Lynas Chairman disingenuous and partonising about Gebeng Plant
by Dr Chan Chee Khoon
Nick Curtis the executive chairman of Lynas is not just disingenuous, but also patronising when he declares that “our job is to be very transparent to the community, give them the facts and encourage them to deal with those facts and think about the facts and know that the plant is safe.”
In other words, the Kuantan community, having been deprived of key information on the industrial process and waste management plans for its Gebeng rare earths plant, is also being accused of irrational fears of nonexistent threats.
Lynas, in dismissing the health hazards of low-level radiation at its Gebeng plant, has conveniently ignored the deliberations of the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters (CERRIE), an independent committee established by the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health (2001-2004) following concerns over the risks of internal irradiation.
This committee was set up by the Labour minister for the environment Michael Meacher in 2001, in the wake of the persistent excess of leukaemia found among young people in Seascale, near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in West Cumbria. The excess occurrence was beyond what was predicted based on existing radiation risk models, subsequently re-inforced by the anomalously sharp increases in infant leukaemia recorded in several countries in Europe after the Chernobyl disaster.
The committee in particular was instructed to review the adequacy of the existing radiation risk models (principally based on empirical evidence from external irradiation e.g. Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts, medical X-rays of foetuses in utero) for health risks arising from irradiation by ingested or inhaled internal emitters.
While the committee did not arrive at a consensus on the severity of health hazards from internal emitters, “all but one member of the Committee believe that the low level intake of radionuclides leads to some increased risk of adverse health effects as a result of the internal irradiation of organs and tissues” (Report of the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, 2004, p.117, para. 22). A minority report argued that there is “strong biological and epidemiological evidence that current models of hazard from radioactivity inside the human body underestimate risks by at least 100 and possibly up to 1000 times”.
The intensity of radiation from a radioactive particle situated a meter away from a human body is increased a trillion fold when it is ingested or inhaled and sits within a micron of the body's organs and tissues (inverse square law). (This is highly pertinent to Lynas’ operations because the thorium-containing rare earth ores from Mt Weld will be milled to a fine powder for acid extraction at Gebeng, and both raw materials and residual solid wastes, when dry, will produce fine suspended, respirable dust particulates).
Lynas, along with the Atomic Energy Licensing Board, the Department of Environment, Nuclear Malaysia (and the International Atomic Energy Agency?) seems to be oblivious to these deliberations. They have recklessly abandoned the precautionary principle which would require responsible governmental and international agencies to address worst case scenarios such as that highlighted by minority opinions in expert panels which do not arrive at consensus positions.
Chan Chee Khoon, ScD (Epidemiology)
Chan Chee Khoon, ScD (Epidemiology)