HARAKAHDAILY EXCLUSIVE Jun 24: Waste management has been at the centre of the strong protests against the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Gebeng, Pahang, but the parliamentary select committee made up of Barisan Nasional members of parliament has argued their approval of the project based on “low radiation” produced by the rare-earth refinery.
Earlier this year, Lynas has proposed to the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) that radioactive wastes from the plant would be dumped in permanent disposal facility (PDF) in the event such wastes could not be commercialised or recycled into other products. This facility, it is believed, would be put under institutional control for 300 years, where notices and detailed information are erected to warn the public from entering the facility.
According to the PSC’s report released last week, among the plant’s three solid waste streams – the Neutralisation Underflow (NUF), the Flue Gas Desulfurisation (FGD) and the Water Leach Purification (WLP) – the latter, WLP, has a Thorium-232 ingredient of 5.87 Bq/g (Bacquerel/gramme) and Uranium-238 content of 0.30 Bq/g.
One Bq is the measurement of one nucleus of a quantity of radioactive material (eg per gramme) decaying every second. Thorium-232 meanwhile is a natural radioactive chemical element, and Uranium-238 is commonly present in the atmosphere. Explained in simple terms, we are exposed to natural radioactive everyday, including in food, workplace and bodies.
However, Thorium-232 emits alpha particles that can result in 20 times more damage on generic materials (DNA) in human body (as internal emitters).
According to Kuala Selangor MP Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, a trained toxicologist, this activity has been cited by CERRIE, the independent Committee Examining Radiation Risks for Internal Emitters established by the UK government, as the most likely aetiology for cancer due to radioactivity.
Harmless numbers, dangerous reality
Dzulkefly (left) said it was crucial to note that thorium and uranium which are naturally present in the atmosphere, or what is termed as NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) will be more active once they undergo a process known as TENORM (Technically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials). TENORM is found in scrap metal, sludges, slags, fluids, and other nuclear wastes.
The seemingly harmless numbers given in the PSC report, said Dzulkefly, can only evoke fear when seen in the context of LAMP’s radioactive waste which amounts 32,000 tonnes annually as reported in the Lynas’s information.
Calculating based on the figures provided by the PSC, where the Thorium-232 radioactivity is 5.87Bq/g, Dzulkefly said the 32,000 tonnes of WLP is in fact equivalent to a total of 32 x 106 kg or 32 x 109 g.
“With this radioactive, the total radioactivity of WLP alone per year would be around ~ 5.87x 32 x 109 = 155.6 x 109 Bacquerel (Bq) or 155.6 x 103 Megabacquerel (MBq) or 155.6 Gigabacquerel (GBq).
“On conversion this is almost equal to 3 Curie!” he warned.
(A curie is a unit of measurement for radioactivity. A radiotherapy machine, for example, roughly has 1000 Ci, enough to produce serious health effects with only a few minutes unshielded exposure.)
Dzulkefly warned that this was extremely high amount of radioactive concentrated in one place.
“While the solid waste is surely quantititavely more, it is exposure to the form of dust exposed (to workers), that are arguably more alarming as admitted by AELB, and which can be deposited in the lungs, pancreas and bones when breathed in,” he added.
As such, he said neither the temporary residue storage facility (RSF), nor the permanent depository facility (PDF) which is something undergoing theoretical and scientific research, can be envisaged as a sustainable solution for a longer term facility.
Dzulkefly, a former lecturer in Toxicology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, also raised concerns over the by-products of heavy metals as a result of all the chemical and physical processes.
“Putting the cart before the horse”
He pointed out that the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) did not provide for much information.
“I am very concerned of cadmium, arsenic and nickel, as they are now known human carcinogens”, quipped the former academic.
More rigorous lab-scale research must be conducted before any scientific opinion on these have heavy metals could be made, he explained.
According to Dzulkefly, the PSC’s conclusion that a temporary operation license should be issued to the plant was akin to “putting the cart before the horse”, adding that even AELB and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation requested Lynas to comply with further rigoruous preconditions.
Saying he was more interested in taking a “non-partisan and professional stand” on the issue of Lynas’s safety, Dzulkefly hit out at “the haste of PSC” and warned far-reaching implications of LAMP.
“I must now, with my good nuclear scientist friend Dr Che Rosli, insist that the Government be very cautious and restrained,” he said, referring to Dr Che Rosli Che Mat, the Hulu Langat MP.
Che Rosli earlier expressed regret that the UMNO-controlled media “twisted” his remarks about the PSC report by claiming that he agreed that radiation from the Lynas plant was low. In fact, the PAS parliamentarian said the report had failed to detail scientifically its claims and called for a proper lab to study the plant’s effects on the environment.
“It is better to err on the side of caution in matters of defending public health and mitigating insult to environmental degradation,” stressed Dzulkefly.