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Lynas is not as toxic as critics make it out to be

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KUANTAN – October 23, 2018: Despite all the criticisms directed at it over the years, the inside of what may be deemed as one of Malaysia’s most controversial plants does not look at all toxic.

There were schools of fishes swimming in the large, treated effluent retention pond of the Lynas Corporation Ltd.’s rare-earth refining plant in Gebeng which houses the plant’s contentious and supposedly hazardous waste-water generated by the refining of rare-earths. The water eventually finds itself into the nearby Balok river. 

“They said that even birds would avoid our plant. We have lots of fishes here in our pond and so far none has died due to any type of poisoning,” quipped a Lynas worker in charge of the pond met by The Mole during a recent visit. Several birds were seen preying on the fishes.

Lynas, the Australian company invited to operate in Malaysia in 2006 by the then Barisan Nasional government, first courted controversy six years ago.

At that time, a massive rally was held by critics, backed by opposition political parties, who claimed that its operation would cause radioactive poisoning similar to those in Bukit Merah, Perak, in 1992.

The only similarity between Bukit Merah and Lynas is that we both have rare-earth in the description of our business, said Lynas CEO Amanda Lacaze.

Lacaze explained that not all rare-earths are the same and that those processed in Bukit Merah came from local feedstocks there were 44 times more radioactive than that of Lynas’ feedstocks mined at Mount Weld in Western Australia.

“And the residue produced in Bukit Merah had 50 times more radioactivity than our residue. The material from Mount Weld has about six becquerels per gram (Bq/g) and so is our residue.

“We have not concentrated it, we have not activated it, we have not changed it. It is still in its naturally occurring form as it was when we took it from Australia,” said Lacaze.

Bq/g is a unit to measure radioactivity. Anything above 1Bq/g is classified as radioactive material.

The amount of radiation dosage and exposure however, is measured in Sievert (Sv), millisievert (mSv) and microsievert (μSv). 1Sv is 1,000mSv and 1mSv is 1,000μSv

In Malaysia, transporting any material above 1Bq/g requires the vehicle and the container to be placarded with the appropriate radiation sign whereas in Australia, the threshold is set at above 10Bq/g.

During the visit to the plant, it was found out that the radiation of Lynas’ radioactive residue ranged from 0.17 to 0.21μSv per hour.

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee, the average natural dose of radiation that humans are exposed to stands at 2.4mSv per year which is four times the amount of artificial radiation exposure which is 0.6mSv per year.

Comparison between Lynas and Asia Rare Earth as per to a Parliamentary Select Committee in 2012

 

Asia Rare Earth Sdn. Bhd.

Lynas Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.

Plant location

Bukit Merah Park

Gebeng Industrial Park, Kuantan

Feedstock

Monazite from Beh Mineral in Bukit Merah

Lanthanide concentrate from Mt Weld 

Radioactivity of feedstock

Thorium:

About 7 per cent or 284 Bq/g

(44x higher than Lynas)

Thorium:

About 0.16 per cent or 6.4 Bq/g

Residues

Yellow cake or thorium hydroxide,

Thorium: 8 per cent or 325 Bq/g

(50x higher than Lynas)

Water Leach Purification residue (WLP)

Thorium pyrophosphate:

Thorium: 0.165 per cent  or 6.7 Bq/g

Regulatory framework

AELB has not been set up then an AELA (1984) was not enacted. Regulated under the radioactive Substances Act 1968 under MOH that does not cover the industry fully but more for regulating medical use

AELB regulating the AELA (1984) and all Regulations and Orders made here under

Operational Control

Manual, pneumatic and mechanical

Computerised automated control system

Regulatory control

AELB routing inspection after enactment of AELA 1984

MITI, AELB, DOE and local council

(AELB is Atomic Energy Licensing Board; AELA is Atomic Energy Licensing Act 1984; MITI is Ministry of International Trade and Industry; DOE is the Department of Environment)

Contrary to its name, rare-earths are commonly found in the Earth’s crust, typically in feedstocks that are close to radioactive materials.

For example, the rare-earth in northern China is extracted from oxide ores while those in the southern part of the country is usually extracted from ionic clay.

Lynas’ plant had undergone two reviews by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the first in 2011 and another in 2014 where it was rated as intrinsically low risks.

Following Pakatan Harapan’s victory at the May 9 general elections, Lynas was to have been subjected to another review to be headed by one of its loudest critics, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Fuziah Salleh, also Kuantan’s MP.

But one of the biggest contention raised by critics of Lynas was that if the plant was safe, then why didn’t Lynas refine rare-earths in Australia instead.

“Lynas actually has a licence to do this in Australia but it was Malaysia that invited us,” said Lacaze, “We were told that Malaysia is a great place to do business and that it’s a politically stable country with good economy.”

At a briefing recently it was mentioned that easy access to water supply – which was difficult to procure due to Mount Weld being right smack in a desert in Western Australia – was among the reasons why Lynas accepted Malaysia’s invitation.

“The processing of rare-earths requires plenty of water. The plant needs at least two Olympic-size swimming pools volume of water per day,” said Lynas’ vice president for people and culture department, Mimi Afzan Afza.

Besides water supply, Mimi says Malaysia provides the ease of access for other raw materials, reagents such as acids and alkalis, good electricity and gas infrastructures and strategic location to its customers and port.

Had Lynas set-up their factory in Australia, the company would have to shuttle everything, including manpower, to the continent.

 

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Zaidi Azmi and Ahirul Ahirudin