Lynas and the Malaysian Green movement — Kua Kia Soong

By Kua Kia Soong via The Malaysian Insider

The Green Assembly (Himpunan Hijau 109) at dawn at the Kuantan beach yesterday was the harbinger of the Malaysian Green movement that has been a long time coming. Kudos to the organisers of this inspirational event that managed to draw together other green campaigns as well as environmentally conscious Malaysians throughout the country. It was especially heart-warming to see the Orang Asli from nearby Chini taking an active part in the event. There, we pledged our commitment to the Earth Charter and sustainable development and our opposition to projects that are socially disruptive and health-threatening.

Green consciousness in Malaysia has been growing with every toxic project in the country, most noxious has been the processing and storage of radioactive waste. The BN government has always tried to justify their production by saying that “impartial experts” have testified to their safety. In the latest case of the Lynas rare earth plant at Gebeng, near Kuantan, they have invited the IAEA as an afterthought and they say that subject to certain recommendations, the plant should be safe. But the people are not convinced and will continue to oppose this toxic project.

The myth of impartial experts

In 1984, during the controversy over the nuclear dumps of Asian Rare Earth (ARE) at Papan in Perak, I wrote an article in The Star (September 2, 1984) entitled “The Myth of the Impartial Scientist”. The government was trying to convince the public that the dumps for the radioactive waste were constructed to the required specifications and scientific experts were carted out to back up their case. But the people of Papan were not impressed and they continued to organise a protracted resistance to the dumps until they won.

The ARE factory had started operating in Bukit Merah New Village in 1982. In February 1985, the Bukit Merah residents filed an application in the Ipoh High Court to stop ARE from operating in the vicinity of their village. The residents turned out in force at the court and their organisation and commitment to the cause of environmental safety was an inspiration for the rest of the country. On April 12, 1987, some 10,000 people marched through Bukit Merah to protest the resumption of operations by ARE after the company had disregarded an injunction to stop operations. They finally won through their sustained campaign and ARE had to pack up and pay them compensation. The people of Papan and Bukit Merah were more concerned about their health and the health of their future generations than they were about the short-term gain of employment that ARE provided.

Today, the people in Kuantan who are opposing the Lynas rare earth plant are displaying the same admirable organisation, commitment to protecting their environment and concern for their health and the health of their future generations and we salute their efforts.

Far from being impartial, the IAEA is deeply involved in promoting nuclear energy. It failed to correctly assess the dangers caused by nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and recently at Fukushima. For all its “impartiality”, it also failed to prevent the Iraq war, when Bush and Blair had insisted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It turned out to be an elaborate lie to justify western invasion of Iraq.

Since the key question to allay the fears of the people is that of safety and the effects of the plant on the people’s health, one would have expected the government to bring in independent members outside the IAEA with expertise in nuclear safety, public health, environmental protection and other social concerns. Besides the danger of radiation, the Lynas plant also produces large quantities of industrial acids and chemicals which will adversely affect the environment.

The lesson of Bukit Merah should be instructive for the Lynas controversy. The ARE expert there had insisted that their facilities were safe. I remember visiting their premises and the Japanese manager had assured me of the same. When I asked the manager if he would allow his pregnant wife to work in the premises with those drums of radioactive waste around her, he was completely stumped and couldn’t answer me. During the Bukit Merah court case, other international experts testified that the adverse health effects on the residents — cancer, congenital deformities, cardiovascular disease, etc — were the direct result of the radioactivity from the waste produced by ARE.

Whatever IAEA may recommend for the Lynas plant, they have no power to regulate or enforce compliance on Lynas. We also know that the Malaysian government’s record on monitoring and implementing such environmental safety standards and its maintenance culture are legendary! If not, how did the DOE and the Atomic Energy Licensing Board fail the residents of Bukit Merah?

Neutrality of science is a myth

The lesson from all these controversies is that there is no such thing as a “neutral expert”. Science and technology have never been neutral — the neutrality of science is a myth. You can as soon find an expert who will say the project is safe and another who will warn you of its dangers.