Lynas thorium waste : A real health threat

comments     SM Mohd Idris     Published     Updated

During the last few weeks the public has heard the wildly positive and optimistic views of both the government and some local scientists concerning the Lynas plant in Gebeng, Kuantan.

On 20th March, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), Dr Maximus Ongkili, told the Dewan Rakyat that the Lynas plant is safe and not harmful to public health.

He said that the effluent from the plant contained low radioactive material. He explained that the effluent was not categorised as a radioactive material waste by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as it contained natural radioactive material ('Ongkili: Proposed Gebeng Rare Earth Plant Is Safe', Bernama, 23 March 2011).

Unfortunately, he failed to give the effluent the proper name: Technologically-Enhanced, Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Material (Tenorm).

Tenorm and Fallacy of Molten Salt Reactor (MSR)

Tenorm is produced when activities such as uranium mining, or sewage sludge treatment, concentrate or expose radioactive materials that occur naturally in ores, soils, water, or other natural materials.

In other words, this natural radioactive material has been made dangerous because it was removed from the ground and concentrated by mechanical and chemical processes.

It has been exported by Australia and will be left in Malaysia as waste by Lynas.

The radioactive material does not disappear once it reaches and is processed in Malaysia, and this dangerous material will be left in Malaysia.

Malaysians will need to keep this securely away from humans for hundreds of thousands of years.

Lynas and AELB have made the Tenorm sound like low level waste by merely diluting the waste until it conforms with IAEA regulations.

Diluting does not make the radiation ‘go away', and if the diluting liquid evaporates, you will again have concentrated radioactive material very harmful to people. The uranium and thorium will not evaporate with time.

Bear in mind that Australia has categorically stated that it will refuse to receive radioactive materials from other countries.

During the recent parliamentary select committee (PSC) public hearings on Lynas, nuclear physicist Dr Abdul Rahman Omar reportedly praised the value of the thorium wastes i.e. one tonne of thorium "can generate 1 gigawatt of electricity a year which is worth RM 1 billion to RM 2 billion, multiply this by 2,000 tonnes a year that the factory will produce, then it is worth between RM2 trillion to RM4 trillion in electricity". (Read nuclear energy and nuclear reactor).

He added that this technology dubbed Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) was mooted by the Americans at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, between 1968 to 1972 but was abandoned in favour of uranium due to its abundance. "China is now working very hard on using thorium for energy generation".

Alternatively, the gypsum by product produced from Lynas could be sold to China which would extract the thorium for energy production", he said ('Lynas' thorium can generate RM4 trillion in energy', Nigel Aw, Malaysiakini, May 21, 2012).

However, according to an article published in the UK Guardian (23 June 2011), debunking thorium as a greener nuclear option, it states that "There is a significant sticking point to the promotion of thorium as the ‘great green hope' of clean energy production: It remains unproven on a commercial scale. While it has been around since the 1950s (and an experimental 10MW LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor) did run for five years during the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, though using uranium and plutonium as fuel) it is still a next generation nuclear technology - theoretical".

The article further states that although China has announced that it intends to develop a thorium MSR, nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says "the world shouldn't hold its breath".

He added that "Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding".

The article states that "Those who support renewables say they will have come so far in cost and efficiency terms by the time the technology is perfected and upscaled that thorium reactors will already be uneconomic. Indeed, if renewables had a fraction of nuclear's current subsidies they could already be light years ahead".

Health risks of thorium and other tenorms

All other issues aside, thorium is still nuclear energy, say environmentalists, its reactors disgorging the same toxic by-products and fissile waste with the same millennial half-lives.

Oliver Tickell, author of ‘Kyoto2', says the fission materials produced from thorium are of a different spectrum to those from uranium-235, but ‘"nclude many dangerous-to-health alpha and beta emitters".

Anti-nuclear campaigner Peter Karamoskos goes further, dismissing a ‘dishonest fantasy' perpetuated by the pro-nuclear lobby. "Thorium cannot in itself power a reactor; unlike natural uranium, it does not contain enough fissile material to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. As a result it must first be bombarded with neutrons to produce the highly radioactive isotope uranium-233 - "so these are really U-233 reactors'," says Karamoskos.

"This isotope is more hazardous than the U-235 used in conventional reactors", he adds, "because it produces U-232 as a side effect (half life: 160,000 years), on top of familiar fission by-products such as technetium-99 (half life: up to 300,000 years) and iodine-129 (half life: 15.7 million years).

"Add in actinides such as protactinium-231 (half life: 33,000 years) and it soon becomes apparent that thorium's superficial cleanliness will still depend on digging some pretty deep holes to bury the highly radioactive waste".

Referring to the UK, The Guardian article says that "with billions of pounds already spent on nuclear research, reactor construction and decommissioning costs - dwarfing commitments to renewables - and proposed reform of the UK electricity markets apparently hiding subsidies to the nuclear industry, the thorium dream is considered by many to be a dangerous diversion".

Citing Jean McSorley senior consultant for Greenpeace's nuclear campaign: "Even if thorium technology does progress to the point where it might be commercially viable, it will face the same problems as conventional nuclear: it is not renewable or sustainable and cannot effectively connect to smart grids. The technology is not tried and tested, and none of the main players is interested. Thorium reactors are no more than a distraction".

According to Dr. Rosalie Bertell, who is a radiation expert, thorium reactors also produce a lot of Americium, which is much more toxic than plutonium. "I do not think that, even if thorium some day becomes a viable option, they will ever want to separate out the thorium from the Malaysian waste, where it has been significantly diluted so that it appears to be below regulatory concern.

"You cannot say it is a valuable commodity and also release it as of no concern! Moreover, you are not dealing with pure thorium, but with radioactive material with a long list of radioactive decay products some of which are very radioactive. New reactors will get their thorium from India or Australia. Malaysia would be considered a secondary or tertiary source," she states.

In other words, there is no economic possibility or feasibility that anyone will use the Malaysian waste for thorium when there are large direct sources of thorium to be had immediately in Australia or India.

Dr. Bertell is a nuclear health expert who has done extensive research on nuclear health impacts all over the world including the Marshall Islands, India, Germany, Ukraine, US and Canada. She has been a consultant to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Environmental Protection Agency. She was a key witness during the Bukit Merah court hearings.

However, contrary to the world experts, the local medical and nuclear so-called experts have recently testified to the PSC that the thorium produced from Lynas was too low to pose significant health dangers.

In contrast to what the PSC has been told by the local so-called experts, the health impacts of radiation are not benign. In a comparative study by V. T. Padmanabhan et al of inhabitants of regions of normal and high background radiation in Kerala from 1988 - 1994, the researchers showed that thorium health damage from monazite sands was evident ( International Journal of Health Services Vol. 34 No. 3 pp483-515, 2004 ).

The study revealed that there was a high incidence of heritable anomalies in the high background region (HBRR). There was a statistically significant increase of Down syndrome, autosomal dominant anomalies and multifactorial diseases and an insignificant increase of autosomal recessive and X-linked recessive anomalies in the HBRR.

The main findings of the study have been summarised as follows:

  • The relative risk for chromosomal, autosomal dominant, and multifactorial anomalies is higher in the HBRR.
  • For congenital anomalies (WHO's International Classification of Diseases, ICD 740-757), there is no difference between the areas. Within the study and control areas, ‘nonmigrant' couples have 51 percent and 61 percent excess relative risk (ERR), respectively, in comparison to ‘migrant' couples. The ERR among the related versus the unrelated couples is 96 percent in the HBRR and 41 percent in the NRR (normal radiation region).
  • Rates of multifactorial anomalies and multiple deaths are higher in the HBRR. Again, the related and the nonmigrant couples have higher risk than the migrants and the unrelated, respectively. The rates among the migrants in both areas are more or less the same.
  • If all untoward outcomes other than Down syndrome and Mendelian anomalies are grouped together, 6.4 percent of the unrelated ‘migrants' in the NRR are affected versus 16.4 percent of the related couples in the HBRR.

The authors suspect that exposure to radiation was genetically significant. "Besides the external radiation from beta particles and gamma rays from the soil, there is the possibility of internal exposure through air, water, and food. Soman (27) estimated the per capita daily uptake of radium-228 by the study population as 4.72 Bq.

"Based on the average consumption of sardines, Van de Laar (18) estimated the daily intake as less than 0.01 Bq per person. Since the coastal land is less fertile and farming and husbandry are restricted to small pockets, the internal exposure is mainly from poultry products, fish, and accidental ingestion of fine grains of monazite in childhood."

They revealed that the mean cumulative exposure to external radiation during the reproductive life of people living in the high-background radiation regions is 18 rads for women and 22 rads for men, six times the exposure in the normal radiation region.

Conclusion

Thorium from Lynas is Tenorm and a radioactive waste which has serious health risks.

We urge the PSC and the government to seriously weigh the published and reviewed scientific findings and views of the international experts quoted above before decisions on Lynas are made.

We strongly urge that Lynas be NOT allowed to operate in Malaysia.

 


SM Mohd Idris is president of the Consumers' Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

 

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