Lynas poses risk of another 80’s radioactive tragedy, says green group

The Lynas plant in Gebeng, Kuantan in Pahang. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) has warned of a repeat of the Bukit Merah tragedy if the government exempts Lynas Malaysia from laws to control radioactive waste.

Jehan Bakar, who heads the Pahang chapter of MNS, said the people of Kuantan were at risk of suffering the kind of contamination that affected the people of Bukit Merah in the 1980s.

Large amounts of thorium hydroxide were discovered in 1984 in Papan, a village just outside Bukit Merah. Investigations revealed that the radioactive waste originated from a rare earth factory set up in 1979.

Children in the area were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. Clinical tests found that some of them had cancer and auto-immune diseases.

“Do we never learn from history?” said Jehan.

“Lynas needs to clean up its act. Otherwise it will be Bukit Merah all over again.”

She alleged that Lynas was in violation of a licensing regulation requiring it to dispose of radioactive waste within a year of its production.

“It has five to six years’ worth of waste behind its plant now,” she told FMT. “Why is it getting special treatment?”

She said Lynas, “with more than one billion tonnes of waste aged more than 180 days” stored behind the factory, was defying the Environmental Quality Regulations (Scheduled Waste) of 2005, which limits the quantity to 20 tonnes and the storage period to 180 days.

“They get 12 years of tax relief, and they get to flout our laws,” she added.

She rejected Lynas’ proposal for the recycling of the waste, saying it should not be used in public areas because of its radioactive nature.

Jehan also alleged that the Department of Environment was not doing its job as a protector of the environment. “It’s more of an enabler or accessory to a corporation.”

She urged the people of Kuantan to refuse to let others decide what would be in their backyard, and voiced support for Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh for her consistent statement against allowing Lynas to continue operating in the country.

Another environmentalist, Anthony Tan, described the waste from the Lynas plant as a ticking bomb.

“It may take five years, it may take 100 years for health signs to manifest, but radioactive waste is radioactive waste,” he said.

Asked to comment on suggestions that the waste be used as fertiliser, he said Australia, Lynas’ home country, should take the lead.

“Let them use the fertiliser widely in Australia first,” he said.

Last month, Dr Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia would allow Lynas to keep operating its rare earth processing plant in Gebeng, which lies on the outskirts of Kuantan.

The prime minister’s statement removed the uncertainty over the future of the US$800 million plant after Malaysia halted the process for renewal of its licence.