Lynas plans permanent radioactive waste dump in Malaysia

Stop Lynas protest in 2012. Photo: Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement/FB

Australian rare earth mining and refining company Lynas took advantage of the poor regulatory framework and corruption in Malaysia to build a toxic refinery in Gebeng, near the city of Kuantan, in 2012.

Despite broad opposition from many local residents and environmentalists in Malaysia and Australia, the project went ahead. But now, the refinery has created a mountain of toxic waste, including radioactive material such as Thorium and heavy metals like lead.

Rare earths are used in electronics, wind turbines, catalytic converters, electric and hybrid motor vehicles as well as military equipment.

Lynas is attempting to ride the wave of strategic tension between rich Western states and China, by promoting itself on its corporate website as “the only producer of scale of separated rare earths outside China”.

Green Left’s Peter Boyle spoke to Lee Tan, a long-time campaigner against the Lynas refinery and a former cancer researcher. She now works as a campaigner and researcher with AidWatch.

Lynas has applied for a licence to build a permanent dump for its toxic waste in a rainforested area in the Malaysian state of Pahang. What has led to this?

Back in 2012, when it was applying for an operating licence for its refinery in Malaysia, Lynas gave an undertaking to remove the radioactive waste from Malaysia if there was no suitable location for it. But Lynas has always wanted to keep the waste in Malaysia because of the absence of effective environmental safeguards there.

In Australia and other advanced countries, very stringent regulatory controls are in place because of the very long half-life of the radionuclides in the radioactive waste. But in Malaysia, the Atomic Energy Licencing Board (AELB) has accommodated Lynas with hardly any standards at all.

Even in arid desert country in Australia, applications for low-level radioactive waste dumps, like that Lynas is asking to build in Malaysia, have been rejected for more than 30 years by experts and the community. In a tropical country like Malaysia, which experiences huge monsoonal deluges every year, this is even more dangerous.

Lynas is asking to carve out one of the last remnants of a pristine rainforest for a shallow radioactive waste dump, lined with only a 2 millimetre-thin, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic sheet. That is like the plastic in our garbage bags. That is not acceptable!

Rain, water intrusions, landslides and many other factors will guarantee that the radioactive materials, heavy metals and other toxic material will not be stopped from leaking out.

The forest is on Bukit Ketam, a hill that is a catchment for two rivers — Sungai Ara joins Sungai Riau and that flows into the Kuantan River and to the South China Sea. Along the way there are two water treatment plants for water supply drawn from this river system. The city of Kuantan uses river water for drinking water.

So 90% of the city’s population will be drinking water that potentially could be contaminated with toxic elements from the proposed Lynas waste dump.

Lynas and its supporters have made a lot of the fact that this is “low-level radioactive waste”. What are the dangers associated with such waste?

According to established international guidelines and standards, there is practically no safe dose of exposure to radiation, particularly to elements like thorium and uranium. They might be low-level in terms of radioactivity but in decaying have very high daughter isotopes like radium, radon, polonium and so forth. Because they have long half-lives, they are radioactive for a long time, billions of years.

As they are practically forever hazardous, the danger comes from ionising radiation when the radioactive particles enter living cells — plant, animal or human. This takes place when they decay in the surviving cells damaging the DNA — the building blocks of our cells — if the dose is high enough. This is can be a cumulative process over a lifetime and can even be passed down to future generations.

The Malaysian regulators are weak and often politically overpowered. Lynas plays up its strategic and geopolitical importance and this intimidates even sympathetic and decent bureaucrats, including the former environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, under the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. While outspoken on these issues, she felt bullied by Lynas.

How real is Lynas’ claim to strategic importance because it is the only alternative source of rare earths besides China?

Lynas played up this spin in 2011–12 to gain funding from Japan to build the refinery in Malaysia, exploiting a conflict between Japan and China over rare earths supply. In recent years, under the [Donald] Trump administration, the trade war between the US and China stepped up, and Lynas once again tried to play on this geopolitical conflict, by talking itself up as a non-Chinese supplier of rare earths.

But, Lynas is predominantly a light rare earths producer and cannot produce a refined product without going through Japan and China. It sells oxides to China for refining. The Pentagon is looking for heavy rare earths for its development of military technology, but Lynas has very little of this to supply. It is less than 10% of its product.

The Lynas plant in Malaysia is also not very efficient and, as a result, produces at least one and a half times more radioactive waste than it originally planned for.

Many of the activists in Malaysia who campaigned against Lynas’ toxic refinery looked to the former PH government elected in 2018 only to have those hopes dashed. What went wrong?

First, we had a PH government that lacked political and governing experience and secondly, we had Mohamed Mahathir as the prime minister, and he has long been a culprit on Lynas. He undermined many of the PH promises on Lynas. He packed his cabinet with conservative MPs and his close alliance with Japan was also a problem. Japan wanted Lynas to survive, partly to collect repayment of its loan, and partly to show China that it was not totally relying on it for rare earths.

In her executive review as environment minister, Yeo said clearly that if Lynas did not remove its waste, the plant should be shut down. But Mahathir intervened and forced her to back down and accept this search for a “safe” permanent waste dump.

Right now, through AidWatch, we are campaigning to get people to make submissions to the environmental impact assessment for the Lynas plan for a permanent waste dump, to show that there is no safe place to store this toxic, radioactive waste in Malaysia.

[To lodge a submission against Lynas’ permanent toxic waste dump plan, visit: AidWatch.]