Saturday, March 3, 2012

Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia

My Facebook newsfeed was invaded with a wave of green things about a week ago. Being an ABU and a staunch supporter of bi-partisanship in Malaysia, I would usually join in the fray. But not this time.

It would seem that anyone who does not agree with the opposition of the Lynas plant will be faced with the wrath of the Malaysiakini, MalaysiaInsider readers and possibly even my own Facebook page readers. So before the readers start penning down their rebuttal on my letter, I would like to begin by saying categorically that I oppose the construction of the Lynas plant. Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia…but from what?

Rare-earths? They are not dangerous by themselves. But they usually appear in compounds which contains Thorium which could be radioactive. So ah ha! We are opposing it because of the dangerous Thorium-232? But how radioactive is it? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? No. Because in Malaysia anything with the tag ‘radioactive’ on it scares the shit out of you. Doesn’t mind the scientific facts now, if it is radioactive it has something to do with cancer. The next thing we know is that if I have a headache, it’s Thorium’s fault. But Thorium half-life is in billions of years and emits the radioactivity in the form of alpha particle, which is only harmful if you ingest, i.e. if you put it in your mouth and swallow it. Under normal circumstances, we won’t even swallow Copper, Lead, Iron or any metal for this matter but for some reason Malaysians are susceptible to swallowing Thorium. Maybe because it looks tasty.

Then comes all the videos that portray the rare-earth processing plant like some sort of nuclear plant, capable of a meltdown like Fukushima or in Chernobyl. I have been with the opposition all this while and I have to say sometimes they oppose for the sake of opposing. All these reminds me of the tea party movement in the USA where they use fear to garner support for their own cause.

All the nuclear scientists, local and abroad, will not convince Malaysians it is safe. Why? Because there are still some scientist and doctors who are sceptical about it. Malaysians say, “better safe than sorry, right?” But you know what? Even global warming has its sceptics. So does that mean it does not exist? Having earning my PhD in Physics I know that in the world of academia, anything goes. It’s almost like Newton’s 3rd law - for every argument there is an equal and opposite argument. But we can only survive and science goes on because we have to believe in our experimental results, and we have to believe in our assumptions, and all these point to the fact that the plant by itself, under normal circumstances, is quite safe.

The hypocrisy of Malaysians is unparallel. When they have low mobile signals, they complain. But when we build a broadcast tower near their house, they also complain. What if I tell you that microwave signals attenuates so rapidly that at approximately 1 m away from the transmitting antenna the signal would have be so low that even your mobile phone will need something called a Low-Noise Amplifier (LNA) to pick up that minute signal. Placing our mobile phones directly next to our ears is probably more dangerous, but for some reasons, we are OK with that. Because, phones are small what, never mind the science!

Would I want the processing plant next to my home? No. Just like I don’t want any factory near my home, I don’t want the processing plane near my home too. All I am saying is that the danger of the plant is, at times, exaggerated. The danger of this processing plant is probably similar to any other factories. In fact, it could be safer. Like I said, Thorium does not cause you any harm unless you ingest it but fortunately it would unusual for Thorium to stay in gaseous form. I can’t say the same for all the harmful chemicals from other factories though. I think the gas will kill you and there is nothing you can stop those gases from coming out of the chimney and drifting with wind, or even dissolve in the rain water.

But I did say I oppose the construction of the Lynas plant, yes? Of course, and here is the real reason. Our government.

No factory is accident-proof. An accident, after all, is defined as an unexpected event. But in a country, where cow-feeding operations can become real estate agency; where jet engines can be lifted from an air base; who is it to say that a rare-earth processing plant cannot become a nuclear catastrophe? The problem is, there is just not sufficient trust in the management of our government agencies for a project like this. While I acknowledge that there are projects that are well-run by our government, but I can also say that about half of them are equally abysmally managed. As the rakyat, can we afford the risk? As the Prime Minister of all Malaysians, should you take the risk?

Not withstanding the fact that Lynas’ handling of the entire project is very shady. It’s not too difficult to build a factory to, say, 90% accident-proof. But beyond that point, the cost would probably increase exponentially. It’s up to the management of the factory to decide how far they will go in making the factory as safe as possible. Given the flawed record of our government, can we trust Lynas and put our safety in their hands? A foreign company with shady records in their own land?

It was aptly pointed out by Zurairi in his MalaysiaInsider article that one last, but important point in opposing the Lynas plant is because of our experience with the Bkt Merah incident. And even more critically, simply because the rakyat does not want it. Whether the rakyat has been misinformed or not, the government, at the end of the day, serves the rakyat. Until trust is regained, I am afraid that this project must be postponed.

So there you go. I oppose the construction of the rare-earth processing plant. Because I don’t believe our government is capable of handling a project of this scale. Not because of the dangers of radioactive Thorium that has been wildly exaggerated. The next time you wear green, try to remember that.

Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia!


Castor Teo said...

You've pretty much covered how I feel about this topic. Too often are issues like this exaggerated by the common public, almost always with the "better safe than sorry" mentality. Ultimately, people will believe what makes sense to them, often within the threshold of their own understanding. Anything that is too technical to them and against their pre-established belief will be outright rejected as technical mumbo jumbo that is bend on twisting the truth.

As you've pointed out, because people held their believe in global warming so deeply that whoever that challenges it is immediately treated as a pariah. I believe a good scientist is a seeker of truth. They are willing to overthrowing their own belief if it is found to be wrong.

I believe the majority is objecting Lynas for the wrong reason. Off course, since there are social repercussion if you're not taking the majority's side, that kinda forces you to hop on to the bandwagon if peer acceptance is important to you. What I find silly however is that if you're not on one side, then you're automatically on the other.

In all, I applaud you and Zurairi for the courage to speak your mind, and make an unbiased judgement on the issue.

Chen Jie@陈杰 said...

well, end of the day is about the trust on the authority, which we don't have the faith and it's not science.

shinliang said...

Chen Jie, I agree with you it's thr problem with trust, not science. But I'm arguing that much of the anti Lynas campaign has been based on flawed science.