By Azman Ujang
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 2019 : Would a reputable international company invest billions in Malaysia, or anywhere else for that matter, if its operations are a high risk to the people and the environment?
And would it even expose its own workers to such risk, as alleged by critics in all these years since it started operations?
By the same token, does it make sense that its employees would want to even work there in the first place if these same critics are right that the company’s plant has high radiological risks?
This is the story of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Gebeng, Pahang, owned by Australia’s Lynas Corporation which has been on the receiving end of toxic allegations by critics comprising activists, environmentalists and others ever since it began operations in 2012.
Perhaps no other local or foreign investor has been subjected to such endless allegations, which a senior Lynas executive described as “nothing more than sweeping statements never even, for once, proven scientifically”.
Even when the federal government announced its decision on Aug 15 to extend Lynas’ operating licence, along with the imposition of more stringent conditions, these allegations did not cool off.
Lynas Malaysia is one of the few rare earth processing factories outside of China.
Rare earth compounds are a group of chemically-similar elements that are crucial in the manufacture of many hi-tech products.
Their unique magnetic, luminescent and electrochemical properties make them ideal components in consumer electronics, camera and telescopic lenses, aircraft engines, television and computer screens, health products and many others. And despite their name, most of these elements are abundant in nature.
“Lynas is perhaps the only company that has complied with every aspect of the very stringent conditions set by national and international regulatory agencies and given a clean bill each time. What else do they (the critics) want Lynas to do?” asked Prof Dr Ismail Bahari, Lynas general manager of radiation safety.
Dr Ismail is neither exaggerating nor defending Lynas just for the sake of defending.
At the request of the Malaysian government, experts from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted an independent review of the radiation and health aspects of the facility way back in May 2011.
Following the review, the IAEA released its report which confirmed that the radiological risks to members of the public and to the environment associated with Lynas’ operations are “intrinsically low”.
The IAEA report also mentioned that Lynas has instituted a wide range of public information and stakeholder engagement activities addressing over 10,000 people and hosting nearly 3,000 stakeholders at the site.
Visitors, including politicians, academics, NGOs and local residents, have been provided with information on Lynas’ operations as well as safety and environmental data. In addition, outreach programmes for schools and the availability of real-time radiation and emission data online at websites of Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) and Department of Environment (DoE) showed Lynas’ expanding commitment in engaging with the community.
It noted that from the commencement of its operations, Lynas has set industry-leading standards in environment, safety and quality issues and remains committed to delivering rare earth materials with assured environmental practices from mine to market and ensuring maximum transparency over the project.
The IAEA team of experts also carrried out further follow-up missions at the request of the government and reviewed progress on 11 recommendations made by the IAEA review mission in 2011 by meeting all stakeholders.
In an announcement in 2017, it reiterated that radiological risks of the Lynas plant are low and that Malaysia is actively updating its regulations in accordance with the most recent IAEA safety standards.
“The IAEA team was very pleased with the openness of the Malaysian government, Lynas and other stakeholders in providing information and views. This was very helpful for our understanding of the situation,” team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo, director of the Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology in IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Energy, was reported as saying then.
It also noted that the radiological risks are low because of the “very low level of radioactivity” of the materials handled.
The IAEA encouraged Lynas and AELB to maintain a proactive approach in dealing with the media, public and other stakeholders on an ongoing basis, to address continuing misconceptions about the plant and radiation issues in general.
Following the extension of Lynas’ licence, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also come out to strongly defend the government’s decision, saying it is based on the experts’ view which said the plant is “not dangerous” while pointing out that the Lynas facility is not a nuclear power plant.
“It’s not Chernobyl. Chernobyl, yes, it’s very dangerous. This is not going to be dangerous. And the people who work there, they have not complained,” he said.
The Chernobyl nuclear plant accident which occurred on April 26, 1986, in Ukraine was the worst nuclear disaster in history.
“The people’s view is one thing. Experts’ view is another thing. Do you go according to the popular view or do you go according to the experts’ view? If you go according to the popular view, there is nothing you can do because every time we propose to do something, there will be some people who are against it,” said the prime minister.
“If you treat Lynas like a pariah, and ask them to leave this country, we will not get other people to come into this country to invest,” he told reporters on Monday.
Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd managing director Datuk Mashal Ahmad said that besides its capital expenditure of RM3 billion, the company’s annual operating expenditure totalled RM600 million or only slightly less than the Pahang state government’s annual budget and this money is spent in the country, mostly in Pahang itself.
Out of 900 employees, many of whom hold quailty jobs, only 18 are expatriates while the rest are Malaysians. About 2,000 others are working with companies that provide services or raw materials to Lynas.
Bernama spoke to three senior Lynas executives on how they feel having to bear all sorts of baseless allegations from critics.
“The most vocal anti-Lynas people are the ones who have never even been to the plant. If they were to come here and see how we manage the entire place in terms of our approaches to the safety and health of our people and people surrounding us, as well as our environment, I am confident they would have a very different view,” said Norhelmie Hashim, a plant superintendent.
Another senior executive, Badrul Hisham Zulkifli, slammed Lynas critics when he said: “We also never see these people who say they are so concerned about us in the community. We just see them in newspapers or TV or snooping behind our backyard.
“‘We are tired of being part of their political game,” he said.
Senior procurement executive Mariam Alias was even more scathing in showing her disgust for Lynas’ critics.
“I have worked here for many years. I have given birth to two healthy babies and I’m one of many mothers who work here and, Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), all our children were born healthy and remain healthy. It is easy to spread lies but when you see the facts it’s a very different story,” she said.
The firm stand taken in conditionally allowing Lynas to continue its business is indeed a huge credit to the prime minister and the Pakatan Harapan government because the last thing that foreign investors want to see is a country that allows them in but later changes the goal post.
As for die-hard Lynas’ critics, the message from its workers and other like-minded people is very clear — please use your common sense. – Bernama