Archive for March, 2012

Speaking Out

March 7, 2012

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

I actually look forward to Mdm Fuziah Salleh’s frequent pronouncements on Lynas for a little comic relief at the end of a stressful day. Her latest tirade, ominously titled  “Lynas has fooled us all” doesn’t disappoint. There are so many “gems” in this piece, that it would take me a long time to list them all. So I’ll start with one and save the rest for future posts, perhaps.

Mdm Fuziah says:
But dilution of effluent is not allowed under regulation 17 of the Enviromental Quality (Sewage And Industrial Effluents) Regulations, 1979, which reads:

“No person shall dilute, or cause or permit to be diluted, any effluent, whether raw or treated at any time or point after it is produced at any permises unless prior written authorisation of the Director-General has been obtained for the dilution and the dilution is done according to the terms and conditions of the authorisation.”

The abovementioned regulations can be found here. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The regulation does say “unless prior written authorisation of the Director-General has been obtained”. So, obviously, if the Director General had given written authorisation, then the dilution would not be “not allowed”, no?

A cursory reading of the actual Regulations document reveals a more fundamental problem with Mdm Fuziah’s claim. Regulation 2. Interpretation defines “sewage” and “industrial effluents” as follows:
“effluent” means sewage or industrial effluent;
“industrial effluents” means liquid water or wastewater produced by reasons of the production processes taking place at any industrial premises;
“sewage” means any liquid waste or wastewater discharge containing animal or vegetable matter in suspension or solution, and may include liquids containing chemicals in solution;
“inland waters” include any reservoir, pond, lake, river, stream, canal, drain, spring or well, any part of the sea abutting on the foreshore, and any other body of natural of artificial surface or subsurface water;

And Regulation 3. Application states:
These Regulations shall apply to discharges of effluent into any inland waters, other than the effluents discharged from prescribed premises or other premises specified in the First Schedule or both.

Taken together, regulations 2 and 3 clearly state that these regulations apply only to liquid waste or waste water discharged into rivers, lakes, etc. Now, despite its name, WLP actually refers to the solid residue from the Water Leach Purification process. Mdm Fuziah too clearly understands that WLP refers to solid waste because in the article she also states:
“Subsequently, the waste will be commercialised as base materials which will be used in the construction of roads (this was announced by Lynas in January).”

Furthermore, if the waste is to be used in the construction of roads, how could it then be discharged “into any inland waters”?

These regulations plainly do not apply to the WLP residue to which Mdm Fuziah refers. What’s more, she obviously knows that they do not apply. Yet she cites them anyway. Now what does that make her?


March 5, 2012

Malaysia consumes a lot of potassium chloride (KCl), also known as muriate of potash. According to data from the FAO, we consumed 1.4 million tonnes of this stuff in 2008. We use it mainly for fertiliser, but it has other uses such as in water treatment, medicine and eaten as a substitute for salt (sodium chloride).

Interesting, you may say, but what does this have to do with Lynas? Well, like everything else that contains potassium, potassium chloride is radioactive. In fact, at 16,350 bq/kg, it is actually 2.5 times more radioactive than the waste residue (about 6000 bq/kg) from the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP).

More radioactive than Lynas waste

More radioactive than LAMP waste

Now, it has to be said that the type of radiation that potassium-40 emits (mainly beta particles) is different from the thorium in LAMP’s feedstock and waste (alpha particles). Potassium and thorium also have different physical and chemical properties. So, we cannot get a proper picture of the kind of risk each poses by simply comparing becquerel counts. To do so involves a lot of complex calculations which I, not being a nuclear scientist, am not qualified to perform.  Thankfully, there are real nuclear scientists out there who have done the math and quantified the radioactive risk each poses under different scenarios.

For example, below is a comment from Dr. Gary H. Kramer, who is the Head of the National Internal Radiation Assessment Section at Health Canada:
“Potassium chloride can be found in large quantities in stores selling materials for water treatment. The potassium content is about 500 g kg-1. Typically, the material is sold in 20 kg bags so each bag contains ~600 kBq of 40K giving a concentration of 30 Bq g-1. This is well above the exclusion level yet the material is handled as non-radioactive. The external dose rate in close proximity to a typical display in these types of shops would be about 150 ƒÊSv hr-1. A worker would only need to be near the pile for about 7 hours to exceed the public dose limit of 1 mSv.”

In contrast the expected exposure to radiation from the Lynas plant for its workers and the general public are 2mSv/year and 0.002mSv/year respectively. In other words, sitting near this pile of KCl for 7 hours gives you about the same dose of radiation as working 6 months in LAMP or living 500 years near it.

That’s right, this stuff that we use to feed our crops and ourselves is, in terms of radioactivity at least, more hazardous than the “toxic” waste from the Lynas plant that everyone is so afraid of.

So does this mean that we have another radiation scandal on our hands? Well, no. Saying KCl is more hazardous than LAMP waste is a bit like saying travelling in trains is more dangerous than travelling in airplanes. When handled properly, both are very safe, it’s just that one is safer than the other.

Potash in a warehouse in Saskatchewan, Canada

Potash in a warehouse in Saskatchewan, Canada

Potassium chloride in a warehouse from an advert

Potassium chloride in a warehouse