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Stop Lynas, save Malaysia… but from what?

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Quick, name me another politician who is as passionate in opposing Lynas as Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh.

How about this instead: name me a politician who dared to break ranks on this Lynas issue. Besides that “nuclear scientist” guy. (His name is Che Rosli Che Mat by the way, and he taught nuclear science in UKM.)

If you are like the general public, you might have trouble naming names. Hence, the moment Tan Keng Liang of Gerakan demanded that Pakatan Rakyat politicians just shut up and agree with Che Rosli’s opinion unless they possess scientific arguments, he created an impasse that drew silence from most of his detractors.

Our elected representatives’ poor grasp on science (in this case, some basic nuclear physics) proved to be their undoing. As a result, both sides decided to either opt out or just toe their respective parties’ lines. A crucial environmental issue had effectively transformed into a political row with the government on Lynas’ side and opposition on the other.

To put things into perspective, let us recap what rare earths are, and what they are not. Rare earths by themselves are not radioactive. The by-product from their extraction, however, can contain thorium, and is radioactive. Thorium emits alpha-particles, instead of beta-particles — used usually for cancer treatments — or gamma-particles — the most dangerous of all, or in fiction, turns one into a green angry giant.

Alpha-particles cannot even go through human skin, but materials emitting it are harmful once eaten or breathed in. So, when people talk about the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) being radioactive, they should actually mean its waste is radioactive, not rare earths or the plant itself.

Che Rosli had a point when he accused his colleague of being unscientific. The same accusations can be directed towards a segment of public with anti-Lynas sentiments too, who are prone to exaggerations and scare-mongering with their appeals to emotions. It is understandable though that they would go to such lengths. After all, the consequences might be too big to bear. But are such tactics justified?

After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the industry has struggled to regain its credibility. Nothing illustrates this difficulty more than some anti-Lynas activists who discredit themselves by bringing this topic up. Comparing rare earth plants to nuclear power plants reeks of desperation, and is just downright sinister. No radioactive fuel is used, nor will meltdown happen, in a rare earth plant.

Closer to home, anti-Lynas activists point to the abandoned Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant by Mitsubishi Chemicals in Bukit Merah. This comparison is unfair, for two major reasons. First, ARE was built more than 25 years ago, which in technological terms, is ancient. Second, ARE was built to extract the rare earth yttrium from mining leftover monazite, which can contain eight to 10 per cent thorium. In comparison. Lynas claims that LAMP will not be processing monazite, but mineral from the Mount Weld mine which is prized for having very low radiation, containing 0.17 per cent thorium.

The bulk of this fear can be attributed to the level of distrust against our ruling government and local authorities. A number of Malaysians just do not trust ourselves to run something that involves nuclear science. You’d have to wonder what these people have to say about our nuclear agency which has been running a nuclear reactor in Bangi since 1982.

As noted by my fellow columnist Hafiz Noor Shams, the government has been guilty of exaggerating the economic benefit of LAMP. A 12-year tax holiday, accepting collateral money from Lynas and keeping the public in the dark until New York Times broke the story — these are easy ammunition for anyone to shoot down a government that is increasingly being distrusted by the public.

Lynas, too, is no less shady. Their rush to complete the plant in more cost-effective Malaysia instead of Australia is tainted with suspicions of cost-cutting from two of their contractors. UGL Ltd and AkzoNobel have pointed out major flaws within the concrete containment area, which Lynas promised would spare local soil and groundwater from toxic contamination.

Considering that rare earth is now indispensable in our lives — we need to get them from somewhere, somehow — what we are left with now is a case of “not in my backyard.” Until LAMP starts operating and Molycorp restarts its California site, China holds the world ransom by controlling 97 per cent of the world’s supply. Complete disregard for environmental and legal concerns means an even worse fate for the Chinese.

Like many other Malaysians, I do wish for a cleaner and greener Malaysia, but it should go beyond a partisan affair. Che Rosli might only be a nuclear scientist (the Lynas effect is a more multi-faceted issue) but at least he had the conviction to go against party line and bring forth his own arguments.

Why aren’t there more BN politicians questioning the environmental impact of LAMP? Shouldn’t the PR politicians go beyond “if we are the federal government, we’ll shut Lynas down”? Will anyone take Tan Keng Liang’s challenge and come up with a factual retort instead of shouting “RADIOACTIVE!” over and over again?

Stopping Lynas and saving Malaysia… they don’t always need to be the same thing.

Published inTMI column
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