Side Views

Lynas: What’s different about Malaysian and Australian regulators? — Rama Ramanathan

APRIL 5 — Many say Lynas came to Malaysia because it’s easier for it to comply with regulations in Malaysia than inAustralia, it’s home country.  I’d like to believe what they say, because I’m suspicious of miners (as I am of used-car salesmen, planters and politicians), and I have a low opinion of most Malaysian enforcement agencies.

But I cannot rely upon my gut to rally others. I must rely upon facts.

I am wary of those who compare Lynas with Bukit Merah. I wonder why they don’t think modern hospitals are as unsafe as the hospitals of old.

I am wary of those who claim their voices have priority because they live in or own property in Kuantan. I wonder why they think they should enjoy the benefits of infrastructure without carrying some of the burdens.

I am wary of those who look at Lynas in isolation. I wonder why they don’t recognise that due to its size and the applicable regulations, what they say is wrong about Lynas also applies to petroleum refineries, smelters and fertiliser plants.

I am wary of those who say ore should be refined in the country in which it is mined. I wonder why they don’t explore what this means for our capital-intensive tin smelters, petroleum refineries and steel mills.

I am wary of those who focus on the waste from Lynas. I wonder why they choose to remain blind to all the other “radioactive waste” produced in Malaysia, because any discussion of NORM must include petroleum, coal-burning electric power plants, fertiliser plants and tin mines and smelters.

I am worried about those who do not consider the ethical aspects of preventing Lynas from commissioning its plant. After all, we gave Lynas the permits to buy land and to build: what would investors think if we go back on our word?

I am worried about our lack of knowledge about the expertise and commitment of those who will operate the Lynas plant. I know Lynas does not have a track record in mineral processing, and I worry about its ability to run the plant well.

Most of all I am concerned about the inability of Malaysians to engage in honest, meaningful dialogue in the public sphere. There is so much name calling of those who are just trying to be good citizens. Facts are not challenged, people are.

Well, I insist on facts. Since it’s not clear what Lynas would have to do differently if the plant was located in Australia, I cannot assess the validity of what many say.

I am an interested person with enough engineering training and industrial experience to form an informed opinion, which I have shared in nine previous articles. Here are my selections and reflections on an Australian guideline I’ve found.

In 2010, the government of the Western Australia Department of Mines and Petroleum published NORM 4.2, a guideline for Managing Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in Mining and Mineral Processing. Here are some excerpts (which I have occasionally rephrased), and 10 questions for reflection:

1. Dilution and use of waste. “The waste from mining and minerals processing operations is often reused in other industries.  Examples include use of different slags in road construction, sands and ash in building materials such as cement, and gypsum in agricultural use as a soil conditioner. It is important to ensure that no material that is considered as radioactive waste is released from mining and mineral processing operations without sufficient dilution with non-radioactive constituents and only after the approval by the appropriate authority.”

Questions:

(1) In Malaysia, how much “radioactive waste” is used in other industries?

(2) In Malaysia, how many waste reuse/dilution processes are currently approved?

2. Waste disposal monitoring. Twelve elements are listed as essential in a Radioactive Waste Management Plan. Item 10 is “A schedule for reporting on the waste disposal operation and results of monitoring and assessments.”

Questions:

(3) In Malaysia, who compiles, reviews and publishes reports on waste disposal operations?

(4) In Malaysia, what changes to the regulations and enforcement actions have been prompted by these reports?

3. Used equipment. “The equipment used in downstream processing of minerals may become contaminated by NORM (particularly with scales and sludge on the inside surfaces of pipes and vessels used in chemical and thermal processing) and will need to be either disposed of with the approval from an appropriate authority (typically at a mine site), or thoroughly decontaminated prior to any re-use.”

Questions:

(5) In Malaysia, where and how is the used equipment from the petroleum and chemical industries disposed of?

4. Slime blending. “Cleaning of certain minerals prior to processing (such as, for example, cleaning of the heavy mineral sand grains) may produce finely powdered waste (slimes). The disposal of these slimes may require consideration from the radiation protection point of view, as they may have a significant uranium or thorium content. Collection in a specially designated slimes pit and disposal with other tailings is usually suitable for those materials that are found to contain elevated uranium and thorium concentrations.”

Questions:

(6) What slime is produced at Lynas, and how and where is it to be disposed? What commitments did Malaysia make, re: waste disposal, prior to granting the licence to Lynas to build the plant? Who made what commitments?

5. Site classification. Sites are classified based on the mean dose to the general public. Usage of “contaminated sites” is described as (1) Unrestricted use: 0.0 mSv/y < DOSE < 0.3 mSv/year; (2) Restricted use: 0.3 mSv/y < DOSE < 1.0 mSv/year.  [note: I’ve listed only two of four]

Questions:

(7) How do current Malaysian regulations encourage minimal creation of sites with restricted use?

(8) Does Malaysia have any goals for increasing the dilution of NORM and programmes to enable these goals to be achieved?

6. NORM in mining by-products used in building materials. “Some types of tailings generated by mining and mineral processing industry and containing naturally occurring radionuclides can be re-utilised for different applications, including those in the building and construction industry, in accordance with the following recommendations …”

Questions:

(9) In Malaysia today, what levels of NORM are permissible for building materials for external exposure?

(10) For internal exposure?

My purpose in writing this piece is three-fold.

First, I suggest a frame for those who say Australian regulations are “tougher” than Malaysian regulations and invite them to flesh out the differences.

Second, I provide the AELB (Atomic Energy Licensing Board) and the PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee) with some questions to assess the effectiveness of the Malaysian regulatory environment — not just for Lynas, but for all industry.

Third, I seek to restore an element which is missing from the public discourse: the importance of maximising the recycling of industrial by-products.

Can Malaysians engage in dialogue? Or are we just a nation of name-callers?

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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