managed by the firm. At the same time, activists will need to be more pragmatic in their goals and consider the costs and benefits from a more science-based (or evidence-based) approach rather than through confrontational litigation strategies that are likely to fail.  Risk perception of radiation exposure can be managed through a vigorous monitoring program that has already been put in place by The Atomic Energy Licensing Board.  The trust-deficit between the company and the community can be bridged through a more deliberative public-private partnership around community engagement at regular intervals.

The demand for rare earths is likely to grow dramatically in coming years and Malaysia can play an important role in leading the way in showcasing how a modern processing facility can be effectively managed to minimize risk. Constructive engagement between civil society and industry needs to be facilitated by the government. New metrics to evaluate cumulative impacts and a willingness for industry to adapt accordingly through the life-cycle of the plant is likely to further the goals of making this project more acceptable. Much has been achieved by Malaysia in its development path and as with any industry from palm oil plantations to oil extraction to mineral process, there are trade-offs. Diversification of the economy through a variety of strategies to meet the demands of the local population as well as providing essential products for modern societies must remain a long-term objective as this project and others in the sector move forward.

Postscript and acknowledgements: The University of Queensland is in the process of establishing a rare earths research consortium involving universities, mining companies, recyclers, downstream manufacturers, governments, international agencies and civil society groups. Our goal will be to provide a forum for consolidating research that helps to improve the performance of this sector on ecological and social terms. We would like to acknowledge the logistical assistance (non-financial) accorded for the field visit by Lynas Corporation: Mike Vaisey – Vice President Research and Technology and Muthuchamy Suruli Bommu (Sustainable Project Research and Technology Leader); The University of Malaysia Pahang: Prof Dr. Badhrulhisham bin Abdul Aziz, p. Eng, M.I.E.M (Deputy vice chancellor for academic and international relation, University Malaysia Pahang) ; and The Academy of Sciences of Malaysia Dr Ahmad Ibrahim (Chief Executive Officer); Datuk Ir Dr Hj Ahmad Zaidee Laidin FASc (Council Member)  and Mr Loganathan Ponnambalam F.I.G.M – (Project Coordinator).

Comments

  1. hw looi
    Kuantan, Malaysia
    November 25, 2013, 7:58 am

    THE MAIN CAUSE OF THIS ANTI-LYNAS DEBACLE IS THAT LYNAS HAS BEEN FAR TOO HONEST AND FAR TOO TRANSPARENT ! ! !

    If Lynas has not been too honest and too transparent about their operations, they would have made the following more diplomatic but equally honest statement from the word go, and would have avoided all the irrational fears in the easily brainwashed population:

    “The concentrated ore from Mount Weld is only very slightly radioactive with a tiny radioactivity of 6 Bq/g from naturally occurring elements..

    Compare this with the

    WASTE FROM MALAYSIAN AMANG INDUSTRY > 100Bq/g and

    WASTE “SCALE AND SLUDGE” IN OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY

    ………………………………LIKE IN PETRONAS = 1,000 Bq/g

    For transportation purposes,

    A RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL IS DEFINED AS ANY MATERIAL WHICH HAS A SPECIFIC ACTIVITY GREATER THAN

    a …. > 74 Bq/g in USA (U.S.NRC Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

    b …. > 10 Bq/g (Thorium-232) in Australia and

    c …. > 1 Bq/g in Malaysia ! ! !

    As such, the Lynas ore can be considered as non-radioactive and is allowed to be transported freely to any country in the world (except Malaysia).

    The average radioactivity of the 3 so-called “waste” products is only 1.35 Bq/g .
    This is only marginally above the “safe to eat” level in the EU and the USA of 1.25 Bq/g and 1.2 Bq/g respectively.

    The “waste” in it’s moist form, with about 35% moisture, would have an average specific activity of only 0.9 Bq/g !

    A RADIOACTIVITY OF 0.9 Bq/g IS FIT TO BE EATEN (IF EDIBLE) UNDER US AND EU REGULATIONS ! ! !

    Regulatory limits on radioactivity in foods (source: IAEA)

    USA foodstuff = 1.20 Bq/g (1,200 Bq/kg)

    EU foodstuff = 1.25 Bq/g (1,250 Bq/kg)

    Accepted global limits on radioactivity levels in foods is 1000 Bq/kg (1,200 Bq/kg in the USA and 1,250 Bq/kg in the EU).

    Dominated by cesium-137 and SR-90, these levels were set by organisations like the IAEA and UNSCEAR after decades of study.”

    Dr Looi Hoong Wah
    FAMM, MB., ChB(Manchester), MRCS(England), MRCP(UK), MRCP(London)

  2. Danvers C
    Malaysia/USA
    April 22, 2013, 3:54 am

    @Antares

    Your own ‘political’ rethorics have actually outsmarted you. It’s not just to the extent of a certain amount of truth, but your blabbering of corruption and bribery within the ruling coalition government ranks are solid proof that you’re so pre-occupied with Politics rather than divulging the real truth about whether or not the LAMP is adhering to the IAEA recommendations, the DOSH and the DOE.

    I just do not understand the fact that you keep blabbering about the ruling coalition has been so corrupt and that we are not capable of regulating a company like Lynas Corp. The fact that the LL radioactive waste at Tioxide in Kemaman has been piling up about half the size of its company still remains a mystery! Who’s been regulating the waste? The Americans? The Australians? Or us?

  3. looihw
    March 18, 2013, 4:44 pm

    Study by scientists at John Hopkins University published in 1988 by American Journal of Epidemiology, concluded that, their study plus the fact that there is NO CONGENITAL DEFECTS DEMONSTRATED IN STUDIES ON THE ATOMIC BOMB SURVIVORS IN HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI, suggests that

    LOW DOSE RADIATION CANNOT CAUSE CONGENITAL DEFECTS.

    Even UNSCEAR has now admitted THAT RADIATION DOSES of LESS THAN ABOUT 10 rem (100 mSv ) per year ARE SAFE.

    (Note: 100 mSv = 5,000,000 % Lynas worst case scenario)

  4. looihw
    Malaysia
    March 18, 2013, 4:39 pm

    UNSCEAR ADMITS THAT THEY WERE WRONG TO IMPLY THAT THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL OF RADIATION !

    There IS a safe level and that is,

    RADIATION DOSES LESS THAN ABOUT 10 rem (100 mSv ) per year ARE SAFE.

    (Note: 100 mSv = 5,OO0,000 % Lynas worst case scenario)

    *
    Have a look at this article recommended by Nick Tsurikov, the International Radiation Safety Expert and Co-author of the IAEA Radiation Safety Report.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/01/11/like-weve-been-saying-radiation-is-not-a-big-deal/

    Excerpts of Article in Forbes:

    “UNSCEAR (THE UNITED NATIONS SCENTIFIC COMMITTEE ON THE EFFECTS OF ATOMIC RADIATION) HAS FINALLY ADMITTED THAT WE CAN’T USE THE LNT HYPOTHESIS TO PREDICT CANCER FROM LOW DOSES OF RADIATION.

    Now the Japanese people can start eating their own food again and stop being as afraid. Source: United Nations

    A very big report came out last month with very little fanfare.

    IT CONCLUDED WHAT WE IN NUCLEAR SCIENCE HAVE BEEN SAYING FOR DECADES –

    RADIATION DOSES LESS THAN ABOUT 10 rem ( 0.1 Sv ) ARE NO BIG DEAL.

    (Note: 0.1 Sv = 100 mSv or 50,000 times Lynas worst case scenario)

    The linear no-threshold dose hypothesis (LNT) does not apply to doses less than 10 rem (0.1 Sv), which is the region encompassing background levels around the world, and is the region of most importance to nuclear energy, most medical procedures and most areas affected by accidents like Fukushima.

    The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (UNSCEAR 2012) submitted the report that, among other things, states that uncertainties at low doses are such that UNSCEAR “does not recommend multiplying low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or below natural background levels.”

    You know, like everyone’s been doing since Chernobyl. Like everyone’s still doing with Fukushima.

    Finally, the world may come to its senses and not waste time on the things that aren’t hurting us and spend time on the things that are.

    And on the people that are in real need. Like the infrastructure and economic destruction wrought by the tsunami, like cleaning up the actual hot spots around Fukushima, like caring for the tens of thousands of Japanese living in fear of radiation levels so low that the fear itself is the only thing that is hurting them, like seriously preparing to restart their nuclear fleet and listening to the IAEA and the U.S. when we suggest improvements.

    The advice on radiation in this report will clarify what can, and cannot, be said about low dose radiation health effects on individuals and large populations.

    Background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 350 mrem (3.5 mSv) will not raise cancer rates or have any discernable effects on public health.

    Likewise, background doses going from 250 mrem (2.5 mSv) to 100 mrem (1 mSv) will not decrease cancer rates or effect any other public health issue.

    Note – although most discussions are for acute doses (all at once) the same amount as a chronic dose (metered out over a longer time period like a year) is even less effecting. So 10 rem (0.1 Sv) per year, either as acute or chronic, has no effect, while 10 rem per month would.

    UNSCEAR also found no observable health effects from last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima. No effects.

    The Japanese people can start eating their own food again, and moving back into areas only lightly contaminated with radiation levels that are similar to background in many areas of the world like Colorado and Brazil.”

    Dr Looi

  5. belimbla
    aussie
    December 14, 2012, 2:30 pm

    Mohamad: Australia is building in its own plant in the country we can,t help it if your government is greedy and I find it interesting that some of the people registered in the protest group live in china sounds like more than one interest here.

  6. Roy Corlett
    UK
    December 13, 2012, 1:44 pm

    The arguments over this processing plant seem to go round and round in circles and it seems clear that many people opposing the scheme are doing so with political ams in mind rather than real environmental concerns. This factory has not been built in isolation. It is on an established industrial estate. It will produce waste and Lynas have stated that this waste wil be turned into commercial product for onward sale. But they need to produce some of the waste (crushed rock with very low radiation levels) before they can come to an agreement to market it as a commercial product. Now if all this is successful there will be no waste. It will all be used for something. So there will be no need to create a huge storage area for the waste – there shouldn’t be any left. If the Lynas plans don’t work out – and they can’t sell the waste as a commercial product – then the firm has a major problem and at that stage those opposing the scheme will be quite justified in expressing their concerns. So wouldn’t it make sense to give Lynas the chance over the next six months to show that its plan will work – or would allowing that to happen completely undermine the political ends of many of the protesters?

  7. Antares
    Malaysia
    December 13, 2012, 11:31 am

    This is an entirely reasonable essay by Dr Michael Jeyakumar – one of the few truly honorable MPs to be found in the Malaysian parliament (he’s from the Socialist Party): http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/the-anti-lynas-movement-are-we-being-unreasonable-dr-jeyakumar-devaraj/

  8. Antares
    Malaysia
    December 13, 2012, 8:31 am

    @Jack Wong… there’s a certain amount of truth in your sweeping assertion that the Lynas issue has mutated into a mostly political one. Most thinking Malaysians (i,e., those not affiliated with the MCA, MIC or UMNO – the main components of the entirely corrupt Barisan Nasional ruling coalition) have had it up to here with government-controlled mass media that churn out the crudest form of propaganda in abject subservience to the power establishment. Nobody believes anything BN ministers say, even if it’s true. Their track record of corrupt wheelings and dealings goes back a couple of generations – and everybody who isn’t part of the BN gravy train has long been forced to endure outrageous displays of arrogance, mediocrity, unmitigated greed and dishonesty (the Umno mentri besar of Pahang being a classic example). So much so any corporate venture seen to be politically aligned with BN automatically gets infected with BN’s abysmal public relations profile (despite the untold millions they have squandered engaging top-rank Jewish spin-doctors like APCO Worldwide).

    When Nick Curtis began meeting with BN officials to discuss building a rare earth refinery on Malaysian shores, he must have been led to believe that a few strategic bribes in the right places would resolve all inconvenient environmental and social impact issues. His mistake was to completely overlook the political ferment incubating since March 2008 when BN very nearly lost control of the nation. Since then, instead of doing some serious soul-searching and making a sincere effort to stop insulting the public’s intelligence with its self-serving agenda. BN opted to go into overdrive in a last-ditch attempt to grab all the economic goodies before their old-style feudal warlords got booted out of power. The only way BN can possibly redeem itself is by eating humble pie and taking on the role of the Opposition for at least 10 years. Otherwise they would have to (mis)rule the country at gunpoint… and that would be even worse for busyness!

    One can safely assume, from his parroting of the official stand on all anti-establishment sentiments, that Jack Wong represents the exasperated and uncomprehending voice of the old guard, still in vigorous denial that the good old feudal days are gone and will never return.

  9. Jack Wong
    Malaysia
    December 13, 2012, 6:50 am

    The fact remains that the ‘radiation’ levels are so low that if the waste did not have the word “Lynas” or “LAMP” attached to it, the protesters would walk over it every day (road base) without thinking, or build their house out of it, or use it in many other ways that the recycled waste will become as useful materials.

    This is a political game being played with people’s lives and a fear campaign aimed at destroying a company in the hope of winning power.

    Shame on the opposition party, shame on the leaders of the AntiLynas campaign who have now revealed their real aims… to leverage this as a political platform for Wong Tack.

  10. Antares
    Malaysia
    December 12, 2012, 11:57 am

    Spurious notions like “profits” and “progress” should long have been exposed as gigantic scams. Humans are now split into three categories: (1) those who doggedly believe that science and technology will resolve all problems, conveniently forgetting that scientists and technical wizards have traditionally served the vested interests of the power elite and not the universal good of humankind and our fragile ecosystems; (2) those who have long realized the truth of what visionaries like Buckminster Fuller have been saying for the past 50 years – that archaic concepts of profit and loss have to be reassessed in view of new data on the nature of “reality” and that our energetic-synergetic interdependence must be factored into every human aspiration and endeavor, so that energy does not get squandered on useless forms of ego competitive activities (like warfare and weapons manufacture) but can be intelligently and prudently utilized to enhance the long-term well-being of the human. as well as more-than-human, environment (which means destructive and polluting economic activities like mining, drilling and logging must be immediately phased out); and (3) those who are kept so busy eking out a meager living they can’t be bothered what goes on beyond their immediate survival concerns, and therefore opt to leave bigger issues to the “experts.” As one who belongs in the second category, I cannot condone what the corrupt Barisan Nasional regime has done, viz., sign a shady deal with an Australian mining company allowing it to process rare earth ore on coastal swampland within 30 km of an area where at least 700,000 people live – without any thought as to how to safely dispose of toxic wastes and highly polluting run-offs. To add further insult to the injury, Lynas was offered a 12-year tax holiday in exchange for a mere 350 jobs and no significant benefit to Malaysia – apart from a few lucrative subcontracts with politically connected local firms and some heavy-duty grease on privileged palms.

  11. CHAN Chee Khoon
    University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur
    December 10, 2012, 10:57 pm

    I’ve earlier remarked that this matter won’t be settled on scientific & technical grounds, not least because there’s no consensus re: health risks from low level chronic irradiation by internal emitters. The renowned economist JM Keynes famously remarked that “there is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed, for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.” IAEA officers, being the good diplomats and international civil servants that they are, seldom engage with actually-existing institutional circumstances, preferring the comfort zone of their make-believe de-contextualised technocratic world. The Kuantan-Kemaman community doesn’t have that luxury – they have to deal with AELB as it actually exists, how it’s likely to operate as an embedded institution, rather than how it should conduct itself (in a properly professional manner). And the track record has been dismal. At the public forum on rare earths organised by the Academy of Sciences of Malaysia on 7 May 2012, I asked the AELB director general Raja Abdul Aziz what was being done about the open indiscriminate dumping of powdery thorium-cake wastes that had occurred in and around Ipoh in the 1980s (sworn court testimony of Mr Ng Toong Foo, lorry contractor hired by ARE in 1979). Most alarming was the ASM’s report that the thorium cake wastes from ARE contained not 1600ppm of thorium 232, but 360,000ppm! (ASM 2011, p.30, table 2.9). Thorium compounds are quite insoluble, and these would not have been dissolved into groundwater in the last 30 years. They might have been scattered to an extent by processes of natural dispersal, but the hotspots (at 6 known locations, others unidentified?) presumably still exist. AELB (and the Academy of Sciences) has been conspicuously silent about these continuing public health hazards in metropolitan Ipoh, even though reports of this high thorium content in ARE wastes, known to Nuklear Malaysia, began surfacing in the late 1980s.

  12. Gilbert Pesenti
    France
    December 9, 2012, 6:17 am

    The malaysian 12 years tax holiday looks more and more expensive.
    Why would anyone decide to build a A$1 billion plant in a controversial place when the raw material it uses comes from one of the safest places to do business in : Australia ?

    Supposing you had made that mistake and discovered during Lamp 1 construction that the Gebeng locals were troublesome ….would you double the bet and enlarge the plant there or build Lamp 2 …in Australia ?

    Curtis and Co are greedy ,naÏve and completely out of their depth when it comes to risk management . Time to go.

  13. Kai-Lit Phua
    Malaysia
    December 9, 2012, 3:23 am

    The fact remains that

    1. Huge amounts of wastes (radioactive wastes, as well as non-radioactive, but still toxic wastes) will be generated

    2. No long term waste management plan exists (a major recommendation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team

    3. No Permanent Disposal Facility (PDF) has been built (another major recommendation of the IAEA)

    4. This project is opposed by the Malaysian Medical Association and the Bar Council (organisation of Malaysian lawyers)

    Kai-Lit Phua, PhD
    (public health professor)

  14. John Sorey
    Australia
    December 9, 2012, 2:14 am

    The IAEA neither gave Lynas the green light nor concluded that the Lynas plant in Malaysia is safe! It merely stated that from its assessment for the pre-licensing stage, it could not find any non-compliance issue.

    In fact the IAEA made 11 prescriptive recommendations which implicitly showed its discontent with the Malaysian regulator:

    Technical recommendations
    1. The AELB should require Lynas to submit, before the start of operations, a plan setting
    out its intended approach to the long term waste management, in particular management of the water leach purification (WLP) solids after closure of the plant, together with a safety casel in support of such a plan. The safety case should address issues such as:
    (a) Future land use (determined in consultation with stakeholders);
    (b) The dose criterion for protection of the public;
    (c) The time frame for the assessment;
    (d) Safety functions (e.g. containment, isolation, retardation);
    (e) The methodology for identification and selection of scenarios — this must include the scenario in which the residue storage facility at the Lynas site becomes the disposal facility for the WLP solids;
    (f) Any necessary measures for active and/or passive institutional control.
    As the safety case is developed, the radiological impact assessment (RIA) for the facility as a whole should be updated accordingly.

    1 In terms of the IAEA Safety Glossary, a safety case is a collection of arguments and evidence in support of the safety of a facility or activity. This will normally include the findings of a safety assessment and a statement of the confidence in these findings.

    2. The AELB should require Lynas to submit, before the start of operations, a plan for
    managing the waste from the decommissioning and dismantling of the plant at the end of its life. The RIA and decommissioning plan should be updated accordingly.
    3. The AELB should require that the results of exposure monitoring and environmental
    monitoring once the plant is in operation be used to obtain more reliable assessments of doses to workers and members of the public, and the RIA updated accordingly. The AELB should also require that dose reduction measures be implemented where appropriate in accordance with the international principle of optimization of radiation protection.
    4. The AELB should develop criteria that will allow the flue gas desulphurization (FGD)
    and neutralization underflow (NUF) residues to be declared non-radioactive for the purposes of regulation, so that they can be removed from the site and, if necessary in terms of environmental regulation, controlled as scheduled waste.
    5. The AELB should implement a mechanism for establishing a fund for covering the cost of the long term management of waste including decommissioning and remediation. The AELB should require Lynas to make the necessary financial provision. The financial provision should be regularly monitored and managed in a transparent manner.
    6. For regulating the Lynas project, the Malaysian Government should ensure that the
    AELB has sufficient human, financial and technical resources, competence and independence.
    7. The AELB and the relevant Ministries should establish a programme for regularly and
    timely updating the Regulations in accordance with the most recent international standards. In particular, regulations pertinent to NORM activities relevant to the proposed rare earths processing facility should be considered to be updated.
    Public communications recommendations
    8. The AELB should enhance the understanding, transparency and visibility of its
    regulatory actions in the eyes of the public, particularly those actions related to inspection and enforcement of the proposed rare earths processing facility.
    9. The AELB should intensify its activities regarding public information and public
    involvement. In particular, it should:
    (a) Develop and make available easily understandable information on radiation safety and on the various steps in the licensing and decision making processes;
    (b) Inform and involve interested and affected parties of the regulatory requirements for the proposed rare earths processing facility and the programme for review, inspection and enforcement;
    (c) Make available, on a routine basis, all information related to the radiation safety of the proposed rare earths processing facility (except for security, safeguards and commercially sensitive information) and ensure that the public knows how to gain access to this information.

    10. Lynas, as the party responsible for the safety of the proposed rare earths processing facility, should be urged to intensify its communication with interested and affected parties in order to demonstrate how it will ensure the radiological safety of the public and the environment.
    Follow-up recommendation
    11. Based on recommendations 1-10 above, the Government of Malaysia should prepare an action plan that:
    (a) Indicates how the above-mentioned recommendations are to be addressed;
    (b) Sets out the corresponding time schedule for the actions;
    (c) Is geared to the possibility of an IAEA-organized follow-up mission, which will review the fulfillment of recommendations 1-10 above in, say, one to two years’ time, in line with other IAEA review missions.

  15. CHAN Chee Khoon
    University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur
    December 9, 2012, 1:29 am

    There are limitations to “evidence-based policy” in this instance because there’s no scientific/technical consensus on the question of health risks from chronic exposure to low-level ionizing radiation from internal emitters (radioactive particles ingested into the human body, especially pertinent to the Lynas refinery given that the solid wastes will be in powdery form and potentially ingestable through various routes). In a situation of scientific uncertainty such as this, one can use the same body of ambiguous, conflicting evidence to argue for diametrically opposite positions, which is the case now.

    The lack of consensus:

    1) The existing international norms for safe thresholds for exposure to ionizing radiation (1 mSv/yr for the general public, and 20 mSv/year for occupational settings) were derived from quantitative risk models developed by ICRP which were calibrated against the findings from follow-up studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts (modelling the effects from instantaneous, uniform whole body exposure to mainly gamma irradiation by an external source).
    2) In the last 3 decades – beginning with Seascale, continuing with Chernobyl, and most recently, two large scale (statistically robust) national epidemiological studies from Germany (KiKK, 2008) and France (Geocap, 2012), there has been accumulating evidence of excess childhood leukemia in situations where the measured or estimated levels of external radiation were 100x-1000x below the safe threshold of 1mSv/year (ppt attached)
    3) Among the competing hypotheses which were proposed to account for these unexplained excesses of childhood leukemia was the possibility that the existing risk models and their derived safe thresholds did not sufficiently take into account the health risks from internal emitters. To address this concern, the UK govt (Dept Health jointly with Dept Environment) convened an independent expert panel in 2001 (CERRIE, chaired by Professor Dudley Goodhead, Director of the Medical Research Council Unit on Radiation and Genomic Stability). In 2004, the expert panel submitted their report, and their conclusions were summarized in these two paragraphs: “Biological Evidence: The views of the Committee were divided on many interpretational aspects of the biological data. On induced genomic instability, bystander effects, mini-satellite mutation induction and specific issues of micro-dosimetry, there was general agreement that many of the phenomena were real and some may well be an integral part of cellular and tissue response. There was, however, substantial disagreement as to whether the available data are sufficient to draw firm conclusions on the implications for radiation-induced health effects. A minority of the Committee held the view that the data clearly provided a major challenge to current estimates of low dose health effects and these members emphasised the implications for internal emitters. Other members were less persuaded on the scientific strength of the case. Many of these members believed that considerably more knowledge was needed and some considered that current epidemiological measures of risk were likely to incorporate contributions from these novel cellular responses, albeit with some low dose/low dose rate uncertainties. (CERRIE 2004, p.116). Epidemiological Evidence: All members of the Committee believe that the epidemiological evidence is compelling for moderate and high levels of exposure to internally incorporated radionuclides producing a raised risk of adverse health effects in those exposed. All but one member of the Committee believe that the low level intake of radionuclides leads to some increased risk of adverse health effects as a result of the internal irradiation of organs and tissues. Some members think that the epidemiological evidence as a whole does not suggest that the predictions of current risk models are materially in error. Other members consider that these models may underestimate risks from intakes of certain radionuclides by relatively modest factors. Two members think that current models underestimate risks from intakes of radionuclides by very large factors. Conversely, one member thinks that any observed increases in risks at low doses are most likely to have causes other than radiation, ie current models overestimate risks at low doses. Consequently, there is little consensus amongst members on the epidemiological evidence as a whole. (CERRIE 2004, p.117)”1). In short, opinions among the UK panel members ranged from negligible adverse effects to an underestimation of risk by at least a 100 fold – clearly no consensus among the experts.
    4) The Precautionary Principle – in situations of scientific and technical uncertainty, err on the side of caution – is a well-known and widely accepted legal principle in national and international jurisprudence. In California for instance, this principle is operationalised by requiring Molycorp (in the process of re-opening what was formerly the largest rare earth mine in the world) to comply with a zero liquid wastes discharge requirement despite the limited solubility of thorium compounds in most circumstances.
    5) The Kuantan-Kemanan community, in their instinctive responses, have got it right: “if the plant is so safe, why not operate it in Australia?” Indeed, Arafura Resources will be operating a rare earth refinery in Australia (Whyalla, South Australia), but the Australian authorities operationalise the precautionary principle by requiring Arafura to transport its radioactive solid wastes all the way back to the originating mine site at Nolans Bore in the Northern Territories for secure burial. Arafura presumably will make less profits than Lynas. Safer refining and disposal practices also mean more expensive rare earths – are consumers prepared to pay more for their smart phones? is Apple prepared to trim its profit margins? etc “Nick Curtis, Najib Razak, et al should relocate and bring their families especially their young (grand)children to live in Kuantan/Gebeng” – this is the moral and ethical core of the resistance and its arguments i.e. those living and working in the vicinity must have the decisive say in the matter. Especially in light of the scientific and technical uncertainties on health risks from internal emitters, Lynas and the Malaysian authorities can’t simply wish away the risk perception and unease of mind of the Kuantan-Kemaman public, along with its collateral adverse effects on livelihoods and the local economy (property values, tourism and ancillary industries, seafood products etc). That’s the reality that needs to be dealt with, and the local residents must have the over-riding say.

  16. Lee Tan
    Australia
    December 9, 2012, 1:01 am

    Complying with Malaysian law is hardly a fuss because its environmental law is at least 20 years out of date. The Government approved the construction of the refinery without any public consultation; with no waste management plan – so no one really know how Lynas would dispose of its massive amount of radioactive waste safely in the long term. The project is granted a temporary operating licence with only a preliminary environmental impact assessment done – when it is located in a peat swamp near fishing ground of local communities. No social impact assessment was ever considered let alone one done to better understand the impact.

    It is no wonder that the Stop Lynas campaign is now Malaysia’ biggest environmental action! Lynas will not get the social licence it needs to operate. It has resorted to using PR to spin its way but the rooster will come home to roost !

  17. Mohamad Zawawi Ahmad
    Malaysia
    December 9, 2012, 12:32 am

    Since the waste product is deemed safe why not Australia accept these waste products and return them to the mines in Australia where they came from or bury them in the vast desert of Australia? Australia’s refusal speaks volume about the imminent danger of the waste products which will only be discernible in the future.

  18. Hazri Haili
    Malaysia
    December 8, 2012, 7:10 am

    I really appreciate this article. The condition in Malaysia with regards to this topic has become (pardon my pun) really toxic. There have been so many misinformation by those for and opposing the building of this plant in Malaysia. In addition to that the behaviour of the current administration in Malaysia to bull-doze this plant makes the citizen of Malaysia to distrust this issue more.
    I sincerely believe the motivation behind all the protest is not only about environmental impact but a concerted move to remove a corrupt and ineffective administration.
    I really do appreciate this article and what is saying. For the sake of clarity and accountability, can the National Geographic inform us if this article motivated or paid for by Lynas or any related lobby group? I trust and believe in the integrity of the author and the publication but those opposing Lynas might not.. Can you please do this?

  19. JinHou
    Malaysia
    December 8, 2012, 2:30 am

    What this article lack is details. And as the devil is always in the details, much of the conclusions are misconstrued based on biased info that Lynas or the government spew out. For example, the author failed to note that the economic benefit is limited because
    1) Lynas has signed 10 year supply agreement with international customers. Unlike China where domestic rare earth price is cheaper than international price, price of rare earth is the same in Msia and overseas, thereby reducing the incentive for companies to relocate to Malaysia
    2) Malaysia has virtually zero rare earths reseves
    3) The primary expense of LAMP is the ore from Australia, therefore the multiplier effect is greatly reduced.
    All these details paints a lopsided deal, where minor economic benefits are greatly inflated whereas the residents get to deal with the waste. Please be more objective and do your homework and not just regurgitate what Lynas and the Malaysian government tells you.

  20. Ron Kaye
    Seattle, Washington, USA
    December 7, 2012, 11:53 pm

    I commend you on your intuitive blog and “hope” the parties can take what you have offered in terms of resolving the gaps between themselves. Lynas has gone out of its way to comply with all Malaysian requirements and even more. The fact that the IAEA studied the Lynas operation and gave it the green light is evidence that the LAMP is safe and suitable for the region. I trust that the reasonable persons involved will come together and find common ground which will benefit all involved. This project can and will ultimately be good for the community and for Lynas. They will become good neighbors eventually, as their interests are really not that far apart. It’ll take a little time; but, it will happen.