The doughnut of justice

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 February 2012 © The Nut Graph

ECONOMIC development and jobs or toxic waste and radiation? The Lynas rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan was granted a temporary operating license by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board on 1 Feb 2012. Lynas claims its company contributes towards “sustainable development” and helps create jobs as rare earth materials are increasingly being used to manufacture green technology products.

But thousands gathered on 26 Feb 2012 to oppose the plant, pointing out that the process of refining rare earths is toxic, which may impact local communities and the environment if not handled properly. This was the case with a plant in Bukit Merah, which left behind radioactive waste.

Thousands gathered for Himpunan Hijau 2.0 to protest the Lynas rare earth refinery in Kuantan, 26 Feb 2012 (© Juana Jaafar)

So, what should take precedence?  Promoting economic growth or preventing toxic waste? Is sustainable development possible? Or must ecosystems and local communities be sacrificed for the general population to achieve economic growth? Is there a way to develop and achieve prosperity while upholding human rights and living within the Earth’s ecological limits?

A safe and just space

Oxfam International senior researcher Kate Raworth has proposed a new framework to think about sustainable development, and it’s shaped like a doughnut.

In her 3 Feb 2012 paper A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?, Raworth combines two boundaries to provide a framework for sustainable development.

Doughnut of justice (source:

The inner boundary consists of the “social foundation” — basic human essentials such as food, water, energy security and gender equality. The doughnut sets a minimum base which must be achieved, below which lies human depravation.

The outer boundary constitutes the “environmental ceiling” of our planet’s nine biophysical systems including the climate, ozone layer, ocean, and freshwater sources. Leading scientists have warned that crossing the critical threshold of these nine areas could lead to drastic and irreversible changes to our environment.

“The space in between the two boundaries — the doughnut — is where inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place,” states Raworth.

Although sustainable development has been talked about since 1987, Raworth’s ideas are noteworthy as she combines two important frameworks — human rights and environmental sustainability.

Duncan Green (source:

After all, as noted by Oxfam Head of Research Duncan Green, “an environmentally safe space could be compatible with appalling poverty and injustice”. Conversely, surging economic development could lead to devastating environmental effects.

Therefore, it is essential to incorporate both frameworks into the concept of sustainable development.

“Human rights advocates have long focused on the imperative of ensuring every person’s claim to life’s essentials, while ecological economists have highlighted the need to situate the economy within environmental limits.

“The framework brings the two approaches together in a simple, visual way, creating a closed system that is bounded by human rights on the inside and environmental sustainability on the outside,” writes Raworth.

The Oxford economics graduate notes that conventional economic indicators such as GDP growth have failed to take into account the social and environmental impact of economic activities.

“Within this framework, social and environmental stresses are no longer portrayed as economic ‘externalities’. Instead, the planetary and social boundaries are the starting point for assessing how economic activity should take place,” she states.

She adds that our economies should focus on bringing humanity within the doughnut – to eradicate poverty, social inequality and increase human well-being within planetary limits.

“[The doughnut] implies no limit on increasing human well-being; indeed, it is within this safe and just space that humanity has the best chance to thrive,” she thinks.

The doughnut in Malaysia

Raworth (source:

Raworth’s ideas build on existing ones that take into account other indices besides economics and production to demonstrate well-being. Indicators like the Gross National Happiness Index developed by Bhutan and the Happy Planet Index introduced by UK’s New Economics Foundation have emerged in recent years to measure human well-being and environmental sustainability in development.

But by using Raworth’s doughnut, it becomes clear that Malaysia, with its addiction to mega projects, is still trapped in the old mindset of pursuing “economic growth” per se, causing local communities’ needs and environmental concerns to take a backseat.

In Sarawak for example, the state government said constructing 12 mega dams as part of its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy initiative would spur more economic growth. However, indigenous communities are up in arms as they would be displaced from their ancestral homes and have formed a Save Rivers Network to rally against the dams.

The dams have little to do with the communities who will be displaced. They are expected to power up energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting plants and create jobs for locals, or migrants, where the industries would be located.

To apply Raworth’s doughnut, the dams’ construction stresses both the inner social boundary and the outer environmental boundary. While it may create jobs, it would destroy the indigenous communities‘ livelihoods, cultures and heritage, as well as submerge large areas of forests and wildlife habitat.

The Orang Asli community demonstrating during the Himpunan Hijau 2.0 protest (© Juana Jaafar)

If Raworth’s concept were to be applied, the policymakers should weigh heavily the views and needs of the indigenous communities involved. Whether they would benefit from the dam project, for example, by being hired by the industries the dams benefit. And more importantly, whether they have any desire to work in those factories.

Raworth’s inner boundary cites “voice” as one of the social foundations. Policymakers would have to respect indigenous communities’ rights and let them determine the kind of economic, social and cultural development they desire, as recognised under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

Lynas and the doughnut

Similar considerations need to be made in the Lynas case. Yes, Lynas will create jobs and bring in foreign direct investment. But is this needed to raise the surrounding communities’ social foundation — to provide better income, education, health and jobs — or can this be done through other means?

On the environment side, large amounts of water are needed to process the rare earths ore. Would the water be treated before it is released back to the rivers and ocean? How would it impact local fisheries? And what about the radioactive waste? Will it be stored next to the refinery, since Australia has refused to take it back? What steps are being taken to prevent radiation pollution?

Malaysian policymakers may not have heard of Raworth’s “doughnut of justice” as dubbed by US environmental news portal GristBut what is clear from it is that more questions need to be asked and answered by our authorities to justify their approval of the Lynas refinery. More public consultation should have been done and is still needed. More information is required.

Youth protesting against the Lynas rare earth refinery during Himpunan Hijau 2.0 (© Juana Jaafar)

The same principles need to be applied for other projects that have a significant impact on local communities and the environment, such as whether or not Malaysia will go nuclear in 2013 or early 2014.

We’ve gone past the age of “the government knows best”. Transparency and accountability are essential in any government decision-making processes in sustainable development. As Gristenvironmental writer David Roberts points out when commenting on Raworth’s doughnut, development should no longer focus solely on economic growth, “but what kind of growth and to whose benefit?”

Gan Pei Ling thinks Raworth’s doughnut of justice should be introduced to all policymakers in Malaysia.

Ethical fashion: Greening your wardrobe

by Gan Pei Ling / 30 January 2012 © The Nut Graph


HAVE you ever wondered what your clothes are made of? How materials such as cotton or polyester are produced, and by whom? And do fashion companies pay our farmers and factory workers fairly for their labour?

I was oblivious to the environmental and social woes associated with conventional cotton farming until I read the book The Story of Stuff recently. The use of child labour and pesticides at cotton farms, the toxic processes involved in bleaching and dying the garments, and the use of sweatshop labour are just among some of the issues highlighted.

Later, I also learnt that processes to produce petroleum-based fabrics like nylon and polyester are energy-intensive and release greenhouse gas. It was perhaps naïve of me to have assumed that companies would uphold human rights standards and take care of the environment while attempting to maximise profits.

Troubled, I started searching online for better alternatives and stumbled upon the Ethical Fashion Forum – made up of businesses that aim to design, source and manufacture clothing in environmentally friendly ways, and which benefit local communities.

While many eco fashion labels have yet to make it to Malaysian shores, I found several online guides to sustainable fashion practices for consumers. I adapted them and formed four strategies to green my wardrobe before making new purchases for the year.

1. Cherish your current garments

A tree hugger (

As Warren McLaren wrote in TreeHugger: “The greenest garments are those you already own. No more resources are required to get them to you. No more materials extraction, manufacturing, shipping, retailing, [etc.].”

Wear, wash and dry your clothing with care so that they last longer. When they become worn out, consider using them as rags instead of filing up landfills.

2. Reorganise your wardrobe

Running out of outfit ideas and tempted to buy new attire? Reorganise your wardrobe first so that you would have a clearer idea what you already own. Most of us own more clothing than we really need and have at least a few outfits that we rarely, or never, wear. Find new ways to mix and match your garments.

If you’re up for a creative challenge, select six garments – excluding underwear, shoes and accessories – and wear only these six for an entire month. Called Six Items Or Less, this global experiment started in 2010 aims to get the public to rethink what they are wearing and consuming. Document and share your experience. You’re likely to end up with several fresh ideas to mix and match your clothes and accessories after this special month.

3. Shop vintage and local

If you do have to buy, consider going vintage. From casual wear to evening dress, you’ll find many pre-loved items in good condition at affordable prices at local bazaars or online boutiques.

Buy classic styles and colours that will not age.

If you’re looking for accessories, consider buying reasonably priced handmade items fromindigenous people and local entrepreneurs instead of heading straight to departmental stores. The proceeds would support their livelihoods, preserve their crafts and cultures (for the Orang Asli/Asal), and encourage the growth of creative entrepreneurs.

4. Go organic and vegan

(Source: Nukleus Facebook page)

I’ve put this last as organic fashion brands are still relatively hard to find in Malaysia. The only two brands I’m aware of are Nukleus, which sells eco-friendly underwear, and Mell Basics, which offers organic t-shirts and dresses for women.

The truth is, organic wear tends to be pricier. Organic cotton is still costlier to grow, harvest and manufacture as the industry has yet to reach economies of scale. Nevertheless, if you can afford it, go organic.

From foodelectronics and cosmetics to clothing, the new consumption habits inspired by The Story of Stuffvideo and book are slowly changing the way I live.

True, I’m often upset to find out that the processes involved in making these products may have hurt local communities and the environment. Some may prefer to remain ignorant to spare themselves the guilt trip. But these human rights and environmental issues will not go away just because we refuse to acknowledge and address them.

Only when more and more consumers are aware can we encourage farmers, companies and governments to clean up the industry. Then we can wear our garments comfortably with a clear conscience that they were produced in eco-friendly ways.

Gan Pei Ling recommends Eco Chic: The Savvy Shopper’s Guide to Ethical Fashion by The Ecologist editor Matilda Lee to readers interested to learn more about sustainable fashion. She believes it is possible to live sustainably and be fashionable at the same time.

Lynas: What’s the fuss?

by Gan Pei Ling / 19 December 2011 © The Nut Graph

RECENTLY, local independent filmmakers released four short parodies to raise public awareness on the potential hazards of radioactive waste that is expected to be left behind by the Lynas rare earth refinery in Pahang.

Concerned with the public health impact of the processing plant located approximately 25km from Kuantan, local communities have formed anti-Lynas groups, held talks and rallies, and even raised their own funds to travel to Australia to lobby foreign lawmakers.

But the Pahang government, Lynas Corp as well as an Australian minister have claimed that the refinery is safe and meets international standards. What exactly is a rare earth refinery? Is it really dangerous? What impact will it have on the environment and people’s lives? What is the fuss really about?

What is the Lynas project all about?

Rare earth metals are increasingly being used to manufacture high-tech products from smart phones to hybrids cars to bombs. Despite its name, rare earths are relatively abundant and can be found in many countries.

However, the process of refining rare earth ore, which often contains radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium, leaves behind thousands of tonnes of low-level radioactive waste. Malaysia learnt the lesson the hard way from Bukit Merah in Perak, where Mitsubishi Chemical is still spending millions cleaning up the site two decades after the refinery was closed in 1992.

Consequently, not many countries are keen to refine rare earths and China now mines and refines 95% of global supply. Lynas’s nearly completed RM700 million refinery in Gebeng will be the first rare earth processing plant to be built outside China in nearly three decades.

Lynas will be shipping the ore from Mount Weld, Western Australia to be processed in Gebeng. Once up and running, the Lynas refinery will break China’s monopoly on global rare earth supply.

Impact on environment and people?

The main concerns that have been raised about the refinery are related to the operating plant’s infrastructure and its waste management plant.

The New York Times reported on 29 June 2011 that current and former engineers of the Lynas plant have expressed concerns about the plant’s construction and design flaws.

Concerns have already been raised over the radioactive waste management centre (© Agensi Nuklear Malaysia |

“The problems [the engineers] detail include structural cracks, air pockets and leaks in many of the concrete shells for 70 containment tanks, some of which are larger than double-decker buses. Ore…would be mixed with powerful acids to make a slightly radioactive slurry that would be pumped through the tanks, with operating temperatures of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The engineers also say that almost all of the steel piping ordered for the plant is made from standard steel, which they describe as not suited for the corrosive, abrasive slurry. Rare earth refineries in other countries make heavy use of costlier stainless steel or steel piping with ceramic or rubber liners,” The New York Times journalist Keith Bradsher highlighted. There were other construction concerns.

Lynas Corp executive chairperson Nicholas Curtis has dismissed the influential daily’s report as arising from “debate” that is to be expected among engineers. Curtis added that all the issues have since been resolved and gave an assurance that the plant would be safe. However, he did not respond to the specific engineering flaws that were raised in The New York Timesreport except to state that “every piece of piping has been engineered in accordance with the necessary conditions to contain that material safely and there is a wide variety of materials used in the piping”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also proclaimed that the Lynas refinery’s overall design and operations procedures meet international radiation safety standards. However, after a June 2011 visit, nine IAEA experts made 11 recommendations to improve the refinery’s safety to our government regulator, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board. IAEA recommended that Lynas should be required to fulfill the conditions below before being allowed to start operations:

1. To submit a plan setting out its intended approach to long-term waste management, in particular of water leach purification (WLP) solids, after the plant’s closure. This plan must take into account various safety aspects and protocol.

2. To submit a plan for managing the waste from the decommissioning and dismantling of the plant at the end of its life.

3. To make the necessary financial provision for establishing a fund to cover the cost of the long-term management of waste including decommissioning and remediation.

4. To intensify its communication with interested and affected parties in order to demonstrate how it will ensure the public’s and the environment’s radiological safety.

Lessons from Bukit Merah?

Dr Tan Ka Kheng

In a 2 Dec 2011 public forum at the Bar Council, chemical and environmental engineer Dr Tan Ka Kheng estimated that Lynas was expected to produce 230,000 tonnes of toxic waste annually. This will amount to 6.9 million tonnes of waste in the 30 years the refinery is expected to operate.

He claimed that 1,000 hectares of land would be needed to bury the waste but a permanent dump site to store this waste has yet to be identified in Malaysia.

“Who will foot the cost to manage this waste and decommission the refinery – Lynas or Malaysian taxpayers?” he asked. In 1987, Tan was detained without trial for two years under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during Operasi Lalang for speaking out on Bukit Merah.

“There were eight leukemia cases in Bukit Merah within a five kilometer radius in a span of five years. Seven (patients) have since died,” said occupational health and safety specialist Dr T Jayabalan also at the Bar Council forum. Dr Jayabalan investigated the health impact of the Asian Rare Earth plant on the Bukit Merah community in the 1980s. He said based on an academic study, there should only have been one leukemia case every 30 years in a population the size of Bukit Merah’s then.

Dr Jayabalan

“It wasn’t a coincidence. The children I tested had high levels of lead in their bodies. When I arranged for them to be moved out of their community for a period of time, their blood lead level decreased significantly,” Dr Jayabalan testified.

Learning from Bukit Merah’s painful lessons, Kuantan residents have valid grounds to demand that Lynas make public its long-term waste management plan to allay their fear of radioactive leakages.

Be it in China or Malaysia, rare earth refineries are here to stay with rising global demand for the metals. But as in the case with radioactive waste produced from nuclear power, a permanent dumpsite, remote from human population, is difficult to find to bury harmful, toxic waste.

And the pertinent moral question remains: Do we want to continue to leave behind such a toxic legacy that will likely outlive our smart phones, hybrid cars and human civilizations?

Gan Pei Ling is not against the rare earth refinery but supports community groups’ efforts to hold the government and Lynas accountable. Public health interests should always trump corporate profit.

Ways to go organic

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 November 2011 © The Nut Graph

Organic pumpkins (© Richard Smith | Flickr)

WE are what we eat. But how often do we think about where our food comes from and how is it processed?

I started taking an interest in organic food due to health and ethical concerns. It is encouraging to observe growing consumer interest in organic products and the mushrooming of retail outlets such as Country Farm Organics, Justlife Shop and Little Green Planet.

But while organic food is increasingly accessible to the public, it is still not necessarily affordable for all. On top of that, I’m often put off by blatant claims like “100% Natural” made by certain farmers or manufacturers.

How do we know if the food is truly organic and what are some of the certification schemes we can rely on? Is it possible for consumers to go organic with a limited budget?

Organic certifications

A common misconception surrounding organic farming is that it merely involves agriculture without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

In reality, it is more complex than that and involves sustainable agricultural practices that should minimise soil erosion, protect water quality and wildlife as well as safeguard workers’ rights.

Well-known foreign organic certifications include, among others:

  • Australia’s National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA),
  • Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS),
  • the US’s National Organic Program (NOP),
  • Sweden’s KRAV; and
  • Netherland’s Skal.

L-r: NASAA logo (source:; JAS logo (source:; USDA logo, KRAV logo and Skal logo (source:

Skim Organik Malaysia (source:

While previously it was free-for-all in Malaysia, since 2011 only products certified under the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Ministry’s Skim Organik Malaysia(SOM) can be labelled as “organic”.

Those who claim their products to be “organic” without SOM certification can be fined up to RM5,000 for breaching Food Regulations 1985. However, consumers should still be wary.

“Discerning consumers should be careful and ask for certification,” said Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (Cetdem) chairperson Gurmit Singh in an email interview.

Gurmit Singh (file pic)

The veteran environmentalist also advises the public to read product labels and encourages them to visit organic farms and even grow their own produce.

Cetdem operates an organic farming community centre and regularly organises Organic Day in the Klang Valley, which allows consumers to meet organic farmers, producers and retailers. It also published a local organic guide book in 2009.

Shopping organic on a limited budget

“As a beginner, you can stretch your dollar by buying local fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking at home,” said Justlife Shop chief executive officer Callie Tai.

Eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, is still better than consuming processed foods and other less healthy alternatives, according to the US-based Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce.

Organic pineapples (© Noah Markus | Flickr)

The 2011 guide shows fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues and are therefore the most important to buy organic. The top three are apples, celery and strawberries.

Alternatively, consumers can switch to the least contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables like sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus and mangos, as ranked by the US-EWG list. However, agricultural practices can differ from country to country and even from farm to farm, and consumers would do well to be aware of alleged claims by their local watchdogs about excessive pesticide use or other chemicals used to accelerate the ripening of fruits.

Next, Tai recommends switching the essentials such as cooking oil, rice, salt, sweeteners and condiments in your kitchen.

“These essentials may seem more expensive compared to conventional products but you don’t use a lot of it each time and you will stop feeding your body synthetic chemicals that can’t be metabolised,” added the social entrepreneur.

Eco-enzyme, for household cleaning (© Lainie Yeoh)

Subsequently, start switching your conventional synthetic chemical-based household cleaning products to eco-friendly ones such as baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and eco-enzymes.

Tai pointed out that it would be more economical to go organic in the long run as one would end up saving on medical bills by having a stronger immune system and healthier body.

Changing conventional habits

“There is plenty of information about organic living in books and on the Internet. What is difficult is to inspire people to start reading and practising it,” said Tai.

Indeed, for people like me who have grown used to the convenience of fast food and processed food, it is difficult to switch to organic. In addition, I grew up in a quick-fix society that is often motivated by short-term, not long-term benefits.

But I do strongly believe in the core principles of organic agriculture, and that as intelligent beings, surely humans are capable of producing and consuming food without adversely affecting our own health and ecosystems.

By identifying real organic food via recognised organic certifications and by budgeting carefully to start shopping organic step by step, it is possible to lead a more sustainable way of life and leave a lighter footprint on Earth.

Gan Pei Ling plans to become an organic farmer one day so that she can produce healthy food for her family, friends and local community.

Development? Really? For whom?

by Gan Pei Ling / 17 October 2011 © The Nut Graph

MOST of us living in Peninsular Malaysia take electricity for granted as we have hardly experienced a blackout since the 1990s. But how many of us have stopped for a moment to think where the electricity, that allows us to turn on our TVs and computers, comes from?

What are the impacts of the power plants that generate our electricity — be they coal, hydropower and perhaps in the future, nuclear — on the environment and local communities living near these plants?

Coal plant and fishes


At a climate and energy forum in Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 Oct 2011, Peninsular Inshore Fishermen Action Network president Jamaluddin Mohamad, from Johor, talked about the impact of the Tanjung Bin coal plant.

“They are using chlorine to prevent sea water from corroding the pipes in their power plant. But it is polluting the ocean, and the water that they use to cool the plant is being released back to the sea in high temperature. Our catch has been dwindling over the years,” Jamaluddin told the forum that was jointly organised by Third World Network, Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

Run by independent power producer Malakoff Corp Bhd, the 2,100MW Tanjung Bin coal plant was built in 2003. The power producer intends to expand the plant’s capacity by another 1,000MW.

Jamaluddin noted that Tanjung Bin was rapidly developing into an industrial area: “The areas where we can fish are shrinking and becoming increasingly limited.”

He said none of the affected communities are against “development” but the coal plant and rapid industrial development are threatening their livelihoods: “That’s why we’re protesting against the coal plant’s expansion.”

Dams and livelihoods

Across the South China Sea, natives in Sarawak have been displaced by the Bakun dam and more will be displaced by 12 dams the state government is planning to build to boost its power capacity to 7,000MW, over 600% of its 2008 capacity.

Philip Jau

Philip Jau, a Kayan from the Baram valley, said 20,000 people from various communities will be displaced by the Baram dam the Sarawak government intends to build. “This does not include those who are living downstream yet. Up to 38,900 hectares of our native customary land will be submerged. Our land is our life. We cannot live without it. It is as simple as that,” said Philip.

The Baram dam will also cause deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Philip said the communities affected by these dams are establishing a network to create a united movement against what he described as the “damned” dams. “We want electricity but we hope the government will explore other alternatives like micro-hydro, which is more environmentally-friendly, though it may not generate as much profit as building a mega dam,” he said.

Philip said he has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the affected communities from Bakun were relocated to. “They’re suffering. Most of the villagers feel that they have no future,” said Philip. The communities in Baram do not want to suffer the same fate with good reason.

Of broken promises

The Bakun dam flooded 69,000 hectares of land, around the size of Singapore, and forced the relocation of 10,000 people. Construction began in 1996 and the project eventually cost RM7.5bil.

Wing Mikiu

Wing Mikiu from the Sungai Asap settlement told the forum the Sarawak government only allocated three acres of land to each family that were relocated from Bakun in 1999. “My family has eight children. Three acres of land is not enough for us. We’ve 2,000 new couples in our settlement to date and most of them have no land [to cultivate],” said Wing.

He said the government promised to build the villagers a new town with an airport, jetty, highway and even an international school in the effort to persuade villagers to leave their ancestral homes. But today, many youths have moved to Bintulu or other towns due to the lack of job opportunities in Sungai Asap.

To add insult to injury, Wing said the compensation villagers received for their now submerged native customary lands range from RM0.30 to RM3 million. “If you’re unhappy with the amount, you can bring it to court or complain to the district office, but you’ll have to pay for the cost to resurvey the land yourself,” Wing explained.

“Perhaps the project profited the company and the people in this state [when the dam starts producing energy], but what about us? Our people didn’t enjoy any development as promised, and we’ve lost our land and heritage,” said Wing.

Source of inspiration

Protesting against a coal plant or dam may seem daunting, but local communities can look to Green Surf for inspiration. Since 2007, the coalition has successfully pressured the government three times to cancel plans to build a coal plant in Sabah.

Wong Tack

Wong Tack from the Sabah Environmental Protection Society, which is one of the five environmental organisations in Green Surf, said it was most important for communities to be united. “Locals must take responsibility. If the people are united [in the struggle], then we can solve any problem,” said Wong.

Wong pointed out that it is also crucial to build partnerships with national and international partners. “When the government proposed to build the coal plant for the third time (in Kampung Sinakut in 2009), we knew this could no longer be a Sabah issue.  We had to turn it into an international issue.

“We went to the Parliament and built partnerships with international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) so that the government would have to listen to us, and finally they did,” said Wong. The government scrapped the plan to build a coal plant in Sabah for good in February 2011.

Development? Where?

Those with vested interests in mega projects have a tendency to demonise local communities and environmentalists who oppose such projects as “anti-development”.

But if there’s anything to learn from the stories of community leaders, it is not just about conserving the environment. It is about defending communities’ source of livelihood and preferred way of life so that they can continue to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and continue to work and fend for their families.

Of course, the government and corporations involved can continue to ignore local communities’ interests and voices. But surely, they do so at their peril? If communities are adversely affected economically by development projects, surely these communities would have nothing else to lose in fighting back.

Gan Pei Ling believes government and businesses must always take into account not just environmental impact but social and economic consequences on local communities when proposing mega projects. If not, they risk earning public outrage.

The nuclear waste dilemma

by Gan Pei Ling / 19 September 2011 © The Nut Graph

A person was killed and four were injured in a French nuclear waste treatment plant on Sept 12, 2011. This piece of news drew my mind to the fact that debate over nuclear waste treatment and disposal in the light of Malaysia’s own nuclear plans, is still lacking. More often, worries are focused about potential meltdowns in nuclear plants. This is because although the probability of a meltdown is low, its impact could be devastating, as we have seen in Japan‘s case.

Najib (file pic)

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said nuclear power remains an “option”, and that a study is being conducted to identify suitable sites for nuclear plants. Tellingly, it was reported that the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation under the Prime Minister’s Department is searching for a public relations firm to build public support for nuclear power.

Public reactions have been strong against the building of nuclear power plants. While there are pros and cons to nuclear power, despite the risks, it is recognised as the only long-term replacement available for decreasing fossil fuels in terms of continuous bulk energy supply.

So if the government is really going to go ahead, I am personally more concerned with how we are going to store our nuclear waste. This must be answered. Are we going to ship the waste out and dump it in another country? Can we emulate Finland and build a huge underground storage to keep the waste away for the next 100,000 years?

Thinking into the future

In the US, nuclear waste remains a thorny subject. The country has been dumping nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the past few decades, but has yet to find a permanent site to store radioactive waste. Similarly in the UK, nuclear waste has been stored temporarily at Sellafield while its government continues to search for a permanent dump site.

Is the same going to happen to Malaysia? Are we going to build our nuclear plants first and then scramble to find a suitable storage site for radioactive waste decades later, like the US and UK? I have requested the Malaysian Nuclear Agency for answers but to date, have not received any response.

Even if Malaysia does build a permanent storage facility to bury our radioactive waste, how are we going to ensure the waste would stay buried for thousands of years? I did not realise the scale of the problem and the engineering feat required until I watched the documentary Into Eternity made by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen.

The documentary centres on Finland‘s permanent nuclear waste repository, currently under construction since 2004. It is expected to begin storing waste in 2020 and will permanently be sealed in 2120. It is supposed to last for the next 100,000 years.

However, Finnish experts admitted in the film that they cannot predict whether humans would still be around at that time. And even if humans were still around, no one could predict whether future generations would understand our present languages and signs. How do you communicate to people or other beings 100,000 years in the future that nuclear waste is hazardous and that they have to stay away from nuclear dump sites? How do you ensure they do not open a dump site at any cost, if they were to stumble upon one? Several ways were suggested in the film, including putting up menacing architecture, but perhaps the best way is to not to put any signs at all.

“Full” responsibility for our waste

A nuclear power plant in France (source: Wiki Commons)

The nuclear industry proudly proclaims that: “Nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and costs this into the product.”

Seriously, I wonder how the industry could make such a claim to full responsibility for radioactive waste that is likely to outlive human civilisations.

I sincerely hope that one day, scientists would find a way to transform the 300,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste that are accumulating worldwide in temporary storage facilities into non-radioactive elements.

But meanwhile, as much as I enjoy the convenience of abundant electricity and would like to continue doing so, I think Malaysia needs to consider whether we are okay with leaving behind such a legacy before we go ahead with our nuclear plan.

Gan Pei Ling still thinks Malaysia needs to try harder to take renewable energy like solar mainstream and implement energy conservation steps before going nuclear.