Can angry voters deny Lynas its licence?

The workings of the Parliamentary Select Com mittee(PSC) on the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP),

which tabled its report in Parliament last week, confirms the continuing erosion of governance and accountability concerning issues of public interest in the country.

Indeed, it is debatable whether the panel can be considered to have exercised its role as an oversight committee of the Legislature since it failed to gain the confidence of the Opposition due to the ambiguity over its terms of reference.

Before the PSC was even set up, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said that the committee would not decide on the fate of the project. Although the PSC's aim was purportedly to study the safety aspects of the plant, committee chairman Datuk Seri Khalid Nordin said it hoped to "change the negative, baseless perception on Lynas and LAMP" Such an anticipatory position by the panel chief can hardly be expected to yield a dispassionate assessment of health risks that would serve the public interest, to put it mildly.

Opposition MPs staged a walkout from Parliament last month after five Barisan Nasional (BN) members and one Independent were named to the PSC. The Opposition chose not to fill the three seats it was allocated on the panel, saying that it was pointless because the government had no intention of scrapping the plant. Klang MP Charles Santiago of DAP noted that it did not make sense to set up the PSC after 90% of the plant was completed.

Furthermore, the committee was also boycotted by the civil society coalition, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL), that has rallied people who are concerned over the potential health and environmental impacts of the plant. The SMSL had walked out of the PSC's public hearing last month because the Committee had not granted the coalition a written guarantee of Parliamentary privilege to prevent any evidence that the SMSL might provide the committee from being used against it in a libel suit. This had followed Lynas' legal action in April against the group and online news portal Free Malaysia Today over what it said were false and misleading statements.

The controversy over the plant has undoubtedly focused the people's minds on the science behind rare earth refining. Although the technical nature of the issue would normally put off non-scientists, the proximity and scalc of the potential hazards forces concerned citizens to digest key strands of the argument. At issue is the differing evaluations of the radiation risk from the plant's processes. A couple of points will serve to illustrate the matter.

One is a question of the safe threshold of radiation exposure from thorium, and to a lesser extent, uranium, that are found in rare earth compounds. While Lynas and the Atomic Energy Licensing Board cite the one millisievert (mSv)/year (public) and 20 mSv/year (occupational) thresholds based on the risk models of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), others note that these risk models have come under critical scrutiny and challenge.

According to Prof Chan Chee Khoon, an epidemiologist who spoke at the ministerial hearing in April on the appeal to revoke the Temporary Operating Licence (TOL) for LAMP, the ICRP risks models, which are largely based on external sources of irradiation, are not considered adequate for assessing the health risks from ingested or inhaled internal emitters.

Further, Chan exposes a grave weakness in the Lynas risk assessment: "The Lynas Radiological Impact Assessment... does attempt to estimate the risks from inhaled emitters for LAMP employees ... but it then proceeds to compare the absorbed radiation dose averaged over the whole body with existing norms of 'safe' thresholds of exposure," he says.

"By way of analogy, averaging the absorbed radiation dose over the whole body is equivalent to saying that a burning cigarette butt on your palm doesn't hurt because the heat is negligible when averaged over your whole body," Chan explains.

To balance the ICRP risk models, Chan cites two large epidemiological studies in Germany (KiKK, 2008) and in France (Geocap, 2012) which "have reported statistically robust findings of a doubling of leukaemia risk among children living within a 5km radius of a nuclear power plant, where radiation exposures were much below one mSv/year."

"Could the excess leukaemia be due to inhaled or ingested radioactive particles not satisfactorily accounted for in ICRP's risk models?" he asks.

In other words, nobody really knows at this point how hazardous the Lynas refinery may turn out to be, given that much of the radioactive solid wastes will be in powdery form, that is respirable or ingestable, says Chan.

In asserting that the LAMP refinery is unquestionably safe, proponents of the plant are taking the precautionary principle rather lightly, he argues.

These points make up a small fraction of the contentious issues surrounding the Lynas plant project. Among those that ring with controversy is a rather creative proposal to use the thorium waste to generate electricity. The issues signal the need for a substantive inquiry into the potential risks of operating the world's largest rare earths refinery under a dysfunctional governance system. Despite the problematic circumstances, however, the process of sanctioning the RM2.5 billion plant appears to be heading towards an inexorable conclusion.

However, one key factor looks like it may influence this ending. The groundswell of opposition to the plant that has been building ever since its details came to light appears to show no signs of abating. Ahead of the day-long assembly in Kuantan at the weekend to protest the impending issuance of a TOL to the plant, the Himpunan Hijau coalition had warned the government and Lynas of "wave after wave" of protests until "the world's largest radioactive dump" is forced out of the country.

A contest of wills appears to be in the making. For the Najib administration, adverse voter sentiment may be the last challenge that it may want to face in the midst of a shifting political landscape.

Resource: The Edge Financial Daily, Page: 14
Date: Monday, 25 June 2012

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