CONTROVERSY surrounding the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang has generated lively, and sometimes polarising, debate among those who support and those who oppose Lynas Corp. The debates have, among others, centred on the refinery’s impact on the environment and local communities, and the government’s role in the matter.
In August 2011, local experts from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) and the National Professors’ Council also weighed in by producing a report on rare earth industries. The report acknowledged that the industry presents both economic opportunities and environmental and health risks to local communities. The academy invited four foreign experts to visit the Gebeng plant, and asked them to give their views in a 9 May 2012 public forum.
What do the Academy of Sciences and the four experts think about the rare earth refinery in the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia? And what will it take to remove opposition to a project that brings economic benefits just as it stokes fears for public safety and health?
Evaluating the refinery
After their 8 May 2012 visit, all four experts, from Canada, the US, China and Germany, agreed that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) was well designed. Alastair Neill, a trained engineer and executive vice-president of Dacha Strategic Metals, described the refinery as a “world-class facility”. The Canadian, who has been in the industry since 1995, thinks the Gebeng refinery is the best among the plants he has seen in China and Japan.
Neill noted that Lynas would attract a lot of downstream companies to Malaysia as demand for rare earth elements in the green technology sector was fast rising. To illustrate, he said rare earth metals are commonly used to manufacture the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. He noted that China produced 62 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in 2008 and the production doubled a year later.
In addition, Neill highlighted that a hybrid or electric car uses around 10kg to 12kg of rare earth metals while wind turbines of one-megawatt capacity, made of neodymium magnets, use about 400kg.
Founding principal of Technology Metals Research, Jack Lifton, remarked that Lynas is Malaysia’s “gateway to 21st century technology”. The American expert has been involved in the rare earth industry for 48 years and thinks the pollution risks posed by the chemical plant are “low” and manageable.
Be transparent and proactive
According to the ASM report, the Lynas refinery will generate three types of wastes — Water Leach Purification (WLP) residue, Flue Gas Desulphurisation residue and Neutralisation Underflow (NUF) residue.
Lynas claims it has developed a method to dilute the concentration of radioactive thorium and uranium in its WLP residue from six Becquerel per gram to below one Becquerel per gram, the limit set by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB). The company is confident it can recycle its diluted WLP residue as road base and NUF residue as fertilisers.
Nonetheless, the International Atomic Energy Agency had, after its visit in June 2011, recommended that the company locate and build a permanent disposal site in the event that Lynas failed to commercialise its waste residue.
Prof Dr Yan Chun-Hua from Peking University said Lynas should make public its dilution method of the WLP residue to sooth public concerns over radiation pollution. “[Consult] the public, never fight (with them). The public is always right. They complain and raise questions because they’re concerned. If you can convince the public, they’ll support your project,” said the chief scientist on rare earth functional materials from China’s Science and Technology Ministry.
ASM senior fellow Lee Yee Cheong, who moderated the discussion, also conceded that the lack of public consultation prior to the project’s approval had fuelled deep distrust between the local communities and the government. He said a detailed environmental impact assessment, instead of a preliminary environmental impact assessment, should have been carried out.
“Going forward, the government must consult the local communities (before approving a project of such scale),” said Lee. He added that ASM recommends that the government commissions a university to carry out a long-term baseline health study to monitor the refinery’s impact on surrounding communities.
Lee said the government should also help clean up the Gebeng industrial zone as some of the existing chemical plants have polluted the environment. “Any development must be green and clean,” he stressed in his concluding remarks at the forum.
Engage and be open
What with the parliamentary select committee and media visits organised by Lynas, Himpunan Hijau and other anti-Lynas groups have clearly succeeded in pressuring the government and the corporation to be more transparent about the refinery’s operations.
Now that the communication channels are open, local communities should continue to ask more questions. These questions could be to find out how Lynas plans to deal with its residues, and whether a permanent disposal facility is needed as different parties seem to have differing views.
For now, the crux of people’s opposition to the refinery lies in fears about the radioactivity of the waste that will be produced. If expert and independent scientists can be convinced that the plant’s operations can be conducted in a way that makes it safe, shouldn’t those who oppose the Lynas plant be open towards different views so long as they are supported by facts and science?
At the same time, Lynas would do well to regain public confidence by making its processes for dealing with the radioactive waste as accessible as possible to experts and the public. Peking University’s Dr Yan said as much when he was asked to comment on the viability of Lynas recycling its radioactive waste. “I didn’t see the detailed parameters (of the study). But I think Lynas should release the data so the public can [evaluate it].”
By doing so, Lynas would prove that it had nothing to hide. And it would also ensure that any radioactivity will effectively be dealt with through a process that is robust and that has been peer-reviewed. And if the radioactive waste can be dealt with to ensure no public harm, why should there be any more opposition to the rare earth refinery in Gebeng?
Gan Pei Ling is still learning something new about rare earths and sustainable development every other day. She thinks it’s important to keep an open mind when engaging on any issues.