Friday, November 11, 2011

Lynas waste safe to ‘scatter everywhere’, says AELB

Lynas waste safe to ‘scatter everywhere’, says AELB

April 22, 2011

Raja Aziz said thorium is an element that occurs naturally everywhere. — File pix
KUALA LUMPUR, April 22 — Malaysian regulators are confident radioactive waste from Lynas Corp’s rare earth plant can be “scattered everywhere” although it insisted the material cannot be kept long in the RM700 million Kuantan facility.

The Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) stressed that if the Australian miner delivered on the standards it set for itself, the waste would have no more thorium — the radioactive element found in virtually all rare earth deposits — than the ground around the plant.

“It would be around a normal sample of the soil in the Gebeng industrial zone,” director-general Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan told The Malaysian Insider.

“You can just tabur (scatter) everywhere,” he said.

Lynas had said earlier this week that it had “perfectly good permission (from the government) to store it onsite, safely, forever” if plans to recycle its thorium — the radioactive element found in nearly all rare earth deposits — waste for further industrial use did not find a commercial application.

But Raja Aziz had said “storage onsite will never be a final solution” due to public concern of a repeat of the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant that has been linked to at least eight cases of leukaemia in Bukit Merah, Perak, seven resulting in death.

After being shuttered due to public protest over radiation pollution in 1992, the ARE refinery is still undergoing a cleanup process that is costing over RM300 million.

But Raja Aziz said Lynas was confident of keeping thorium levels in its waste to 1,614 parts per million (ppm) compared to the amang (tin tailings) used in Bukit Merah which produced 80,000ppm of thorium in its waste.

“They have made the decision (to invest RM700 million) because they believe they can meet our very stringent requirements,” he said, adding that the company would have to abide by a pre-declared radioactive level of its waste.

Signboard showing the site of the Lynas plant in Gebeng.
He also said one of the requirements was for Lynas to recycle the waste into an industrial product instead of storing it onsite.

"If they begin to process the waste component, we have to certify it can be put out. It would have to be as though we are taking a large rock and putting it out in public and it is the same as a normal rock.

“If someone sits on it, it's like someone sitting on a normal rock,” he said.

Alarm in Japan over potential radiation leaks from nuclear plant explosions caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami, coupled with a recent New York Times report highlighting the radioactive waste produced in the rare earth refining process, has revived fears and debate on the issue.

Environmentalists and residents living near the factory site in the Gebeng industrial zone have raised questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste being produced and stored at the plant.

They cite the ARE plant in Bukit Merah as a warning.

Raja Aziz also refuted talk that thorium was not found in Malaysia as it was an element that occurred naturally everywhere.

“It is as if we say we're bringing in salt and dumping it into the sea and then you say no we cannot as it's coming from a foreign source,” he said.

He pointed out tighter controls than the 1,600ppm of thorium that Lynas had promised would be at the expense of other industries.

“If you want to control, we can control. But the marble quarries, tin and coal mining would have to be controlled as well because they can become more than 1,600ppm,” Raja Aziz said.

Lynas expects to receive a preliminary operating licence from the AELB before September which will be renewed as a full licence within three years should the plant comply with agreed standards.

It is anticipating a windfall of RM8 billion a year from 2013 onwards from the rare earth metals that are crucial to the manufacture of high-technology products such as smartphones, hybrid cars and bombs.

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