Saturday, March 3, 2012

Do We Need Lynas--FAQ (Frequently Argued Questions)

It's essential to have our facts right before going out against Lynas, otherwise we would easily change our mind when confronted by "facts" from the proponent.

Some people joined the party last Sunday because they wanted to topple the government. Some people joined in because their friends were there. Some people did it because it's all over Facebook and Twitter, for the thrill, or because Lim Guan Eng was against it. A majority of the people joined for a simpler reason: because it's not safe.
By the way if the Pahang government ask you to justify "not safe" in a public forum, how are you going to answer?

Quoting history (Bukit Merah and Fukushima) isn't really effective, because the proponent would argue that technology advances with time, just like cars. We have better refinery-technology now compared to the technology upon which Bukit Merah was built, and back then there was no proper storage. Fukushima was in Japan, a land prone of earthquake.
So I guess we'd have to rely on statistics and science to get the job done.

What is the radioactivity level of Lynas residue?
MSN news says that if the project come to pass, Lynas will produce in excess of 11000 tonnes of rare earth a year. Since rare earth exists together with thorium, so for simplicity sake I will assume that 11000 tonnes of rare earth comes with 11000 tonnes of pure thorium.

Thorium exists almost exclusively as thorium-232 (more than 99%), and so I will omit the calculation for thorium-230 and thorium-229.
The radioactivity for a gram of thorium-232 can be calculated via the following formula:
Activity, A = (M/Mo)*NA*λ
where λ = (ln 2/t1/2)

So the formula becomes
A = (M/Mo)*NA*(ln 2/t1/2)

t1/2 = half-life of thorium-232
M = mass of thorium (in grams)
Mo = molecular mass of thorium-232
NA = Avogadro's number

 If we have a gram of thorium-232,
A = (1/232)*6.022 x 10E23*(ln 2/14000000000) = 4070 Becquerel
Exiguous figure, but that's only for a gram of thorium.

11000 tonnes of thorium gives:

11000000000g X 4070Bq = 44.77 TeraBq.

That's  44770000000000 particles being emitted per second after a year, each with enough energy to alter the chemical bonds in your cells and tissues and to cause havoc in your body.
The Malaysian government has granted a 12-year tax exemption to Lynas, meaning they could operate up to 12 years while storing plenty of radioactive thorium underground.

Adnan Yaakob: The bitumen used to make roads emit a radiation measurement of 2.6 mSv (millisieverts) while the rare earth processed by Lynas emit 0.156 mSv.
This was quoted from the newspaper thestar. 
Becquerel measures the radioactivity i.e. disintegration per second--higher radioactivity means more radioactive particles are being emitted per second, which subsequently means higher chances of you getting radiation sickness. Sievert, on the other hand, is the unit for dose equivalent radiation, which attempts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation.
For example, for equal absorbed doses, alpha particles may be 20 times as damaging as beta particles. In order to account for these variations when describing human health risks from radiation exposure, the quantity called dose equivalent is used.

The article didn't quantify the amount of rare earth that could produce 0.156mSv, which is probably caused largely by gamma ray. Similarly when I interviewed Lynas back in January, their website didn't quantify how they obtained 6 Becquerel of radiation per gram. The truth is, while pure thorium-232 does give 4070Bq, the rare earth concentration in the soil mined by Lynas contains only 0.16% rare earth, which makes it 6Bq.

But the figure for radioactivity(Bq) is dependent on mass, i.e. the radioactivity increases with increasing tonnage. So while 0.156mSv is considered negligible, we do not know whether it's 0.156mSv per gram or 0.156mSv per kg. But 11000 tonnes of thorium waste is definitely going to give off enough gamma ray to kill you, even without the alpha particles.

How does radiation cause mutation of cell?
When a gamma photon approaches an atom, it has enough energy to kick out one of the electrons of the atom, causing the atom to become an ion.
Imagine billions of photons passing through your body and altering chemical bonds in our body, including our DNA. The diagrams give a good illustration.
This is the reason why victims of radiation are often born handicapped or with abnormal protrusion on their body.

What are the types of particle emitted by thorium?
There are three types of radiation; alpha radiation, beta radiation and gamma radiation. Thorium releases primarily alpha particle and gamma ray.

Alpha radiation, denoted by the greek letter ( α ) is the heaviest of all the particles. It's almost 2000 times heavier than the beta particle. And hence it carries more momentum and thus causes more harm to our body.
The alpha particle, however, can be easily contained-- it can be stopped by a piece of tissue paper.
Secondly is the beta particle( β ), which is effectively an electron. Since it is lighter than an alpha particle it has slightly higher penetrative power and causes less damage. If the residue is stored inside a chamber made of lead, then beta radiation would not be an issue.

The final one is the one that worries me a lot--the gamma ray( ɣ ). Gamma ray is the energy remnants of the unstable nucleus after releasing an alpha particle. It has no mass and can penetrate few inches of lead. It, however, causes the least damage among the three. But a 11000 tonnes pile of thorium will certainly give off high level of gamma ray.

Is there any way to contain the radiation?
The radiation of thorium is half absorbed by a thickness of aluminium of 0.0004cm. So there is always a way to contain the radiation. If Lynas is willing to spend an exorbitant fee to build a lead tank several inches thick, then it should be safe. Until the tank is full, that is.

What would happen when the containment tanks are full?
Sure, everything has a limit. The storage compartment could fail, leak, too. I do not personally know what Lynas would do with the waste when the compartment is full or leaked. Which is why I am not advocating the project.

But looking at this question from another perspective, it's like people asking why are you using petrol to power your car since the emission contains toxic gases.
Petroleum mining damages the environment--the most recent example, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Similar to the rare earth industry, a small mistake could lead to a horrendous outcome. Moreover, products of petroleum are the lead cause of global warming. The ocean absorbs majority of the carbon dioxide and becomes acidic, killing aquatic life.
So if you're already promoting the destruction of Mother Earth by purchasing endless gallons of petrol for your car, why are you using the lame excuse of saving Mother Earth to go against Lynas? If you claim that radiation from Lynas operation plant kills, are you not aware that the immediate product of your car exhaust could kill you even faster?

But petroleum is important, for transportation, for electric generation, for the airline industry, etc.
Well, rare earth applications are ubiquitous--smartphones, laptop batteries, green cars (how ironic).
Large scale anthropogenic activities are bound to harm the environment no matter what.

All these are just theoretical predictions, of course they seem ideal enough. How can we predict the nature?
Very true, and Lynas knew it. Which is why they didn't build the refinery in earthquake zone nor tsunami area. But risk-taking is a part of advancement. If the Wright brothers didn't risk flying their plane in 1903, we wouldn't have so many airplanes today wouldn't we? Back in the forties no one thought nuclear was going to be safe, especially after the world war. But now it's generating energy in cities in Germany, France, America and India. Sending humans to the moon, drilling petroleum in the middle of the ocean, and so many other examples of risk-taking, none of which seemed possible at first.
They should build it in an area where there are less people.
The human population hit 7 billion last year. Land is scarce, but the need is there. More people means more phones, more laptops are needed, and so the price of rare earth soars.

Imagine you're stuck on an island the size of a basketball court with 10 other people. You'll need land to build houses, energy generator, a community kitchen, etc. And each of those projects have their specific requirements; no earthquakes, equatorial climate, stable economy, etc. One way or another, it'll soon be your turn to sacrifice a bit of your land and comfort.
Someone has got to build this thing somewhere, somehow. It's a need. If it's not built in Kuantan today, it would probably turn up somewhere in Africa tomorrow, and the objection cycle would repeat all over again.
And economically, building a factory in the middle of nowhere is not a wise move--labor shortage, transport problem.

Lynas says they could recycle the radioactive residue. True?
I have no idea. If it can be turned into nuclear fuel for electricity generation, then it would be excellent. The radioactive material can be shipped away to Germany and India, into a closed facility with proper insulation against radiation. But from what I've seen in the video of a Lynas employee talking about recycling the residue it seems that they aren't even sure about the recycling plan.
And a professor of chemical engineering commented that Lynas' statement actually means recycling the water, not the radioactive residue.

I'm against Lynas, but I love my iphone.
Going against the Lynas project doesn't mean you're against rare earth.
I'm not supporting Lynas. I repeat: I'm NOT supporting Lynas, because I believe they are not doing a good enough job on the safety side. Rare earth is the future of electronics, and so we should really consider the pros and cons and not just concentrating on the cons.
I ain't entirely sure when Adnan Yaakob said the plant has been certified as safe by experts, because the storage problem has yet to be solved. And the Malaysian cabinet recently decided that the radioactive waste must be sent back to Australia. This puts Lynas in a difficult situation because the Australian government had earlier mentioned that the waste is not allowed to return to Australia.
And of course there are other problems other than the waste storage problem--such as design flaws, leaking pipes, etc which lead to the public outcry.

Personally, though, I think there has got to be a way to solve the residue problem. But with so many brains going against Lynas without spending time to think of a solution, there will never be a solution.



  1. well summarized :) 44770000000000 particles being emitted per second after a year, how many particles to cause cancer again?

  2. well, there are a few units in nuclear physics. radioactivity is the amount of particles emitted. but to cause cancer u have to switch to another unit called rem, because not all particles are absorbed and not everyone absorb radiation at the same rate.
    typically 1 Gray is enough to cause radiation sickness.
    The public is allowed 500 mrem of radiation a year.
    and unfortunately Bq cannot be converted to rem. but 44.77TeraBq can give you a rough idea jus how much radiation that is emitted by the waste.



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