Radioactive waste dump in Malaysia is a super subsidy for Lynas

In recent days we have heard the authorities giving contradictory signals regarding the disposal of radioactive wastes from Lynas.

According to the Health Minister, Lynas would be told to move the radioactive wastes outside of Kuantan or ship them back to Australia. This was the agreement reached by him and the Ministers of International Trade and Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation, and Natural Resources and Environment.

Four days on, i.e. 26 February, the Prime Minister said that the radioactive wastes would be dumped far away from residential areas.

Two days later, on 28 February, the public was told that the four ministries had decided to store the radioactive wastes in Malaysia and a possible site had been found.

The following day, the Green Technology, Energy and Water Minister said that the Cabinet had not given up on the sending-back-the-radioactive-wastes-to-Australia option.

In fact the impression given was that Malaysia was mulling over the option of whether to actually send the radioactive wastes from Lynas back to Australia.

This being the case, we are wondering why the Malaysian government had not thought of getting Mitsubishi, the company which produced radioactive wastes in the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory in Bukit Merah, Perak over 30 years ago, to send its wastes back to Japan. It is still not too late as the radioactive wastes may continue to contaminate our environment and pose a threat to Malaysians for countless generations, thanks to the apathy of the government (and Atomic Energy Licensing Board, (AELB)). If the government thinks that it can ship radioactive wastes back to Australia, we are sure that the same could have been done for ARE wastes.

If the government had done this earlier, we would not be burdened with having to deal with these radioactive wastes with a half-life of 13.9 billion years. In other words, we are now left with having to manage these radioactive wastes that will remain radioactive forever.

This was a stupendous subsidy for Mitsubishi (and Japan). The radioactive wastes left behind are a source of contamination of our soils, forests, water systems and the air. (Thorium, when it decays, produces radioactive radon gas which can be carried for long distances, generously covering the air Malaysians breathe).

These are enormous liabilities to Malaysia, our ecosystems and our health and safety. The damage to our land, forests, waters and air and the costs to the health of Malaysians are incalculable.  These future costs were never factored in when Mitsubishi was allowed to operate.  In the absence of knowledge about future risks and costs, the government (AELB) decided it was a golden investment opportunity.  Mitsubishi took the profits home and left this toxic legacy which will last for billions of years – or forever.

Despite the fact that work has begun on an underground storage system (at the cost of over RM300 million), there is no guarantee that this underground storage of some 80,000 200-litre drums of radioactive wastes from the ARE factory will remain geologically stable for the next 100 years, let alone 1000 years.

Bear in mind that Malaysia is made up mainly of limestone which is highly porous, unstable and prone to erosion, making it highly unsuitable for the storage of long-lived radioactive wastes.  Climate change, tsunamis, earthquakes, the recent unprecedented floods and natural disasters should serve as a clear warning.  Should any disaster occur, Malaysian taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

The ARE factory in Bukit Merah was underwritten with enormous public subsidies where all the risks and costs were socialised and borne by Malaysia and its present and future generations.

Allowing Lynas to dump its radioactive wastes on Malaysian soil will be the sweetest ultimate subsidy of all.  This is on top of the tax-free USD billions that it will reap as profits.  Note that Lynas’ rare earths production will be ten times more than that produced at the ARE factory, thus the wastes level will be immense. If the damages and costs are not addressed by the authorities, they will be burdening future generations of Malaysians with radioactive wastes they had no part in creating.

As it is, the USD10 million a year that Lynas will pay Malaysia for five years beggars belief. It is farcical that the economic, social, environmental and health costs to the workers, communities, the land, forests, soils, waters, seas, and future generations are seen as amounting to just USD50 million.  Allowing Lynas to dump its radioactive wastes in Malaysia forever is indefensible.

Letter to the Editor, 2 March 2012