A lesson in safety!

Immediately after the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima incident , I wrote about the need to review our planned rare earth plant in Pahang. This was what i wrote then:

While the whole world is now worried about the safety of nuclear plants, after an explosion in one and a possible meltdown in 2 other, I thought it would be wise for anyone, even those eager to see a nuclear plant in Malaysia, to think twice. Or at least wait till further development to see whether the Japanese can contain the nuclear problemsand how serious this would turn out to be before commenting.

 But our minister in charge of our planned nuclear plant has immediately announced that Malaysia would continue with our planned project, without even wanting to wait out further development in Japan. I thought this is really unfair to the people of Malaysia. Not only that, this is also politically unwise to announced this when the whole world is worried about possible nuclear fallouts. I thought a more sensible approach would be to suspend and review any nuclear project that is being planned. We should also take another look at the planned rare earth factory in Pahang.. No planning by man is foolproof. Mother nature has shown it clearly in this case. A country as advanced as Japan is facing potential nucelar meltdown, and we really do not know how bad is the situation, or whether the government there is really transparent in its disclosure..

Many months have passed, and the rare earth project is still being carried out.

Some may say that there is minimal risk to radiation exposure. Some may argue that we may get more radiation travelling in a plane.

Which this may be true, the truth is there is no such thing as a minimal level of safety where radiation is concerned. Prolonged exposure of even low dose radiation is known to cause health problems, radiation risk being cumulative. So if it is avoidable, why should we subject ourselves to a risk, however minimal it may be? It is the same case of many hospitals switching from CATs Scan to MRI( even though in certain instances, a CT scan may have a slight edge  and vice versa) , why risk the radiation when there is a nonradioactive alternative? I personally do not send my patients for Xrays unless it is really  clinically indicated, unless the benefits of obtaining information outweighs the radiation risk, even though the radiation from a chest x ray may be  less than that of air-travel.

I have later  written another article on Lynas  and this is part of the excerpt:

The simple question is : if there is no risk at all to set up a rare earth company, why didn’t the company set this up in Western Australia, near to its source of extraction? It would have saved  millions in shipping cost.

The fact that it has not obtained approval by the authority to set up such a plant in Western Australia ( which has a vast area of unpopulated land),  and it has to set up a plant thousands of miles away from its source of extraction speaks plenty for itself.

If Western Australian authority is concerned about radiation risk, why shouldn’t we be too?

If the safety features of the plant cannot ensure the issuing of a license to operate in Australia, why are we giving a license? Is our standard of safety lower than that of Australia? Are we so hard up on foreign investment that we are willing to risk the health of our people? Isn’t that contrary to the slogan “People first”?

Is the life of a Malaysian less precious than that of a resident of a developed nation?

Germany, which is a country in the forefront of scientific research,  has become the first country to announced that it will slowly wean itself of nuclear plants. Many countries are reevaluating their energy needs and reviewing nuclear options.

It would be prudent for our country to cancel the project or at the very least , shelf it.

Malaysia has already had a bad experience previously in the Bukit Merah Asian rare earth plant.  A US$100 million clean up project has been instituted there, after complaints of birth defects and many cases of leukemia in a community which has not seen any leukaemia cases before.  We should put ourselves in the shoes of those parents who children have contracted leukaemia; how do we feel? Do we want the same thing to happen to our fellow countrymen living near Lynas?

It should be a case of  “once bitten twice shy”, but we are still insisting on something that may bite us another time;  why should we be so careless?

When Chernobyl was built, residents around it were assured that it was safe.  When I was doing my master, we did a very comprehensive study on Chernobyl, because it was a classic case of ‘things-do-not-always-turn-out-to-be-as-planned”.

Similarly, when Fukushima plant was built, people was told that it was very safe. But they did not factor Mother nature into their equation of safety, and  like the proverb ”Man proposes, God disposes’, what was safe turned out to be not safe at all.

In Chernobyl, it was attributed to human error. In Fukushima, it was an act of God.

I have previously mentioned that we cannot be sure that in a Malaysian plant, we would not have any human error.

As a person who has a master degree in occupational medicine, health and safety ( in fact, my master’s dissertation which obtained a distinction  was used as teaching materials for other masters students ), I can say for sure that there will definitely be human error  no matter how careful a person can be. Human nature is such that we are influenced by emotions, illnesses, boredom and our attitude, and any of these factors can cause accident. A moment’s inattention or absent-mindedness often result in accidents in work places, not matter how stringent is the procedures for safety.

In fact, the cardinal rule in occupational safety ( and safety in general) is to remove the hazard whenever it is possible. Only when removal of hazard is not possible, then  we would think of instituting safety measures and work procedure to minimise the risks of that particular  hazard.

Let me give you all a lesson on safety.

Just to use  a very simple example to illustrate this cardinal rule in safety: if there is a protrusion on the floor of a corridor, which may cause tripping whenever people walk along that corridor, it is best (in safety measures) to remove the protrusion.. Only when the protrusion cannot be removed, a safety specialist would think of other ways like erecting a warning sign to warn about the hazard (in this case, the hazard is the protrusion), to make the protrusion more prominent by painting it differently or undertake remodelling work to make the protrusion into a gradual rise and gradual fall.  But apart from removing the hazard, the other measures are not foolproof. People may still trip even when there is a sign, or even if the protrusion is made into s slope.. The only sure way of safety is to remove the hazard.

In the case of Lynas, the hazard is the rare earth, so the safest way is to remove the rare earth; it follows that we should not allow rare earth to be imported and processed.

This is not a political issue; rather an issue of safety which has social implications. If we are a responsible government, we should really pay attention to the concerns and fears of the people staying around the area; those  are real.

So i hope sane minds will prevail, and there is really  no hurry  to set up the plant; Malaysia does not need this type of Foreign investments which are potentially harmful.

Read also these:

Is the life of a Malaysian less precious?

2 fumbling acts

Hooliganism

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