What’s wrong with a rare earth plant, here?

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 March 2012 © The Nut Graph

THE rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang is arguably now the hottest environmental issue in Peninsular Malaysia. And both the Malaysian government and Lynas Corp, the company that wants to set up the refinery in Pahang, are struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical Malaysian public that the rare earth refinery is safe.

On 20 March 2012, the Dewan Rakyat set up a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to soothe concerns about public health and safety arising from the radioactive waste that will be produced by the rare earth refinery. But Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers have boycotted the PSC while Lynas opponents, Himpunan Hijau, have decried the PSC as a public relations exercise. In a related development, on 20 March 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to explain what Lynas can do with the Temporary Operating License that it granted the Australian company on 30 Jan 2012.

Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally (© Gan Pei Ling)

As tempers rise over the issue, the debate may just boil down to an emotive one where fear and anger cloud reasonable and measured discussion and action about a public interest issue. Is it really such a terrifying thing to set up a rare earth refinery in Malaysia? And if it’s not, what could the government have done better to handle the public’s fear over exposure to radiation? And how can anti-Lynas groups remain true to public interest?

Safe if properly managed

Che Rosli Che Mat (source: parlimen.gov.my)

Regardless of whether or not they are familiar with environmental issues, most PR politicians have happily jumped on the growing anti-Lynas bandwagon except PAS lawmaker Dr Che Rosli Che Mat. The nuclear scientist and Hulu Langat parliamentarian says that a rare earth refinery can be safe as long as it is properly monitored.

Indeed, anti-Lynas groups claim that the plant will pollute the Kuantan coast and have warned that the refining process is toxic. But really the most contentious point about Lynas is its waste management plan and if the company can assure the public it has a fail-safe plan, can we still justify opposition to the plant?

The Lynas refinery is located in Gebeng, an industrial zone. Bearing in mind that most industrial zones such as Port Klang and Pasir Gudang are situated near the sea, I don’t see why Lynas shouldn’t be allowed to do the same as long as it treats its wastewater before releasing it.

Nevertheless, the government should have anticipated high public concerns over the plant’s safety and its effect on public health from the painful episodes of the Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah, Perak. It should have publicised the project before approving the refinery’s construction in 2008 and held public briefings to inform the surrounding communities about the plant. The government should have actively disseminated information instead of only releasing it when the public sought it.

In addition, it was also premature for the Pahang government to approve construction without first finding a suitable location for Lynas to store its low-level radioactive waste. Now works on the RM700 million plant are near complete but public opposition is growing by the day. And Lynas is fast becoming a powerful election issue that is likely to affect the Barisan Nasional’s performance.

To the government’s credit, it did invite experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) to inspect the Lynas refinery in June 2011. It also set up the PSC but all these measures have come too late to dispel the refinery opponents’ deep distrust of the authorities.

Viewing the damage at Unit 3 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (© G Webb | IAEA)

Why not in Malaysia?

From using social media, and organising forums and protests relentlessly, to travelling toAustralia to lobby foreign lawmakers, the awareness anti-Lynas groups have generated locally and internationally is phenomenal.

The Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally on 26 Feb 2012 in Kuantan attracted thousands of participants. The organisers have threatened to hold a larger protest to pressure the government to revokeLynas’s temporary operating license.

I admire their efforts to hold the government and a corporation accountable. Hence, I willingly attended the 26 Feb 2012 rally. But I’m afraid I don’t see eye-to-eye with the organisers’ aim to scrap the project entirely.

I agree that Lynas should not be allowed to operate until a permanent waste disposal site is found and the company sufficiently addresses the construction flaws alleged by former contractors. And that’s as far as I would go.

Picture of a phone with the caption “This product contains rare earth elements” (© Gan Pei Ling)

Let’s face it. Rare earth elements are increasingly being used in our consumer products including electronic screens, disk drives, MP3 players and hybrid cars. We need refineries to process the ore in order to manufacture these goods.

So far, the world has left the dirty job of refining rare earths to China. But what does it say about us if we oppose the Gebeng refinery but continue to buy and hence, sustain demand for, the end-products?

Compared to the Chinese, I think Malaysians are in a much better position to scrutinise the government and corporations. Some may argue that Australia is a much more advanced democracy with more stringent environmental regulations. But why can’t we pressure our own government to live up to the same, if not better, standards?

And while the refinery may only create a few hundred jobs for locals near Gebeng, downstream manufacturing companies would be able to source the rare earths directly from Pahang. Is that not an economic benefit to Malaysia?

Trust and credibility

From my observation, much of the opposition against Lynas is based on an irrational fear over radiation pollution from the low-level radioactive waste of thorium and uranium rather than informed opinions on the issue. And fear can be a powerful thing and hence, useful and easy to manipulate.

Some Lynas opponents have capitalised on this fear to gain support. For example, by telling a forum I attended last year that radiation knows no boundaries and that if there is a radiation leak in Gebeng, even people in Kuala Lumpur can be affected.

But where are the facts and context? How much radiation would the low-level radioactive waste from the Lynas plant generate? And how does it compare to the radiation we’re already exposed to in our daily life?

According to some experts, even the fear over the radiation at Fukushima, Japan is overblown. And it is that same fear that is being stoked in Gebeng. For certain, there are risks involved in any industrial activity, be it refining rare earths, processing aluminum or manufacturingfertilisers. The question is, how large are those risks to public health and aren’t there steps Lynas can be compelled to take to minimise them?

If we are to solve this impasse between the government, Lynas and the opponents of the project, all sides including the anti-Lynas groups, must be transparent. That means putting forward arguments that are reasonable, accurate and in-context. It also means not resorting to propaganda just because your opponent is doing that, too.

Gan Pei Ling thinks cultivating uninformed masses gives the government even more justification to act like a patronising Big Brother. She cautions against supporting any cause before learning the facts.

Related post: Lynas: What’s the fuss?

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