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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.


Regardless of the outcome of the current push for a national waste facility -- and bearing in mind that all previous plans have been abandoned -- there will be an ongoing need for hospitals to store clinical waste. After nuclear medicine is used in a patient, the vast majority is stored on site while it decays. Within a few days, it has lost so much radioactivity that it can go to a normal rubbish tip. There will always be multiple waste storage locations even if a national facility is established.

The government's claim that a national waste facility is urgently required lest nuclear medicine be affected amounts to scare-mongering. Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at Melbourne University, notes: "The emotive but fallacious claim that provision of nuclear medicine services needed for diagnosis and treatment of cancer will be jeopardised if a new nuclear waste dump is not urgently progressed is being dishonestly but persistently promoted."

Likewise, health professionals noted in a joint statement in 2011: "The production of radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine comprises a small percentage of the output of research reactors. The majority of the waste that is produced in these facilities occurs regardless of the nuclear medicine isotope production. Linking the need for a centralised radioactive waste storage facility with the production of isotopes for nuclear medicine is misleading."

Nigel Scullion, then a Coalition Senator, said in 2005 that "Australia will not get access to radiopharmaceuticals" if a nuclear waste repository site was not quickly cleared of any impediments.

Indeed Scullion claimed that access to medical radioisotopes would cease by the end of 2006. Fifteen years later, access to radioisotopes has not been affected and the sky hasn't fallen in -- but Coalition MPs continue with their cynical scare-mongering.

Go back another decade, and the Howard government was scare-mongering to win support for its plan to replace the HIFAR research reactor at Lucas Heights with a new reactor. It wasn't at all clear that a domestic reactor was required for medical radioisotope production. After all, countries such as the US, the UK and Japan had sophisticated nuclear medicine with little or no reliance on domestic reactor supply.

Indeed there were expert views that a new reactor would adversely affect public health. Prof. Barry Allen, a former chief research scientist at ANSTO, Head of Biomedical Physics Research at the St. George Cancer Care Centre, and author of over 220 publications, toldRadio National's Background Briefing program in 1998:

I mean it's reported that if we don't have a reactor, people will die because they won't be getting their nuclear medicine and radioisotopes. I think that's rather unlikely. Most of the isotopes can be imported into Australia; some are being generated on the cyclotron. But on the other hand, a lot of people are dying of cancer and we're trying to develop new cancer therapies which use radioisotopes, which emit alpha particles which you cannot get from reactors. And if it comes down to cost benefit, I think a lot more people would be saved if we could proceed with targeted alpha cancer therapy, than being stuck with a reactor when we could in fact have imported those isotopes.

ANSTO's Lucas Heights site

ANSTO's Lucas Heights site cannot be used for disposal of nuclear waste. It is unlikely that the site would meet relevant criteria, and in any case federal legislation prohibits waste disposal there.

But nuclear waste can be (and is) stored at Lucas Heights; indeed much of the waste destined for a national facility is currently stored there.

Claims that storage capacity at Lucas Heights is nearing capacity and that a national waste facility site is urgently needed have been flatly rejected by Dr Carl-Magnus Larsson, CEO of the federal nuclear regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). Dr Larsson stated in parliamentary testimony in 2020: "Waste can be safely stored at Lucas Heights for decades to come".

Similar comments have been made by ANSTO officers, by the federal government department responsible for radioactive waste management, and by the Australian Nuclear Association. ANSTO officers have noted that "ANSTO is capable of handling and storing wastes for long periods of time" and that waste is stored there "safely and securely".

Long-lived intermediate-level waste

Of particular concern is long-lived intermediate-level waste (ILW) including waste arising from the reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel from the OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights as well as earlier research reactors. The government plans to move this ILW to the Kimba site for above-ground storage while a deep underground disposal site is found. (Lower-level wastes will be permanently disposed of at Kimba if the project proceeds.)

But the process of finding an ILW disposal site has barely begun and will take decades; indeed ARPANSA has flagged a timeline of 100 years or more.

The vast majority of ILW is currently stored at Lucas Heights. Why not leave it at Lucas Heights -- described by an ANSTO officer as "the most secure facility we have got in Australia" -- until a disposal site is found? The government doesn't have a good answer to that question -- indeed it has no answer at all beyond false claims about storage capacity limitations and scare-mongering about nuclear medicine supply.

Until such time as a disposal site is available, ILW should be stored at Lucas Heights for the following reasons:

* Australia's nuclear expertise is heavily concentrated at Lucas Heights;

* Storage at Lucas Heights would negate risks associated with transportation over thousands of kilometres;

* Security at Lucas Heights is far more rigorous than is proposed for Kimba (a couple of security guards); and

* Ongoing storage at Lucas Heights avoids unnecessary costs and risks associated with double-handling, i.e. ILW being moved to Kimba only to be moved again to a disposal site.

Conversely, above-ground storage of ILW in regional South Australia increases risk, complexity and cost -- for no good reason.

Need for an independent inquiry

The current plan for a waste facility at Kimba should be scrapped. It is unacceptable to be disposing of nuclear waste against the unanimous wishes of Barngarla Traditional Owners, and ILW storage at Kimba makes no sense for the reasons discussed above.

Australia needs a thorough independent inquiry of both nuclear waste disposal and production. We need a long-term disposal plan that avoids double-handling and unnecessary movement of radioactive materials and meets world's best practice standards.

An inquiry should include an audit of existing waste stockpiles and storage. This could be led by the federal nuclear regulator ARPANSA in consultation with relevant state agencies. This audit would include developing a prioritised program to improve continuing waste storage and handling facilities, and identifying non-recurrent or legacy waste sites and exploring options to retire and decommission these.

An inquiry would also identify and evaluate the full suite of radioactive waste management options. That would include the option of maintaining existing arrangements until suitable disposal options exist for both ILW and lower-level wastes.

Radioisotope production options

We also need to thoroughly investigate medical radioisotope production options with the aim of shifting from heavy reliance on reactor production in favour of cyclotrons (a type of particle accelerator). Among other advantages, cyclotrons produce far less radioactive waste than research reactors.

PET scanning is the fastest growth segment in nuclear medicine. Overwhelmingly this is used in cancer diagnosis and increasingly in therapy, and relies only on cyclotrons for supply.

We have a choice: whether we follow ANSTO's expensive business model to ramp up reactor manufacture of radioisotopes -- and the long-lived radioactive waste that goes with it -- or collaborate with Canada and other countries to develop cyclotron manufacture of radioisotopes that does not produce long-lived nuclear waste.

ANSTO is a taxpayer-funded organisation. The decision to ramp up reactor waste production will leave many future generations with radioactive materials that last hundreds of thousands of years.

Clean cyclotron production of technetium-99m was approvedi n Canada last year, and should become the future of radioisotope production. It avoids the accident and terrorist risks of nuclear reactors, has no weapons proliferation potential, and creates very little nuclear waste.

Cyclotron radioisotope manufacture at multiple sites will also be more reliable than our single reactor, which has a record of multiple unplanned outages.

We should be leaders in this field, not laggards.

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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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