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Risks trump science in Lynas decision

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Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

SHAH ALAM — March 4, 2019: Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin has disclosed that the directive for Lynas Corporation Ltd to ship out its residue was based on a principle which allows a decision be made without sufficient scientific facts.

At a forum with Sinar Harian today, Yeo said that the ministry employed the ‘precautionary principle’ (PP) on Lynas due to concerns over possible widespread contamination of its naturally-occurring-radioactive residue in cases of natural disasters such as flooding.

“Is there any guarantee that no harm will come to the public if Lynas is flooded? We want to reduce risks,” said Yeo when asked why the ministry issued a directive that contradicted the recommendations by a review committee tasked to evaluate Lynas’ operations in December last year.

PP is a risks-coping strategy used by scientists in areas where scientific understanding is yet sufficient was coined in January 1998 at the Wingspread Conference at Wisconsin, United States.

It is defined as: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

The use of PP in justifying the decision in Lynas’ case was peculiar as the six experts appointed to form the committee by the ministry had pointed out that its operations was safe and that the temporary storage facility of its residues were “perfectly managed.”

The committee’s all-clear verdict on Lynas, the only rare-earth producer outside China was consistent with that of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011 and 2014.

In terms of health concerns, the Pahang Health Department, which is conducting a comprehensive health scan has yet to discover any increasing trends of respiratory illnesses, conjungtivitis, congenital deformity and spontaneous abortions implicating people living in the vicinity of the Lynas plant in Gebeng, Kuantan.

Lynas, which has been operating for the last six years, came under renewed government’s scrutiny in September last year, after its fiercest critics, who are Pakatan Harapan politicians called for a review of its operations, claimed it could cause radioactive poisoning.

In its report, published in December last year, the review committee recommended Lynas to construct a permanent storage facility for its residues. If it is unable to do so, the company must export its residues.

The ministry however, directed Lynas to export all of its residue before September, failing which the government will not renew its operating license.

Lynas has currently accumulated 1.1 million metric tonne neutralisation underflow and 450,000 metric tonne water-leached purification residues.

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Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at [email protected]