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Nuclear waste and nuclear medicine in Australia

By Jim Green - posted Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Claims that the Australian government's proposed national nuclear waste storage and disposal 'facility' near Kimba in South Australia is required to support nuclear medicine are not supported by the facts.

Australia's radioactive waste arises from the production and use of radioactive materials in scientific research and industrial, agricultural and medical applications. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), operator of the research reactor at Lucas Heights, south of Sydney, is the main source of waste destined for a national nuclear waste facility. (Other waste streams -- such as those generated at uranium mines, and wastes from nuclear weapons testing -- would not be disposed of at the national facility.)

The vast majority of nuclear medicine procedures are diagnostic imaging procedures; the remainder are for therapy or palliation (pain relief). According to Medicare figures, nuclear medicine represents less than three percent of medical imaging. Nuclear medicine should not be confused with X-rays using iodine contrast, radiotherapy or chemotherapy, which are used much more commonly.


ANSTO is increasing production of nuclear waste from its radioisotope export business -- it plans to ramp up production of technetium-99m, the most commonly used medical radioisotope, from one percent of global supply to 25-30 percent. When all costs, including final waste disposal, are considered, this business costs taxpayers and leaves Australia with much more radioactive waste. The government subsidy to ANSTO for 2019-20 alone was $282 million.

The federal government claims that waste storage at Lucas Heights is reaching capacity and that failure to find a new waste storage or disposal site will impact on medical radioisotope supply and thus adversely affect public health.

Those claims ignore several important points:

* Nuclear medicine typically uses short-lived radioisotopes and the waste does not require special handling after a short period of radioactive decay.

* The absence of a national waste storage or disposal facility has not adversely impacted nuclear medicine, nor will the establishment of such a facility improve nuclear medicine.

* Waste can be safely stored at Lucas Heights for decades to come, as has been acknowledged by the national nuclear regulator, by the Australian Nuclear Association, and even by ANSTO itself.


Before delving into those arguments, it should be noted that only a small fraction of the waste generated at Lucas Heights -- and an even smaller fraction of radioactive waste generated nationally -- arises from the production or use of medical radioisotopes. Keith Pitt, the minister responsible for radioactive waste management, claims that "more than 80 per cent of Australia's radioactive waste stream is associated with the production of nuclear medicine". A figure of just 20 percent would be closer to the mark; less than 1 percent if uranium mine wastes are included in the calculations.

In any case, the fact that some waste is of medical origin doesn't mean that a poorly designed and executed plan for a national waste facility should be accepted. The current plan for a waste facility near Kimba is contentious and problematic for numerous reasons, not least the unanimous opposition of the Barngarla Traditional Owners and the government's extraordinary refusal to allow Traditional Owners to participate in a 'community ballot'. The racism has been so crude that it attracted criticism from Coalition MPs (and others) on federal parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Another concern is that the National Health and Medical Research Council's 'Code of practice for the near-surface disposal of radioactive waste in Australia' states that a repository should not be built on agricultural land. Thus the Kimba site should have been precluded from consideration.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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