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?