Scientists and community leaders are concerned about radioactive waste from Lynas’ Malaysian plant but the company representative who took Wendy Bacon’s questions brushed off the criticism.
This is the second of two articles about Lynas by Wendy Bacon. Read the first here.
Australian rare earth company Lynas has always known it had a waste problem.
It plans to process rare earth concentrate, imported from its mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia, at its Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (Lamp) in Malaysia. It will not only produce rare earths for export but also a huge amount of waste, including more than a million cubic metres of low level radioactive material.
Lynas was originally going to build its Lamp plant in China, which produces more than 90 per cent of global rare earths. But according to its 2007 annual report, it decided to move to Malaysia, because the Chinese government was increasing its control over production, including applying environmental standards more strictly. Lax regulation had led to what a Chinese government white paper described this year as extensive emissions of radioactive residues and heavy metals, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and accidents causing “great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment”.
Lynas was attracted to Malaysia because it was offered tax free status for 10 years. Its first choice was a site in the state of Terangganu where it quickly received necessary construction approvals. Then the Malaysian government asked Lynas to move south to the Gebeng industrial estate which was built on a reclaimed swamp, 2.5km from the port of Kuantan in Pahang. Although the new land cost $30m rather than $5m, the company reported that it “had little choice but to accept this”, and in any case the infrastructure at the new site was better as it was close to petrochemical plants. For its cooperation, Lynas’s tax holiday, which included all imports and dividends, was topped up to 12 years. The company told the share market that it would start producing rare earths by June 2009.
New environmental approval documents were filed in January 2008. It took only five weeks for the state and local council environment departments and the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board to give the company a construction licence. It is clear from the documentation that at this stage the company had only temporary plans for waste storage, had not addressed the possibility that future events including flooding could affect the safety of the site, or selected a permanent waste facility. Despite the delays, shareholders were told that production would still start in 2009. As 2012 ends, the plant — which will take months to become fully operational — received its first rare earth concentrate several weeks ago.
There is an emphasis in the the company’s glossy investor presentations and annual reports of the sustainability of its products, which are necessary for the operation of almost all electronics — from smart phones to missiles. However, there was little mention of the waste — or “residue”, as Lynas prefers to call it.
Lynas and its supporters assert its operations are completely safe, but as NM reported on Monday, others — including scientists — are less confident. Lynas relies on an IAEA report that found it had complied with international standards in its construction phase, but needed to do more prior to operating. Lynas told New Matilda that since the IAEA report, it has taken the “additional safety step” of placing “hydrated residues in safe, reliably engineered, elevated storage cells that are designed so that there is no possibility for any leakage of material into the environment”. These storage cells will be monitored by Lynas and the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB).
The IAEA also recommended that Lynas proceed no further until it had filed comprehensive plans for the permanent disposal of waste, decommissioning of the plant and remediation of the site at the end of its life. The AELB and Lynas issued a joint statement mid-way through last year stating that this work would be done before any rare earths could be imported. But then, earlier this year, the AELB jumped the gun by granting a temporary operating licence which gave the company 10 months to come up with these plans. This temporary operating license was then delayed as a result of court action until November.
Shutting down the critics
New Matilda asked to interview Lynas Executive Chairperson Nick Curtis but he was not available. Instead we interviewed a Lynas spokesperson who insists that the waste products of the Lamp project are “not hazardous in any way”. He refers to the safety record of Lynas which in “all of its constructions … has been achieved with zero lost time injury”.
When New Matilda suggested that problems are more likely to arise in the long term, even 20 or 30 years away, he replied: “I would be lying if I categorically tell you there is no risk in 20 or 30 years time from anything. What I can tell you is that the unanimous conclusion of all of the scientific experts from all of the different organisations that have investigated this material and everything else is that there will be no discernible risk for the public or anyone else from this facility.”
But this is far from true.
For example, in April this year, the National Toxic Network (NTN), a community-based network “working to ensure a toxic-free future for all”, published a preliminary assessment of the waste steam of Lynas’s Lamp project. It was prepared by Lee Bell, a qualified environmental scientist with 20 years experience in analysis of industrial process plants, groundwater monitoring and contaminated sites. He co-chaired the Core Consultative Committee on Waste under the former Labor government in Western Australia, which reformed the state’s hazardous waste sector. Readers of his 29 page NTN report (pdf), which was reviewed by another scientist, are likely to be concerned about the company’s environmental plans.
I asked Lynas’ spokesperson about the NTN report: “Whatever you think of it, it [the report] is a solid document. It appears to be academically referenced and it also appears to have had some form of review. If you read it, on a number of scores, you would be concerned?”
To which the Lynas spokesperson responded: “The relevant thing there is ‘appears to be’ that is a really interesting phrase … I take you to the disclaimer right at the end [of the report] — ‘Please note this information is provided as general information and comment should not be seen as professional advice’ — on the basis that it ‘appears to be well referenced’, that is a strange disclaimer to have.” In response Bell explained the disclaimer is used to indicate the report is intended for public use. Most of Lynas’ reports on the other hand are not easily accessible.
The Lynas spokesman rejected an NTN claim that Lamp’s location on a reclaimed swamp with a high rainfall is relevant to disposal of low level radioactive waste. Asked if he was aware it was a “marshy site”, he said, “I have no idea”. He explained that although there is a pristine fishing village and beach at Kuantan three and a half kilometres away on the coast, “if there is a risk there, it is much wider than just Lynas because the Lamp is in a petrochemical zone”. In fact, the site is on a reclaimed peat swamp.
Bell doesn’t buy Lynas’ argument that their plant will be yet another structure in the petrochemical zone. “The area may well have been developed for petrochemical plants — but these do not have large tailings ponds full of low level radioactive material,” he said. “Refineries usually dispose of their waste by on-site incineration or off-site disposal in stable geological areas. This is comparing chalk and cheese.”
Discrediting sources is a familiar public relations tactic used by companies to protect themselves against journalists relying on their critics as sources. So NM asked if the company had prepared a response to the NTN report. The spokesperson said it had but it was “unfortunately contained material before a [Malaysian] court and I can’t share that with you”.
The NTN report deals with Lamp waste steams which include non radioactive fluoride, dust particulates, gas, acidic waste water as well as more than 22000 tonnes of low level Water Leach Purification (WLP) radioactive waste which a year. The most critical issue is the control and disposal of the WLP wastes — which for radioactive material may mean for many hundreds of years.
On the basis of specific criticisms, NTN has two main recommendations. First, that the temporary licence issued by the AELB should be revoked until the issue of long term waste disposal is resolved and second, that the plant should not be allowed to operate until the release of millions of litres of effluent into the Balok River that runs past the site has been “further modelled and assessed”.
“The lack of data on these issues (the impact on the river) means the Lynas EIA is well below international standards and insufficient for granting of operational licences,” theNTN says; the Lamp temporary licence would never have been granted in Australia.
Novel solutions — but will they work?
Included among the documents filed for the January 2008 approval was a report prepared for Lynas by technical consultants Worley Parsons which revealed some innovative ideas for dealing with the permanent disposal problem.
Worley Parsons worked on the basis that there would be more than 800000 cubic metres of the most radioactive WLP waste over 10 years. (The company has stated its mine will last for 20 years and more recently told New Matilda, 50 years). When other wastes were included, there would be 2.7m cubic metres of waste that need permanent disposal over 10 years.
Lynas’s preferred option has always been to recycle as much of the waste as possible. If safe, recycling has environmental advantages but Worley Parson also noted that by-product production requires time and investment. It may also have little or no commercial value, although this may change over time. Neither Worley Parsons or Lynas have ever suggested that even if recycling options worked, they would account for all dangerous waste, which under a new Australian law for the disposal of radioactive waste cannot be imported back into Australia.
Worley Parsons reported that the WLP residues contain relatively high levels of the nutrients phosphorus and magnesium, which have potential agricultural uses, particularly for palm oil plantations. However, it might be hard to find buyers for fertiliser based on the recycled waste. This option has not been mentioned recently. Instead, the current preferred option is to dilute the radioactive material from 6 becquerals (Bq) to 1Bq and bury it as road fill and in other civil engineering works.
While Lynas says it is confident in the current by-product plans, they are yet to be tested. Dr Peter Karamoskas, who has been a nuclear radiologist for 13 years and represents the Australian public on the Radiation Safety Committee of Australia’s nuclear safety agency, shares none of that confidence.
Speaking on his own behalf, Karamoskas said that to be safe more than a million tons of WLP residue with a radioactive reading of 6Bq have to be mixed with five times the amount of aggregate to reduce its reading to 1Bq. While he said that a similar process had been used in the Netherlands, the waste was far less radioactive, sitting near 1Bq, which is the threshold for safety.
Karamoskas said it has never been used with material with the Lamp WLP reading of 6Bq. He says that it is extremely unlikely to be a long term solution from a safety or economic point of view: “If this was all ready to go they would be trumpeting it in the public arena … already it looks slippery. If this was possible wouldn’t most countries around the world be doing it?” He thinks it is extremely unlikely that the road mix could be imported, other than to a country with “lax standards” because it would breach international best practice standards.
Karamoskas and the NTN operate on the precautionary principle used in European environmental regulation (and increasingly elsewhere) — you don’t go ahead until you have evidence that processes are safe, which in the case of Lynas is for thousands of years.
Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a medical doctor and well respected opposition socialist MP, wrote a long piece explaining the Lamp risks in Malaysian independent outlet Malaysiakini, “Is the anti-Lynas movement being unreasonable?”
It has always been my belief that I should speak up for or against policies based on facts and principles, and not because of political expediency. To espouse something which is not true or which you do not believe in, just to make you or your party popular amounts to misleading the public and reflects a lack of respect for the public! … We should practise the ‘precautionary principle’. If there is a risk that a particular course of action might bring adverse effects, then one should consider not embarking on that action unless there are very compelling reasons for doing so.
Lynas badmouths its critics for exaggerating Lamp safety risks, while at the same time, its own supporters exaggerate the level of safety. This week, former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed was widely reported in the Malaysian media after he slammed the critics of the project, saying the nation needed to accept that it was not harmful.
“Rare earth is not dangerous like nuclear … rare earth is not yet known to cause diseases among users of its end product,” he told a Chemical Industries Council of Malaysia (CICM) dinner. The former PM seems not to understand that it is the waste from the rare earth processing, not the rare earths themselves that are radioactive. Even in Malaysia itself, the dangers of rare earth waste are well known because of tragic environmental and health damage at Bukit Merah, the site of an old Mitsubishi plant.
In the commercial world, the precautionary principle is not playing. “Resolving the residue disposal is a risk down the track,” Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Terry told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last week, adding that the company’s priority in the coming months should be on getting the plant up and running and completing its first sales. The WSJ reported that Lynas has already been forced to raise A$175 million in the past month to help fund the ramp-up of output. It is also entering a much softer rare earth market than what was seen globally 12 months ago.
As Karamoskas put it, the Malaysian public should not rely on Lynas staying in business for the long haul. It needs “credible long term plans” because if Lynas does not stay in business, “the Malaysian public will be left to deal with its problems for thousands of years”.
Lynas has sued members of the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas campaign for defaming the company. This case will be heard early next year along with an appeal against the lifting of the stay on the licence and another application for a judicial review of the granting of the licence lodged yesterday.
Wendy Bacon is a Contributing Editor to New Matilda, a Professor with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, an activist, media researcher and blogger at WendyBacon.com She is on the board of the Pacific Media Centre.