Prevailing problems in waste management, storage, disposal facility and waste cleaning at the Lynas factory can lead to radioactive leakages if the Australian firm fails to address the issues, said experts t at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur today.
The mining company's refinery near Kuantan, Pahang, has several problems, which experts said in the event of an accident or carelessness, could harm to residents near the factory.
"The factory has limited storage capacity and the waste is stored in a poor liner system," said Dr Gerhard Schmidt, a chemist from the Oeko Institute in Germany.
Schmidt explained that the institute's report on the refinery published earlier this year showed that Lynas is using single layer high density polyethylene (HDPE) lining to hold the water leach purification, the by-products of mining industries, in storage.
Meanwhile, its report stated that the "state of the art design would use 2.5mm HDPE and at least two 25cm layers of clay". The factory was found to use 1mm HDPE and a single 30cm layer of clay.
"One layer isn't sufficient since these sheets have to be welded on the spot and if its thickness is insufficient or if the sheet was not welded properly, leaks can occur," Schmidt said in the event hosted by Pertubuhan Solidariti Hijau Kuantan (PSHK), an NGO protesting the factory's operations.
"I thought after publishing the report Lynas had addressed the four recommendations proposed by the institute but it turned out to be otherwise," he added.
Concerns about Lynas’s disposal of radioactive materials began in 2011 after residents feared that its refinery plant in Gebeng would affect some 700,000 people living within less than a 30km radius of the facility.
According to earlier reports, the Gebeng refinery known as Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces a by-product known as Thorium (Th), a radioactive element that causes cancer and is easily transported through wind and water.
Worried over the danger of leakages, environmental lawyer Theivanai Amarthalingam said that the scientist's concern should be given due diligence before an accident occurs.
"There's no guarantee that a storage facility can be kept safe for a hundred or a thousand years," she said.
Experts present pointed out that Lynas has been able to conduct its operations without proper check and balance due to regulatory flaws within the Atomic Energy Licensing Act 1984 and the lack of willpower by enforcement agencies to independently do its job.
"The Act is not up to international standards and it doesn't take into account aspects of rare earth plants, disposal and safety measures," said Theivanai.
The Act was last amended in 2006, before Lynas began operations this February.
"Section 11 of the law allows the minister to direct regulators toward certain policies and so there's massive conflict of interest," said Dr Peter Karamoskos, an Australian nuclear radiologist.
"It doesn't promote independence of a regulatory body when their boss, a minister, says that the plant is as safe as a soy sauce factory," Karamoskos added.
In September, Deputy Science Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Abu Bakar Mohamad Diah had said after visiting the Gebeng plant that he found "the Lynas factory is as safe as a kicap (soy sauce) factory".
Karamoskos said that recommendations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on disposal of waste in a facility was "clearly not followed in Malaysia" and although Lynas has been doing poorly financially, the law requires for companies to have funds to conduct cleanup operations before it can set up shop.
The company had announced in September that its full year loss had grown to $107.4 million (about RM345 million) for the business year ending June 30, from $102.6 million the year before.
The loss was attributed in part to additional costs required to commission the Malaysian processing plant and the low price of rare earth product in the market has also contributed to the slump.
Despite numerous criticisms toward the risks the plant holds to its nearby residents, Schmidt said that Lynas had kept mum over the institute's report.
"There has been no official reaction by Lynas to refute our findings. Nothing at all," said Schmidt.
Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL), co-organiser of the seminar, announced that representatives of the group will head to Lynas' headquarters in Sydney, Australia, tomorrow to attend the firm's annual shareholders meeting on November 29.
"We will reveal to the shareholders the true conditions of the plant in Pahang," said Tan Boon Teet, spokesperson of SMSL.
Meanwhile, Himpunan Hijau's activist Wong Tack said that the lack of response from the government and Lynas is "frustrating" and that the NGOs involved with campaigning against the plant would give the company six months to cease operations.
"Six months from Lynas's AGM, we will have a shutdown campaign and hold a protest to close Lynas's operations," he said, affirming that a major street protest would be held on June 29, next year. - November 24, 2013.