Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Sun: No dose of radiation is safe.... by Dr David KL Quek

No dose of radiation is safe 
Dr David KL Quek, President, MMA

The Sun, Friday, 27 May 2011, page 14

THE Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) is gravely concerned as to the harmful health effects from radioactive and other toxic waste residues of the proposed Lynas Rare Earth Refinery Project in Gebeng, Pahang. 

We share the public concern that not enough information, attention or due diligence to public safety has been provided. Worse, this projected plant touted as the "largest" rare earth refinery in the world is so close to human habitation.

There should have been greater importance placed on exhaustive public information sharing and engagement, public safety guarantees, environmental impact studies, and prudent if impregnable long-term waste disclosure and disposal management, versus simply, "economic" gain.

No monetary returns of whatever foreign direct investment and its spin-offs can outweigh possible radiation and/or other health risks. Thorium-232 for example has a half-life of some 14 billion years, and gives off alpha particles. This radionuclide residue is recognised as being extremely hazardous for humans and life forms.

Thorium is an acknowledged waste product from the planned Lynas refinery. Due to the various refining processes, thorium will be enriched and concentrated to levels, which could reach quantities that are difficult to contain or be safely sequestrated. 

Disclosed data from the Lynas projections, estimate that 106 tonnes of thorium waste would be generated every year. Based on the preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment report, thorium residues would be some 1655 parts per million, from the total 64,000 tonnes of Water Leached Purification process. This would lead to a sizeable radioactivity dose of some 62 Becquerel per gram. For 106 tonnes, this would be an enormously humongous quantity of radioactive residual thorium!

We are extremely concerned that there are no foolproof containment measures for such toxic residue treatment and disposal, despite Lynas’s public proclamation of "zero harm" commitment. The myriad refining processes also yield many hazardous products which can unalterably damage the environment, contaminate water catchment areas, agricultural land, and nearby river and seawater food chains.

Where would such hazardous wastes be kept, and how can the public be protected from such a continuing pile-up of more than 100 tonnes of radioactive thorium, year on year? What about other toxic wastes, and contaminated water sources? 

Never mind the other mind-boggling wastes and contaminates, radioactive thorium in itself is worrying enough. Thorium can be inhaled via contaminated dust or swallowed from contaminated food or water. Even when very small quantities of thorium are ingested, the amounts in the human body are not harmless, because thorium continues to emit harmful and damaging radiation particles.

There is no safe level of residual thorium, particularly if the isotope is unstable. Even when about 0.02-0.05% of ingested thorium is absorbed into blood stream it is quickly deposited in: bone (70%, biological half life 22 years), liver (4%, biological half life 700 days), other organs and tissues (16%, biological half life 700 days), with only about 10% excreted. This phenomenon is known as "internal emission" which then gives rise to continued harmful effects of internal radiation which can lead to possible cancers, leukaemias and other genetic mutations and organ damage.

Low-level radiation is certainly not harmless. The US National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII report has concluded that no dose of radiation is safe, however small, including background radiation; exposure is cumulative and adds to an individual’s risk of developing cancer. Thus, it is artless to ask the public to accept that environmental radiation already exists and thus might be inconsequential to health. Our remit is why should we add on to the potential hazards when this is man made and almost certainly uncontainable?

Worse still, the lingering memory of the disastrous Mitsubishi Asian Rare Earth mine in Bukit Merah, Perak (1980s), continues to rankle and infuriate many of the hapless victims and their families as well as the residents living in the area. Its forced closure in 1992 did little to assuage the anger and sense of betrayal of the public! No amount of compensation would be sufficient to correct the harm and anguish of those who had suffered. One bad experience on such a similar project must necessarily alert the authorities that more must be done to prevent another recurrence.

Although some information on the industrial process and waste management plans for the Gebeng plant have been disclosed, there remain insufficient safeguards and incomplete reassurances that the potential radiation risks from the toxic wastes are negligible or nil.

There can be no denying that our public are deeply troubled with all things radiation, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. Consider the cynical if understandable view that if even in meticulous "zero defect" Japan things can go wrong, what more in Malaysia where our maintenance culture is suspect.

Although we welcome the new high-powered expert panel to review the safety of the Lynas project, there remains many troubling uncertainties. We and the public also share the concern of CAP president SM Mohd Idris that members of this panel may not be truly independent or impartial because all of them appear to be pro-nuclear power and energy.

There are no independent health, NGO and environmental experts who should have been included to provide balance and input on the most pressing problems with the project, ie its potential health effects and toxicity to residents and the environment, and how to contain the wastes.

Importantly, there must even be consideration to halt the project, if the company cannot provide all such guarantees. We cannot mortgage the future of our citizens when lives and public safety are at stake.

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