Monday, October 10, 2011

Would you allow your pregnant wife to work in the premises with those drums of radioactive waste?

Lynas and the Malaysian Green movement — Kua Kia Soong
October 10, 2011

OCT 10 — 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.

Through the ages, science has been carried out in a manner reflecting the norms and ideology of the social order. Thus, whether it is environmental pollution, genetic engineering, climate change, psychological control technologies, computer invasion of privacy, biological and chemical warfare, scientific research is not independent and unrelated to scientists’ activity.

The history of science reveals that scientific discoveries emerged as a consequence of a specific technological requirement of a particular social order. For example, Newtonian mechanics developed during the development of industrial capitalism. The atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exploded the myth of the autonomy of science once and for all.

The Vietnam War in the mid-Sixties saw the greatest proportion of university science in the US done on federal contract, especially for the Department of Defence. Today, scientists permeate every branch of government, advising and devising the most effective types of weapons of war.

Fortunately, there has been resistance to this development among socially conscious scientists on the side of the people. Thus, during the Vietnam War, the Bertrand Russell Tribunal sent scientists and doctors to collect evidence of the experimental nature of the war and the use of new technologies of destruction. Moral and political issues were brought out to the fore and it was no longer adequate to pose the problem in terms of the “uses/abuses of science”. The response produced such movements as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Society for Social Responsibility in Science and Science for People.

Poisoning Pahang

While we are in the midst of a controversy regarding the Emergency, it is worth pointing out that when the 30-year secrecy rule was lifted in Britain, it was discovered that the authorities had used Agent Orange to spray at least 20 sites in Pahang. Pahang happened to be the state in which the Tenth Regiment of the Communist Party of Malaya was particularly active and it was the regiment that was made up of Malays.

I raised this in an article in The Star entitled “Emergency Secrets” on March 30, 1984. Malaysian government officials were quoted in The Star (January 29, 1984) as saying it was not their responsibility to conduct studies since the spraying happened before independence. Well, if according to our professors, Malaya was never colonised, then shouldn’t the Malaysian government do something about finding out how much of our country was sprayed with Agent Orange during the Emergency? How good are our medical records to show if congenital deformities in recent years have been caused by the spraying of defoliants during the Emergency?

At a medical conference in France in 1970, attention was drawn to the possible cancer-producing effects of dioxin, the deadly component of these poisonous herbicides. Questions were also raised of aberrations in the chromosomes of those affected which may affect their reproductive ability. These findings on the long-term effects of Agent Orange — which was used by the Americans to spray rebel areas during the Vietnam War — were presented at an international symposium of 140 scientists in January 1983. Their conclusion was that there is good reason to suppose that the defoliants used not only have noxious effects on the present generation but also for future generations!

Socially useful production please!

In Malaysia, the proliferation of the domestic military-industrial complex has been in the vicinity of Kuantan, namely in Pekan, the prime minister’s constituency. The prime minister almost lost the seat in 2004 but he has now ensured that the military automotive industry is there to provide contractors, sub-contractors, servicemen and other workers with a vested interest. Defence companies enjoy “feather bedding” in which contracts are awarded without competition. But is arms production in the interest of the people even if they may chalk up our GDP figures?

Not in my backyard mate!

The reason given by Lynas for why this rare earth processing plant has to be in Malaysia rather than in West Australia where it is mined surely takes the biscuit! Their spokesperson has said that Malaysia has the infrastructure lacking in Australia! It seems clear to most that the Aussies do not want this radioactive industry in their backyard.

It reminds me of that other energy-guzzling highly toxic aluminium smelting industry from Australia that the Sarawak/federal government has been trying to attract into Sarawak in order to use the abundant electricity from the Bakun dam. Once again, one wonders why Alcoa does not smelt aluminium in their own backyard.

Either Malaysians are the most gullible people on this earth or the Malaysian government merely wants to attract the big projects regardless of their sustainability or toxicity. Big projects mean big commissions seem to be the motivating factor in Malaysian development logic!

People before profits

Thus the experts we call upon to evaluate Lynas’ rare earth processing project will give us different conclusions depending on whether their prime concern is people or profits. As in all capitalist enterprises, there will be cost cutting. Whether they use welded steel drums or plastic bags to store the processed rare earth will affect the cost drastically. So will other measures to ensure there is no environmental damage or emissions to affect the residents.

The people of Kuantan are rightly angry that their lives are being reckoned on a weighted scale and they do not want this toxic industry in their backyard. All Malaysians who care for people before profits fully support them and we must do all we can to ensure that Lynas processes the rare earth in their own backyard and not in ours.

The people of Kuantan have asserted their rights as a community. It underpins the inseparable connection between the environmental movement and the people’s movement for democracy, justice and human rights. They have initiated an assembly which, hopefully, will be the start of a green movement whose time has come.

It is time to establish a national coalition of support and solidarity for all communities under threat from such irresponsible and dubious projects and strive for an alternative path of development in which the interests of the people come before profits. The success of campaigns such as Papan and Bukit Merah demonstrates the truism that the people united will never be defeated!

* Dr Kua Kia Soong is a director of human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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