THERE has been much debate in the media about radiation and radioactivity as a result of the Lynas rare earths plant in Kuantan. This reached its peak just before the government was to decide whether to renew the plant’s operating licence.
(The licence was due to expire today but was extended by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board on Aug 15 for six months, with conditions attached.)
Those against allowing the plant to continue operating argued that the radiation from its wastes poses health risks. One extreme view even maintained that its wastes are no different from wastes from nuclear disaster sites like Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
Most experts have dismissed such concerns as unfounded. They insist that the rare earths plant does not pose a health threat. This show of support also came from communities living near the plant. In fact, those who protested against the plant have been people mainly from outside the area.
It has become clear from the Lynas episode that many Malay-sians are still not well-informed about radiation and radioactivity. They are unsure whether radiation is safe or otherwise.
In fact, many may not even be aware that radiation exists all the time in the environment. It is a fact that the earth’s surface continuously emits radiation. This is known as a background level of radiation; such low levels of radiation are harmless.
Those from the tin mining days would remember playing around as children in tin tailing areas. They may not have been aware that the radiation level from tin tailings is higher than background levels of radiation. I know of a colleague at the Academy of Sciences who was exposed to such tin tailing radiation and he has testified he has not experienced any negative health effects.
This is not to suggest that we allow all radiations into the environment. There are hazards associated with high levels of radiation. As such, we need to be aware of the safety limits as well as exposure levels that can be hazardous to health.
In this era of the digital economy and cyber communication, some level of radiation is unavoidable. In fact, at the moment, there is serious discussion all over the world about the safety of 5G and its radiation risks.
Managing such risks would present challenges for the regulators keeping a close watch while, at the same time, designing the best mechanism to mitigate negative impacts.
Many may also not be aware that radiation science is widely used in the fields of medicine, agriculture and food production.
In medicine, using radiation is not confined to medical diagnosis via the X-Ray but is also used in therapy. Many types of cancer are treated with radiation and other medicines.
In food production, radiation is often deployed for food preservation. I am sure there are many more applications that I don’t know of personally. I know for a fact that scientists at Malaysia’s own Nuclear Institute are researching ways to expand the use of radiation in agriculture and other industries.
In the oil and gas industry, radiation techniques are used in the non-destructive testing of materials to check on the safety of joints.
What is clear is that the public needs to be better informed about radiation and radioactivity. Experts from Nuclear Malaysia and universities should embark on a national roadshow to educate the public.
The Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry can also use such educational programmes to improve science literacy among the general public.
A public that is poorly informed and ill advised about radiation is definitely not good as the nation embraces the new digital economy where radiation is a common feature of supporting technologies.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, UCSI University