Lynas: The use and abuse of science — Chan Chee Khoon
JUNE 23 — “Based on scientific facts, there is nothing that can raise doubts as to the safety of the [Lynas refinery for the] public or the environment” (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, The Malaysian Insider, June 22, 2012).
The prime minister’s technical advisers seem to be quite oblivious of scientific uncertainties in regard to health risks from chronic low-level exposure to internal emitters (radioactive particles that end up in the human body through inhalation, or ingestion via food and water).
These uncertainties were well documented in the report of an independent expert panel convened by the UK government (2001-2004, www.cerrie.org) and chaired by Professor Dudley Goodhead, director of the Medical Research Council Unit on Radiation and Genome Stability at Harwell, Oxfordshire. Opinions among the 12 UK panellists ranged from negligible adverse effects to an underestimation of risk by at least a 100-fold.
These uncertainties have been underscored by recently published findings from Germany (KiKK, 2008) and from France (Geocap, 2012) of a doubling of childhood leukaemia risk for children living within 5km of a nuclear power plant, where the measured levels of radiation were 100x-1,000x below the “safe threshold” of 1mSv/year that Lynas, AELB, and IAEA repeatedly invoke to assert the safety of LAMP’s operations.
Various contending hypotheses have emerged for this unexplained excess of childhood leukaemias, ranging from electromagnetic fields (from high voltage power cables linked to the nuclear power stations) to population mixing and vulnerability to infectious agents suspected of causing leukaemia (Kinlen hypothesis), to the under-stated risks from internal emitters which the UK expert panel was grappling with.
Given this lack of scientific consensus, no one can be sure about the safety of LAMP’s powdery radioactive solid wastes and its management — not Lynas, not AELB, not IAEA.
These uncertainties were also acknowledged in the US National Academy of Sciences report and recommendations for strengthening the empirical basis for regulating exposures to low-level ionising radiation in the vicinity of nuclear facilities (Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities: Phase I, Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012).
In a situation of uncertainty such as this, the precautionary principle becomes even more important (let’s recall that obstetric X-rays were considered safe by the medical and scientific community until the 1950s, when Professor Alice Stewart (Oxford) raised the alarm with her findings of increased risk of childhood leukaemia. These findings were initially also dismissed as a fringe minority opinion — by Sir Richard Doll, no less, doyen of cancer epidemiologists and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford — but Stewart’s persistence eventually saw them incorporated into mainstream medical practice).
The Precautionary Principle — in situations of scientific and technical uncertainty, err on the side of caution — is a well-known and widely accepted legal principle in national and international jurisprudence. In California, for instance, this principle is operationalised by requiring Molycorp (in the process of re-opening what was formerly the largest rare earth mine in the world) to comply with a zero liquid wastes discharge requirement despite the limited solubility of thorium compounds in most circumstances. Arafura Resources, another Australian company, will be processing its rare earth ore concentrates at its refinery in Whyalla, South Australia and is required to transport the refinery’s radioactive solid wastes back to its originating mine site at Nolans Bore, Northern Territories for secure burial. Such is the notion of environmental justice as practised within Australian national borders.
The economist John Maynard Keynes, who was deeply engaged with the rough and tumble of the policy arena as well, famously said: “There is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed, for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.”
It is increasingly clear that the official discourse over the Lynas refinery isn’t about science. It’s about power. It is equally clear that proceeding with the Lynas rare earth refinery under the present circumstances is tantamount to unconscionable human experimentation on the Kuantan-Kemaman community.
* Chan Chee Khoon is with the Centre for Population Health, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.