I’m just a layman, I read the paper I saw the news, but I want to know more…
Q1: What is rare earth (RE)?
Rare earth (RE) is just a metal, as ordinary as other metals like iron, silver and gold. The difference between them is we don’t encounter RE in daily life, e.g. you don’t wear RE bracelets, you don’t build the bridge with RE. It’s precious, valuable and essential for many high-tech industries.
Q2: Who is LYNAS?
LYNAS is the owner of the RE mine and Gebeng plant, incorporated and listed in Australia. LYNAS (M) Sdn. Bhd is wholly owned by LYNAS Inc.
Q3: Where does the RE come from? What is it like?
Like other metals, RE is found in ore (rock) in West Australia. The ore is mined, cleaned and crushed into sand or powder form, before being shipped to Kuantan. The journey is about 5000 km. The size of a single grain of powder can be 100 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair.
Q4: Why do they take the RE from Australia and process it here?
The official statement said that Australia cannot provide high-skilled manpower, and that Australia cannot supply enough water, acids and natural gas to process RE.
Q5: What do we get in terms of income?
Malaysia was offered 12 years tax break by LYNAS, which means they do not pay us anything during the first 12 years of operation. Eventually, all revenue generated here will probably be channeled back to the LYNAS Inc. share holders in Australia, and not to LYNAS (M) Sdn. Bhd.
Q6: What do we get in terms of job opportunities?
Only a total of 350 employees are needed, including expatriate, skilled and unskilled workers. The number of employees in a mid-size supermarket is greater than this.
Q7: What do we get in terms of new world-class technology?
Malaysia is not a traditional, major RE-producing county. Transferring RE processing knowledge to Malaysia does not benefit the country and its people considerably.
Q8: So, what actually do we get?
Save the “jobs created, new technology and sales revenue of chemicals, water and natural gas”, strictly speaking, in the first 12 years – nothing! Except large quantities of waste. To be more precise, 500 cubic meters/hour of waste water, 100,000 cubic meters/hour of waste gas and 280,000 tonnes/year of solid waste.
Q9: Is RE dangerous?
Most RE metals are harmless, but in natural ore RE is normally mixed with the radioactive substances. During the separation process, valuable RE is extracted and exported to US, Europe and Japan, leaving behind harmful substances in Kuantan.
Q10: How dangerous is it?
The radioactive substances release radiation and two major toxic materials – radon gas and lead. Radon is a colorless, odorless toxic gas. When it gets into the human body through inhalation, it can damage cells and cause cancer. As for lead, many years ago petrol gas been changed from leaded to unleaded, as we didn’t want lead to be released to the air through our car exhaust. Lead can harm the nervous system, and cause brain and blood diseases. In short, two key hazards can be found in Gebeng RE plant – the radiation and the toxic materials.
Q11: Where and when can the radiation, radon and lead be found?
The RE raw material (in powder or sand form) arrives at the Kuantan port, then gets transported to Gebeng by truck, where it is unloaded, transferred and processed. Waste gas from chimneys, the waste water disposed into the Balok River, the solid wastes that are stored in Gebeng – possibly in all of the above we can find the radioactive substances, which can emit radiation, radon and lead, wherever and whenever they are present.
Q12: Mr. A lives in Balok, 3km from Gebeng. Mr. B lives in Kuantan, 30km from Gebeng. Mr. C lives in KL, 300km from Gebeng. Can the radioactive materials endanger them?
In short, the answer is NO for all of them if they stay more than 100 metres away from radioactive materials. But, the answer is YES for all three if they consumed these harmful substances, even if they stay hundreds of kilometres away. WHY? The radiation emitted in Gebeng doesn’t travel long distance to harm us, hence if you stand a short distance away from the materials without consuming it, all you will get is a slight radiation. Radon gas and lead in general do not affect our body externally, as we are protected by our skin. However, if these radioactive materials contaminate the solid waste, waste water and waste gas, they will be released to the atmosphere, water streams and eventually the food chain. Once the radioactive materials enter the human body via inhalation, ingestion and wound penetration, the radiation, radon and lead will be released inside the body and these can cause very serious consequences.
Q13: Why did they say that it is safe? Why did they say that the radioactivity is low? Who should I listen to?
You decide who you should listen to! It’s your life, it’s your family, it’s your home. See above to understand why they said the radioactivity is low. The media, authorities and LYNAS have failed to report the consequences of consuming radioactive materials.
The questions were answered by Dr. Lee Chee Hong, Chemical Engineering Expert on Metals.