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Sunday June 13, 2010

Dumpsite danger

It has been 28 years but the people of Bukit Merah and Papan have not forgotten. Triggered by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent comments about the radioactive waste in Perak, The Star has unearthed some new developments there.

FOR almost 30 years, the country’s cache of dangerous radioactive waste has been stored in drums in a concrete facility – and not buried “deep in the ground” as claimed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The former prime minister, commenting on the Government’s proposal to build a nuclear power plant, told a press conference on May 14 that there was ‘’a small amount’’ of nuclear waste buried in Perak and that the disposal site was still regarded unsafe.

‘’In Malaysia, we do have nuclear waste which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang, a by-product from tin mining.

Area of concern: An aerial view of the dumpsite at the Kledang Range. On the lower left is Engineered Cell 1 where all materials from the decommissioned ARE factory are buried. Beside it is the concrete facility where the drums with thorium hydroxide are kept.

‘’It is not radioactive but it is not good to handle. We had to bury it in Perak, deep in the ground. But the place is still not safe, and we have almost one square mile that is dangerous,” he said, adding that he did not know where the site was.

Following his remarks, The Star has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.

In fact, it is only January this year that work finally began on the building of a proper underground storage facility called an engineered cell (EC).

For the residents of Bukit Merah and Papan, Dr Mahathir’s acknowledgement of the danger comes as a bitter vindication of their long-drawn battle to stop Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE), a company located at the Bukit Merah Industrial Area in the 1980s, from disposing of its radioactive waste near their towns.

And if the rest of the country has forgotten what they went through 27 years ago, the people of Bukit Merah, Papan and other settlements have not.

Perak Anti-Radioactive Committee chair­man Hew Yoon Tat took Dr Mahathir to task for seemingly making light of the matter.

“The waste was never buried and the amount is not small. I would also like to remind Dr Mahathir that the radioactive waste came from a company approved by the Government to process rare earth,” he said.

Hew, 66, a butcher from Bukit Merah, added that the ARE factory extracted yytrium from monazite, one of the minerals found in amang (tin tailings), which were exported for use in high technology products.

In the production process, thorium hydroxide was produced. Both monazite and the waste contained thorium, which has a half-life of 13.9 billion years.

“Cancer-causing radon gas is released during decay,” he added.

ARE, which started production in 1982, had constructed the facility in the Kledang Range after former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam declared a proposed dumpsite on a durian hill near settlements in Papan unsafe and ordered the company to look for an alternative site.

Countering Dr Mahathir’s statement that “perhaps the public is not aware” of the waste, Hew said: “People involved in the series of protests, court case, and those whose lives were affected by ARE will never forget.

“These are the people who had suffered illnesses, braved clashes with the police during demonstrations, were arrested under the Internal Security Act, spent time away from work to show support during protests in Papan, Bukit Merah, Kuala Lumpur, and even in Tokyo.”

Hew was arrested under the Internal Security Act during Operation Lalang in 1987.

Papan-Pusing-Siputeh Anti-Radioacative Waste Dump committee chairman Low Tong Hooi, 69, is also astounded by Dr Mahathir’s statements.

“Why is it only now that he has admitted the radioactive dump is dangerous? In 1984, he maintained that the poorly constructed trenches for the waste in Papan in 1984 were safe,” he said.

Low added that experts from America, Britain, Canada and Japan brought in with the help of Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Consumer Associa­tion of Penang and the Environmental Protec­tion Society of Malaysia declared the factory and the dump unsafe but the Government preferred to heed another view.

Although the ARE factory ceased operations in 1994, the company still maintains an office in a Menglembu housing estate.

The Star has learnt that it was only nine years later, between 2003 and 2005, that a decommissioning and decontamination exercise was carried out at the factory.

ARE’s general manager (administration) Kazuhiko Nishikawa said that about 250,000 tonnes of contaminated equipment, concrete structure, soil and materials were removed and transported by specially designed lorries approved by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board to an engineered cell called EC1 constructed at the 41ha site in the Kledang Range at the back of Papan.

“AELB has confirmed that the former factory site has been fully cleaned and is free from radioactive contamination. The lot was returned to the state government last year,” he said in an interview.

Kazuhiko said the company was now carrying out a project to construct another engineered cell (EC2) next to EC1 to store the thorium hydroxide accumulated during ARE’s operations between May 1982 and July 1984. The EC2 will decommission the use of the present storage facility and dispose of everything underground to a depth of 10m, similar to EC1.

Details of the project took three years to be worked out and had been reviewed by local and international experts and approved by AELB, he said.

“The project was designed in accordance with international and Malaysian standards and regulations set by agencies such as the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the International Atomic Energy Agency, AELB and the Department of Occupa­tional Safety and Health.

“It is also being monitored by the Perak Government and its consultant is the Malay­sian Nuclear Agency,” he said.

Kazuhiko said 500,000 tonnes of contaminated materials comprising debris from the concrete facility which would be demolished, 80,000 drums of wastes, and soil would be sent to EC2.

ARE has tasked US-based environmental and geotechnical engineering design and construction services specialist GeoSyntec Consultants Inc and its Malaysian subsidiary, GSM Consultancy (M) Sdn Bhd, with the management and implementation of the project.

Work of the project commenced in January. AELB would supervise and inspect all works during construction and the Perak government, relevant state agencies, and the PARC would be briefed on its progress, said Kazuhiko.

GSM Consultancy (M) Sdn Bhd director Anthony Goh said EC1 had been properly designed and constructed, based on its monitoring over the past six years.

Goh said frequent monitoring at the site had been carried out since 1992 and the results reported to the AELB.

“We did not find any increase in the background level of radiation and radon gas. Tests on ground and surface water and vegetation in the area did not suggest any contamination,” said Goh.

He added that all those involved in EC2, scheduled for completion in 2013, would be given a dosimeter badge to check on contamination and would undergo medical check-ups every month.

“Mechanised handling of the drums and waste will be introduced when transferring into EC2. We will solidify and repack the waste if the drums are corroded,” he said.

He also said the operation did not pose any public risk as there was no one living within 2km from the site.

“The dump will have a 200m buffer zone from its fence where no human activities would be allowed,” he added.

Both the engineered cells would then be “capped” with a final single cover to ensure safe disposal and minimal impact to the environment, he added.

AELB will monitor the site for two years before it is handed to the state government for long-term management and maintenance to ensure security.

Kazuhiko added that ARE was bearing the cost for the project but declined to reveal the amount.

PARC’s Hew said no one could ensure that the dump would not pose any danger in the long run. He hoped that future state governments would not forget about the dump and would continue to monitor it for the sake of the people.

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