By Mariam Mokhtar
Although a distance of over 300 miles separates Bukit Merah, a suburb of Ipoh and Gebeng, outside of Kuantan, these two industrial areas have one thing in common.
They will be connected by rare earth technology, which most people have never even heard of until the recent protests in Kuantan and the nuclear disaster which followed the tsunami in north-eastern Japan.
These obscure elements are the magic ingredients in almost everything that make our modern lives possible. Rare earth elements power our computer screens, iPhones, catalytic converters and low energy light bulbs.
Memories of Bukit Merah
Gebeng will soon acquire a new RM700 million rare earth plant which will generate radioactive waste and which many people and environmentalists say, have revived memories of Bukit Merah – Ipoh’s own environmental disaster.
In 1979 the federal government authorised the establishment of a rare earth plant in Perak. Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE), a joint-venture between Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd, Beh Minerals, Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji and several bumiputera entities began operating its plant off Jalan Lahat in Bukit Merah in 1982.
In 1984 residents of Papan signed a petition against ARE to the federal government. They took to the streets to protest and organised a hunger strike. Experts visited the Papan dumpsite and declared it unsafe with radiation up to 800 times the accepted level.
The man behind the protest was Hew Yoon Tat, a butcher at the Bukit Merah market. Hew heads the Perak Anti-Radioactive Committee. He was among those who were incarcerated under ISA in the infamous Op Lalang of 1987.
In 1992 the plant was ordered to shut down by a High Court order. Although an appeal to the Supreme Court was pending, ARE decided to cease operations in 1994.
Sadly, not many Malaysians are aware that Bukit Merah and its radioactive waste problem still exists. To Ipohites, the fiasco is like a recurring nightmare.
Nuclear Waste in Perak
Last year, the government proposed the construction of two nuclear power plants in Malaysia. Former premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamad disagreed with the decision and reported that “a small amount” of nuclear waste was buried in Perak.
Mahathir said, “In Malaysia, we do have nuclear waste which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang (tin tailings) in Perak, deep in the ground. But the place is still not safe. Almost one square mile of that area is dangerous.”
The waste, incidentally, is not amang but contains thorium hydroxide. ARE extracted yytrium from monazite, one of the minerals found in amang for use in high technology products. The thorium hydroxide is produced in the production process. Both monazite and the waste contain thorium, which has a half-life of 13.9 billion years. It is going to be around for more than just a few generations of Ipohites. Worse still is that cancer-causing radon gas is released during decay.
Higher Incidence Of Cancer
A private practitioner, Dr. T. Jayabalan, found that in 1984, 13 children from Bukit Merah had leukaemia and there was a high number of cancer cases among the 11,000 villagers.
In a survey carried out in Bukit Merah, he discovered that the number of miscarriages in the village was high, well above the national average. Tests on a sample of 60 children revealed high levels of lead in their bloodstream. Jayabalan’s medical findings were submitted in the villagers’ 1985 suit in the Ipoh High Court. The findings were dismissed by the presiding judge.
The Papan-Pusing-Siputeh Anti-Radioacative Waste Dump committee chairman Low Tong Hooi said that Mahathir’s statements were alarming: “Why is it only now that he has admitted the radioactive dump is dangerous? In 1984, he maintained that the poorly constructed trenches for the waste in Papan were safe”.
Low claimed that Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Consumer Association of Penang and the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia sought expert help from USA, UK, Canada and Japan to declare the factory and the dump unsafe.
Too Little Too Late
However, the government ignored these recommendations and only started a decommissioning and decontamination exercise in 2003 and 2005. Finally, in January 2010 work began on the building of a proper underground storage facility.
So should we not be alarmed by our unresolved Bukit Merah problem, and the one Gebeng will soon see?
Back in 1984, Mahathir’s radioactive waste came from a company approved by the government to process rare earth. He assured us that everything was all right. The Ipoh judge even dismissed any allegations of cancer-causing chemicals. Today, Mahathir sings a different tune. Something must have pricked his conscience.
Should we believe the Australian company, Lynas Corporation when it tells us that Gebeng’s radioactive waste is safe? Why have the Australian people rejected their own mining company’s safety assurances, despite its billion-dollar money-making potential? Are we that gullible?
Are we simply greedy and is our government risking the rakyat’s lives and a destruction of our environment?
Ipohites endured much suffering. Perhaps Gebeng can learn from the experiences of Ipoh’s radioactive folly.
It is just like the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia president Nithi Nesadurai said, “As we are observing now in Japan, the waste is a sitting time bomb.”