Lynas: What were the IAEA experts thinking on the plane home?

By Rama Ramanathan | March 13, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

MARCH 13 — The written word doesn’t make faces. Technical reports don’t include snide remarks. International experts don’t publicly reveal some of what they’re really thinking. I wonder what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts were really thinking when they said:

“The 1-2 tons bags of the rare earths concentrate will be transported by road from Mt Weld to Perth (or a nearby port) in 20 ton land-sea containers. From Perth, the containers will be moved on ships to Singapore. From Singapore, smaller vessels will move the containers to Kuantan. Up to Kuantan, the rare earths concentrate will be shipped as normal non-radioactive material, in accordance with international regulations. From Kuantan port, the containers will be trucked 15 km to the Lynas facility in Gebeng. Malaysian regulations require the concentrate to be treated as radioactive material.” [Adapted from IAEA International Review Mission (29 May – 03 June 2011) Report, page 27.]

Do you get it? According to international standards, the material can be handled like any soil. Then, when it lands in Malaysia, “it’s radioactive.” It’s like saying Australian apples are safe worldwide, but not in Malaysia.

This for me is the Lynas dilemma.

When businesses choose locations for factories, their engineers carefully study the regulations. If I had been on the Lynas-Gebeng project team, I would have said we must have rocks in our heads if we wanted to locate our plant in Malaysia. Malaysia’s atomic energy regulations are stricter than elsewhere!

Yet Lynas chose to build its plant in Malaysia.

The IAEA Review team had 5 IAEA staff members and five international experts. On their flight home in June 2011, these 10 people must’ve been wondering what they were going to say to their colleagues when they got home.

The fact is, the material being moved by road and sea is NOT radioactive according to international regulations. I suspect it’s required to be treated as radioactive when it lands in Malaysia because the Malaysian regulator, the AELB (Atomic Energy Licensing Board), is being cautious.

I understand the AELB’s caution. As a quality manager I often placed strict requirements on suppliers when they began to supply me: we both knew that based on data we would later review the requirements. This is standard practice, even when the vendor has an excellent track record. If I was a member of the IAEA team, I might explain AELB’s “bizarre requirement” as a ‘we will tolerate no nonsense’ message to Lynas which has no track record.

The IAEA team offered another explanation. Their report reveals that the Malaysian regulations haven’t kept up with the times. The current Malaysian Transport Regulations are based on the 1985 IAEA Transport regulations, which were revised in 2009. Also, the Malaysianisation of the 1985 regulation failed to maintain the distinction between radioactive ‘material’ and ‘product.’ In the words of the report:

“[The] broad definition [in the Malaysian regulation] covers all material that surround us in everyday life even at background or trivial levels.” [page 28]

The report wryly recommends updating of the regulations.

I’ll move on to discuss the solid residues (‘product’), of which there are three streams: FGD (Flue Gas Desulphurization) residue, NUF (Neuralisation Underflow) residue and WLP (Water Leach Purification) residue. The following quote makes clear that in the opinion of international experts, the FGD and NUF residues — which make up about two thirds of all the residue — is not dangerous from the radioactive point of view:

“The radionuclide concentrations in the FGD and NUF residues are expected to be very low — similar to the average values in normal rocks and soil worldwide (and in Malaysia).” [page 17]

Experts don’t loosely use terms like ‘very low.’ The IAEA team is really saying “What lunacy! Why doesn’t the AELB just say these materials are not radioactive? Why did Lynas choose to build this plant in Malaysia?”

Yet Lynas chose to build its plant in Malaysia.

So, despite the fact that according to current Malaysian regulations everything is radioactive, is there some waste from Lynas which is truly a matter of concern, vis-à-vis radioactivity? [I am focusing on radioactive waste because this is the primary reason activists are giving for opposing the Lynas plant.]

The answer is a qualified yes; qualified, because it needs a context.

The context can be grasped from what students in Edinburgh used to say about people from Aberdeen, Scotland. We said Aberdonians glowed in the dark, because the background radiation in Aberdeen is about double the national average — because of all the naturally occurring granite, much of which was used to build homes. And we said Aberdonians who were vegans were more radioactive because they ate lots of beans to make up for the proteins they chose not to get from milk and cheese. And beans are the most radioactive food you can eat.

Context matters. As the report puts it:

“The WLP contains relatively low concentrations of naturally occurring radionuclides and the hazards are equally low.” [page 20]

Note the experts carefully said: ‘Relatively low.’ The imported concentrated ore has an activity level of 6 Bq/g (Becquerel per gram). The WLP residue is expected to have an activity level of 6.2 Bq/g (page 16). But, surprise! The WLP is treated as radioactive! [I suppose because it’s a man-made product, and thus subject to more variation than natural processes.]

As mentioned in the report, the WLP residue can be ‘recycled’: it may be possible to safely add it in small proportions to other materials, without compromising safety: I know this is hard to believe, especially after the ‘recycling’ antics of Asian Rare Earths in Bukit Merah. But those who live in a house built with WLP-added concrete may not be exposed to risks greater than say the Aberdonians. [Trials will be needed in order to develop and tweak the blending process.]

If the blending technology proves unworkable or if there is no market for the blended product, the WLP waste will have to be stored long-term. This is why the IAEA team has asked the AELB to require Lynas to supply a comprehensive plan for managing the waste long-term – in case this option is necessary.

Yet, the AELB says it may require Lynas to return the residue to its source: is it going to become safer after it retraces the journey to Mt Weld? Or is this prudence on the part of the AELB, and a strong incentive for Lynas to develop a reliable process to re-use the WLP waste? Or does the AELB now have cold feet? Or is the AELB bowing to political pressure?

This is what Lynas gets for choosing to build its plant in Malaysia.

I know there’s more to be considered, e.g. why give a temporary license, what about worker safety, why we need the IAEA to tell the AELB what to do, etc. My purpose is not to provide a full treatment of the Lynas issue, which I think exemplifies how high-handed and non-consultative our government is.

My purpose is to lament a painful truth.

We know Umno-BN must have benefited much from the Lynas project because Malaysians have benefited little, if at all. We know we can’t trust our government. We don’t believe AELB will do a good job of enforcement. We criticise international experts who don’t say what we want to hear.

This is the state of Malaysia after 54 years of Umno-BN rule. Is this what the IAEA experts were thinking on their way home in June 2011?

  1. #1 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 2:08 pm

    //What were the IAEA experts thinking on the plane home?//

    They were rolling on the floor, laughing their heads off at the thought that there exist fools who could be bought off to store the radioactive waste which Australians do not want.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 2:15 pm

    This case is like the Americans laughing all the way to the bank after selling weapons to BOTH the Iraqis and the Iranians which were then used to kill off one million soldiers on each side in the 1980-1988 war.

  3. #3 by cseng on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 3:23 pm

    These is what wikipedia talk about enviroment impact of rare-earth.

    Mining, refining, and recycling of rare earths have serious environmental consequences if not properly managed. A particular hazard is mildly radioactive slurry tailings resulting from the common occurrence of thorium and uranium in rare earth element ores.[44] Additionally, toxic acids are required during the refining process.[13] Improper handling of these substances can result in extensive environmental damage. In May 2010, China announced a major, five-month crackdown on illegal mining in order to protect the environment and its resources. This campaign is expected to be concentrated in the South,[45] where mines – commonly small, rural, and illegal operations – are particularly prone to releasing toxic wastes into the general water supply.[12][46] However, even the major operation in Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, where much of the world’s rare earth supply is refined, has caused major environmental damage.[13]

    The Bukit Merah mine in Malaysia has been the focus of a US$100 million cleanup which is proceeding in 2011. “Residents blamed a rare earth refinery for birth defects and eight leukemia cases within five years in a community of 11,000 — after many years with no leukemia cases.” Seven of the leukemia victims died. After having accomplished the hilltop entombment of 11,000 truckloads of radioactively contaminated material, the project is expected to entail in summer, 2011, the removal of “more than 80,000 steel barrels of radioactive waste to the hilltop repository.” One of Mitsubishi’s contractors for the cleanup is GeoSyntec, an Atlanta-based firm.[36] Osamu Shimizu, a director of Asian Rare Earth, “said the company might have sold a few bags of calcium phosphate fertilizer on a trial basis as it sought to market byproducts” in reply to a former resident of Bukit Merah who said, “The cows that ate the grass [grown with the fertilizer] all died.”[47]

    In May 2011, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, widespread protests took place in Kuantan over the Lynas refinery and radioactive waste from it. The ore to be processed has very low levels of thorium, and Lynas founder and chief executive Nicholas Curtis said “There is absolutely no risk to public health.” T. Jayabalan, a doctor who says he has been monitoring and treating patients affected by the Mitsubishi plant, “is wary of Lynas’s assurances. The argument that low levels of thorium in the ore make it safer doesn’t make sense, he says, because radiation exposure is cumulative.”[47] Construction of the facility has been halted until an independent United Nations IAEA panel investigation is completed, which is expected by the end of June 2011.[48] New restrictions were announced by the Malaysian government in late June.[37]

    IAEA panel investigation is completed and no construction has been halted. Lynas is on budget and on schedule to start producing 2011. The IAEA report has concluded in a report issued on Thursday June 2011 said it did not find any instance of “any non-compliance with international radiation safety standards” in the project.[49]

  4. #4 by artemisios on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 3:41 pm

    >>We all know that the IAEA has confirmed the Lynas plant in Gebeng is safe
    >>We all also know that the IAEA is an independent, international body with its credibility rarely questioned
    >>We all also know that M’sian regulations regarding handling of radioactive wastes are strict enough

    But all of the above are never the concern. What’s most worrying is:
    >>>>Under an incompetent, corrupt and often lazy government, what will happen if Lynas neglects our AELB regulations? Hypothetically, what will happen if Lynas gets careless & simply dump their toxic waste around Kuantan without proper treatment?

    Will our govt officials punish them? Or will they pocket some “under table” money from Lynas and turn a blind eye?

    And what happens if small radioactive blunders go unpunished? Bigger blunders will surface. Because the perpetrator gets even more careless as they knew they were being watched by only a bunch of corrupt, incompetent regulators. They knew they could easily bribe their way out of trouble.

    So the problem here isn’t the IAEA. It’s not M’sian regulations either. It’s not even Lynas.

    IT’S ENFORCEMENT. Because I honestly don’t trust our enforcement. At all.

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 3:57 pm

    ///We know Umno-BN must have benefited much from the Lynas project…..///

    Yeah, they make a quick buck and we ordinary Malaysians on the street suffer for their gain!

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 14 March 2012 - 6:23 pm

    AELB NEP educated scientists don’t understand English. They thought radioactive means activate the radio. You, know, FM 102.5, Satu Malaysia. Everyday we hear this on our way to work.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 15 March 2012 - 8:44 am

    IAEA experts and those from our local AELB say that the waste generated from the Lynas plant is not categorised as radioactive waste -as it is naturally occurring from ore- and because it only contains 6bq/gram of radioactivity which is below threshold of international definition of what is considered hazardous radioactive materials – at a level exceeding 20bq/g.

    However wouldn’t the CUMULATIVE effect of very large quantities of thorium accumulated and stored over long periods of time become, if leaked, as dangerous as if it exceeds 20bq/. ???

    [One should not forget that Lynas/Lamp is planning to process 22,000 tonnes of rare earth oxide, thus producing 64,000 tonnes of waste containing 106 tonnes of radioactive thorium and 5.6 tonnes of radioactive uranium annually.]

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