Lynas’ radioactive dump will be in a water catchment area.
When news first emerged that Lynas was mulling to store its radioactive waste in Bukit Ketam, Kuantan last year, both the firm and the Pahang government were out in force to defend the plan.
Ok La Lynas insisted the site did not sit in a water catchment area and threatened to sue critics while Pahang Menteri Besar Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail declared he visited the site and didn’t find one.
Now, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for Lynas’ permanent disposal facility (PDF) has contradicted them.
“The proposed project site is located within the Sungai Riau catchment,” said the EIA report. Lynas had yet to respond to a request for comment at the time of writing.
The EIA also outlined plans on how to treat stormwater contaminated by Lynas’ radioactive waste called Water Leach Purification (WLP) before they are released into the river.
It also analysed various scenarios in the event the PDF’s Leachate Treatment Plant (LTP) failed and contaminated stormwater is released untreated into the river. Other risks include a breach in the WLP containment.
“In the case of LTP malfunction, the contaminated WLP runoff could be released directly into the river.
“Residues such as iron phosphate, calcium carbonate, and radioactive materials may be introduced into the river system and eventually harm aquatic organisms,” said the report.
“In terms of magnitude, the impact of unregulated leachate discharge is expected to be significant, though it can be considered minimal when proper control and treatment are applied,” it added.
The simulations were based on certain caveats, for example, its worst-case scenario assumed that the damaged treatment plant will be repaired within eight hours.
In all scenarios, the EIA report maintained that the heavy metal and radioactive material that escape into the river would have sufficiently diluted to safe levels by the time they reached downstream.
Notably, the EIA report said there were no specific standards for effluent discharge from radioactive substances in Malaysia and had therefore proposed its own standards.
A worst-case scenario is not likely but with the water supply of 781,000 households and businesses in Kuantan at stake, this is not something to be taken lightly.
The document explained stormwater discharged at the planned PDF will mainly drain into Sungai Ara that flows into Sungai Riau which then merges into Sungai Kuantan before entering the South China Sea.
Before Sungai Kuantan discharges into the sea, the river passes through the Kobat Raw Water Intake Station, which is the main water source for Kuantan.
The EIA report also noted the potential impact on the fishing industry and recreational fishers.
“Sungai Riau and Sungai Kuantan are regarded as popular fishing spots for the local fishermen, and thus any construction activity that has the potential to affect the condition of any nearby rivers would ultimately affect the income and livelihood of these fishermen.
“Based on the simulated water quality modelling study, high total suspended soil and low dissolved oxygen levels are expected along Sungai Kuantan during the construction phase.
“As such, it is imperative to ensure the construction of the proposed PDF does not bring harm to the river and those dependent on it,” it said.
As for recreational fishing, it expects the impact to be “minor and short-term”, mostly during the construction phase of the PDF, which is expected to start this year and be completed in 2024.
The report also maintained that groundwater contamination by radioactive material was “negligible” but advised remedial actions if monitoring showed otherwise.
The risk that Kuantan folks face from the PDF is more than just water supply and fisheries.
They also include risks of increased radiation exposure for workers, nearby communities, and those living along the transportation route.
Among the stakeholders are residents along Gebeng Bypass, Jalan Jabor-AI-Muktafi Billah Shah, and Jalan Bukit Kuantan.
Those are the proposed routes for lorries to transfer 1.35 million cubic metres of WLP residue, enough to fill 540 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
They will transport the WLP from where the residues are presently stored at the Lynas Advanced Material Plant (Lamp) in Gebeng to the new PDF site in Bukit Ketam over four years.
Located along the route include village homes, food stalls, and a school.
While the thorium and radium from the WLP are considered low radioactivity, the huge accumulation of the residues has been a growing concern.
The report assessed potential risks with the transportation process, including a hypothetical situation where a lorry transporting the WLP gets into an accident and spills its contents.
In such a situation, it maintained that the radiation exposure will be limited to those involved in the accident and those involved in the clean-up.
“The accident location will be barricaded, and members of the public will be prevented from entering the location. Thus, no exposure to members of the public is to be expected,” it said.
The document also looked at cancer risks to communities and estimate increased radiation exposure for the nearby population at the Rubber Research Institute Malaysia (RRIM) quarters 2.1km away and Felda Neram Satu 3km away.
However, in all scenarios, it maintained that the radiation exposure was still negligible, at under the permissible one mSv/year limit.
Many risks, low reward
While the assessment concluded the project is safe with proper controls, the wide-ranging nature of its impact highlights the myriad of ways things could go awry if there are slip-ups.
For the risks that communities have to bear, the reward is very limited.
The EIA report said the project will only generate 100 new jobs during the construction phase and only a small working population will remain during the post-closure period.
“During the construction and operation of the project, it is expected that there will be no new business opportunities emerging from the proposed project that will benefit the local population”.
However, it noted that the project will generate income to “several institutions” through taxations and levy.
The assessment team also surveyed a small group of local residents and found a majority were opposed to the project.
Even the neighbouring durian plantation adjacent to the proposed PDF that is managed by Impressive Sentiments Sdn Bhd was reportedly not happy.
“They are much concerned that the presence of the proposed project would undermine the commercial value of their durian produce.
“They are also concerned that the presence of the proposed project would also affect the public’s perception of their product hence further reducing its marketability,” said the report.
The report called for consultations to avoid “misinterpretations and rumours”.
“Local stakeholders will continue to hold fast to their views whereby the proposed project will remain a threat to their health and wellbeing.
“Nevertheless, the technical and expert studies conducted show that the radioactive exposure is considered to be negligible,” it said.
The EIA report is specific to the Lynas PDF, which will only make up 29 percent of the larger Multi-Category Industrial Scheduled Waste Disposal Site (MCISWDS).
MCISWDS, spearheaded by a firm majority-owned by Pahang royalty, spans the size of 283 football fields and was carved out of the Bukit Kuantan Forest Reserve.
It is not yet clear what other industrial waste will be stored on-site apart from those coming from Lynas, or their impact on local communities.
The public can view the full EIA report here. They can also submit formal feedback here.