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Questioning the 'medical reason' for a nuclear waste dump in Kimba, South Australia

By Noel Wauchope - posted Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Small rural communities in South Australia are being told that it's their patriotic duty to save Australia's nuclear medicine – by allowing a nuclear waste dump in their area. Farming families who support the Federal Government's plan to set up a radioactive are comfortable not only with the promise of continued economic benefit to their local area, but with the thought of the benefit to the health system of the whole of Australia.

But is this true?

According to parliamentary papers by Holland and James, and Richard Yeeles, the radioactive waste resulting from Australian use of medical isotopes is only a very small fraction of the overall Lucas Heights' wastes, all of which could easily be stored indefinitely at Lucas Heights. Lucas Heights already has a secure purpose built facility, near to where the isotopes are produced and used. No dangerous transport of wastes is needed.

Regarding nuclear medicine, the vast majority of medical isotopes are very short-lived. They decay on the medical facilities' premises until their radioactivity is negligible. They can then be disposed of in the normal waste stream (sewers, landfill etc) according to set standards. There is no need for a new nuclear waste facility for these isotopes.

As to cancer treatments, most cancer radiotherapy uses X-rays, which do not produce any waste at all. A very small proportion of cancer treatments need radioactive materials, which also are too short-lived to require a remote repository. A tiny number are legally required to be sent back to the (overseas) supplier once used up.

Nevertheless, the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility taskforce (NRWMF)'s information campaign in Kimba, has focused almost entirely on the medical aspect, emphasising the application of radio-isotopes in Australian hospitals. The NRWMF gives minimal information about the type, amount, and location of facility bound radioactive wastes, and specifically does not include what percentage results from actual Australian medical use.

The Department of Innovation, Industry and Science (DIIS) constantly promotes ANSTO's 'nuclear medicine production for Australian usage', despite the fact that most of it goes overseas. When questioned by (then) Senator Scott Ludlam (Senate Economics Legislation Committee Session May 2017); The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)'s CEO Adi Paterson informed us that last financial year 80% of ANSTO's diagnostic medical isotope production consisted of Molybdenum 99. Of this, only 28% was used in Australia whilst 72% was exported.

The fact that the proposed nuclear waste facility will co-locate Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) with Low Level Waste (LLW) is barely mentioned. The Kimba community has not been informed that the ILW to be co-located at the site is much more highly radioactive and has to be isolated for thousands of years compared with hundreds of years for LLW. There are no plans presented for long-term storage or final disposal of this waste.

ANSTO has ambitions to dominate the world's market for medical isotopes. This is dubious anyway, as other countries have advanced production systems, with an increasing trend towards modern non-nuclear production in cyclotrons, creating no nuclear wastes.

Using a nuclear reactor to manufacture radio isotopes creates a significant amount of ILW. ANSTO's business decision assumes it will not have to pay for the disposal of the waste produced, even though it will need securing for many thousands of years. The cost of storing this waste is borne by the taxpayer and the community hosting it: this cost is not factored in to the market price for these isotopes

The reactor's spent nuclear fuel constitutes High Level Wastes (HLW). These are sent to UK and France for reprocessing. Subsequently, Australia gets back a vitrified fission product-High Level Wastes compacted residues, which by the way are not physically Australian waste material.

The National Radioactive Waste Management Facility in its concept design design shows 2 LLW storage buildings, and 3 ILW ones.

It has not been made clear to the Kimba community that the predominant purpose of the nuclear waste facility is the "temporary" storage of ILW. There is no indication of how long "temporary" is going to mean.

Nuclear medicine will continue in Australia, regardless of whether or not this radioactive waste facility is built. The facility is not essential for Australia's health system.

A Senate Committee is currently inquiring into the Selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia. They will report back on August 14th. The local community will be voting on the proposal on August 20th.

In submissions to the Senate, several Kimba farmers are enthusiastic about the nuclear waste facility. Some other, opposing, submissions are sceptical of the NRWMF's propaganda campaign. For example, Colin Mitchell (Submission No. 25) calls for an independent body to research the issue and assess the management of Australia's nuclear wastes. Mitchell comments:

By failing to properly inform the communities about the co-location of the intermediate level waste the consultation process leaves itself open to the charge of deceit and thus undermines trust in the process and the agencies conducting the process as well as the government.

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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