Is Australia becoming the world’s nuclear waste dump by stealth?


License article

Is Australia becoming the world’s nuclear waste dump by stealth?

When it comes to justifying new nuclear waste storage, a lot has been said about it being essential for medical diagnostics and cancer treatment. This is misleading. It blurs two distinct components of nuclear medicine – the production of isotopes and the use of isotopes.

Australia's medical use of isotopes creates very little waste. In contrast, reactor production of isotopes generates considerable amounts, and ANSTO (the Australian national nuclear research and development organisation) is very quietly proposing to dramatically increase production to supply 30 per cent of the world market. This will significantly increase Australia's nuclear waste problems.

On the "use" side, the vast majority of isotopes used for medical tests 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. Most cancer radiotherapy uses X-rays, which does 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, or are legally required to be sent back to the (overseas) supplier once used up. There is a very small amount of legacy radium relating to cancer therapy in the past, however, this has not been used in Australia since 1975.

On the other hand, using a nuclear reactor to manufacture radio isotopes creates a significant amount of intermediate and low-level waste. ANSTO has recently unilaterally decided it will dramatically increase its production of medical isotopes at the Lucas Heights reactor to supply 30 per cent of the world's needs. This 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.

This decision ignores the reality of technology that enables isotopes to now be produced using accelerators and cyclotrons; i.e. without using a reactor and without generating large quantities of radioactive waste. This is fast approaching commercial scale and economic viability. ANSTO's decision contrasts with that of the Canadian nuclear authorities, who have for some years been actively phasing out reactor production, and pouring money into developing non-reactor technologies.

Canada, the world's single largest producer of medical isotopes, independently reviewed its nuclear industry in 2009 and decided not to build a new reactor. Several reasons stood out: investment in reactor production of medical isotopes would crowd out investment in innovative alternative production technologies both domestically and internationally, Canada did not want to continue being the radioactive waste site for other countries' nuclear medicine industries, it created supply vulnerabilities, and at no stage was it commercially viable without massive taxpayer subsidies.


The ANSTO decision represents vested interests entrenching a reactor-based model and crowding out development of other options. In many ways it is like the coal industry boosting production to stop wind and solar development. Like coal, the business model relies on not being responsible (financially or socially) for the waste it leaves behind.

We urgently need an open conversation about whether we want to pick up the world's waste tab when it comes to producing medical isotopes. This is a policy choice that will leave Australia storing waste from isotopes produced for international markets. The market price for these isotopes does not factor in the price of storing this waste, which falls to the taxpayer and the community unlucky enough to be landed with it. It is taking Australia down a path that Canada has rejected.

The bottom line is that storage of nuclear waste from reactors is difficult, requiring long-term isolation and security.

We need transparent, informed and clear discussion of what our choices are. We have an obligation to future generations to minimise the waste we produce. There needs to be a considered and open debate about where existing waste is most safely stored in Australia. And it needs to be absolutely clear to ANSTO that we do not want to be left holding the world's radioactive waste by default.

The Australian community is far from convinced about taking on more radioactive material on behalf of the international community. ANSTO needs to be much more explicit about what it is planning. As a government-owned entity it has a responsibility to be upfront and consult with the community.

When it comes to such long-term decisions about radioactive materials, sleight of hand is not good enough.

Margaret Beavis is a GP and national president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.