Nuclear medicine and the proposed NT radioactive waste dump
National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia
“As health organisations, we are appalled that access to nuclear medical procedures is being used to justify the proposed nuclear waste dump. Most waste from these procedures break down quickly and can be safely disposed of either on site or locally.”
− Dr Bill Williams, Medical Association for the Prevention of War
(media release, www.http://tiny.cc/mz3he)
“Linking the need for a centralized radioactive waste storage facility with the production of isotopes for nuclear medicine is misleading. 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.”
− Nuclear Radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos. (media release, www.http://tiny.cc/mz3he)
Proponents of a national radioactive waste dump in the Northern Territory routinely claim or imply that nuclear medicine would be jeopardised if the dump does not proceed. There is no basis to such claims – they amount to dishonest scare-mongering.
Proponents claim that most or all of the waste that the federal government wants to dump in the NT arises from medicine, specifically the production and use of medical radioisotopes. However the true figure is 10-20%.
In any case, the fact that some waste is of medical origin doesn't mean that a national dump is the best way to manage the waste, much less that a dump ought to be located in the NT.
If the plan for a dump in the NT is defeated, medical waste will continue to be stored at the Lucas Heights reactor site operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and, in much smaller volumes, at hospitals. That is no problem since ANSTO and hospitals continue to produce radioactive waste and thus they have an ongoing need for on-site waste stores and waste management expertise regardless of the options for periodic off-site disposal.
Alternatively, a different site will be found for a centralised waste dump.
Either way, nuclear medicine will not be affected.
If nuclear medicine was the criterion for siting the dump (which it isn't) and if there was a need for a national dump (which is highly debatable, given the option of ongoing storage at Lucas Heights), the NT would be the last choice because it has far fewer nuclear medicine procedures than any other state or territory (1% of the national total according to Brendan Nelson's letter to Senator Scullion, 26/7/05; just 0.1% according to an ANSTO, 1993, Submission to the Research Reactor Review) and also the fewest nuclear medicine procedures on a per capita basis (ANSTO, 1993 Submission). If nuclear medicine was the criterion for selecting a dump site, which it isn't, the dump ought to go in NSW, which accounts for 46% of national nuclear medicine procedures.
The proposed dump site at Muckaty in the NT was chosen on political grounds rather than on scientific and environmental criteria – indeed the site did not even make the short-list when a preliminary study identified eight regions across five states/territories considered 'suitable' for further investigation (Bureau of Resource Sciences, 1997). The NT was chosen (and NSW excluded from the start) for the grubbiest of political reasons − the NT does not have the political clout of the more populous states, nor does it have the legal powers of the states.
The incessant references to nuclear medicine to 'sell' the dump amount to nothing more than emotive propaganda − which is what critics of the proposed dump are routinely accused of.
Successive governments have engaged in a scare campaign in relation to medical isotopes. Here are some examples:
· Senator Nigel Scullion, who purports to represent the NT in the Federal Senate, said: "If we don't have a site that is clear of any impediments by April  then by December 2006 Australia will not get access to radio pharmaceuticals that are essential to the early diagnosis of cancer and to deal with many cardiovascular issues in Australia." (13/10/05, abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200510/s1481671.htm) Senator Scullion's scare-mongering was proven to be false.
· A joint media released by Nigel Scullion and David Tollner, the CLP Member for Solomon in the NT Parliament, said: "A delay [in building the waste facility] would severely limit the availability of life-saving radiopharmaceuticals used in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and early intervention against cancer, particularly breast cancer." That one paragraph contains layers of confusion and misinformation. As the Medical Association for the Prevention of War noted, Senator Scullion and Mr Tollner were "peddling a lie" (ABC, 17/10/05).
· National MP John Cobb said: "But let me ask this: do people want hospitals, do they want life-saving cancer treatment and equipment ...? ... I must stress how much medical waste is involved. I wonder whether those who have such a problem with it want to close down our hospitals." (House of Representatives, 16 October 2003, pp.21329-30) Needless to say, no hospitals have been closed down, no hospitals will be closed down, no-one wants hospitals closed down.
· In 2002, science minister Peter McGauran accused WA Premier Geoff Gallop of putting at risk life-saving nuclear medical research by refusing to accept that its waste had to be stored somewhere. ('Premiers dump on waste site', The Australian, August 7, 2002.)
Much of the pro-dump propaganda is somewhat less disingenuous than the comments of Senator Scullion, Mr Tollner, Mr Cobb, and Mr McGauran, implying rather than asserting that nuclear medicine would be jeopardised if the NT dump plan does not proceed. For example federal resources minister Martin Ferguson said in 2010: "We need a repository. We need nuclear medicine. All Australians benefit from the outcome of establishing a low and medium level repository in Australia, because half a million Australians a year demand access to nuclear medicine." ()
David Tollner said he approached then Prime Minister John Howard about funding an oncology unit at Royal Darwin Hospital as compensation for hosting a nuclear waste facility. (16/10/05, abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200510/s1483293.htm) If there is a need for an oncology unit in Darwin, it would be totally unacceptable for federal support to be dependent on acceptance of a nuclear waste dump.
Fraction of the radioactive waste of medical origin
The federal Labor government − as with the previous government − routinely asserts that most of the waste is a by-product of the production and use of medical isotopes. Sadly, that false claim is sometimes echoed in the NT, as with the August 2011 NT News editorial which asserted that the waste arises "almost solely" from nuclear medicine.
Here are some examples of politicians peddling misinformation:
· Then resources minister Ian Macfarlane said the nuclear waste arises "predominantly from medical services" (6/6/05, <www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2005/s1385915.htm>).
· Then science minister Peter McGauran said: "However, the Government remains totally and utterly committed to the safe and secure storage of low level radioactive waste − the bulk of which is produced from nuclear medicine procedures, and is the necessary by-product of life-saving medicine." (24/6/2004, www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1139557.htm)
· Mr McGauran said that the waste destined for the national dump "is largely produced by nuclear medicine" (ABC Radio National, Australia Talks Back, 5/2/02).
· In 1997, Mr McGauran said that "During this year more than 260 000 Australians will have a nuclear medicine procedure. ... As a result of these procedures, some 35 spent fuel rods are generated by the Lucas Heights research reactor every year." However just 10% of the spent fuel can be attributed to medical radioisotope production.
· Then science minister Brendan Nelson said on 2/11/05 in Parliament that "... much of [the nuclear waste is] sourced from hospitals around Australia, which is currently stored at ANSTO. We have another 1,800 cubic metres at Woomera, much of that sourced from hospitals. In fact most of this stuff comes from hospitals. ..." Hospitals account for only a tiny fraction of the waste (about 3% by volume). Just over 2000 cubic metres of low-level waste are stored at Woomera and none of it is of medical origin. Mr Nelson had no idea what he was talking about.
For low-level waste (LLW) and short-lived intermediate-level waste (SLILW):
* The claim that most of the waste is of medical origin certainly cannot be true in relation to waste volume, since 54% of the volume is non-medical CSIRO soil.
* A rough estimate would be as follows: say one quarter of ANSTO's waste is medical (1320/4=330m3), and one third of the state/territory waste is medical (151/3=50 m3), so overall perhaps ONE TENTH (380/3700 m3) of the national inventory of LLW/SLILW is a by-product of medical isotope production and nuclear medicine. Or if we assume that one half of ANSTO's waste is medical (1320/2=660m3), the overall figure is 710/3700 or 19%.
For long-lived intermediate-level waste (LLILW):
* Only a small fraction of this waste could be attributed to medical isotope production. Spent fuel accounts for a large majority of the radioactivity of Australia's LLILW (though only a small fraction of the volume), and according to ANSTO (1993 Research Reactor Review submission), just 10% of the Lucas Heights 'HIFAR' reactor's neutrons were used for medical isotope production. Presumably a similar figure applies for the new OPAL reactor − there is no reason to believe otherwise.
* Of the rest of Australia's LLILW (other than spent fuel), about half by volume comprises reactor and isotope production wastes (limited detail is available), but this would account for only a small fraction of the LLILW inventory when measuring by radioactivity.
In sum, for LLW plus SLILW plus LLILW, 10-20% of the current stockpile would be the plausible range for medical waste − closer to 10% if measuring by radioactivity (because spent reactor fuel is such a large contributor to total radioactivity) and closer to 20% if measuring by volume.
For current and future production, roughly 30-40% of the volume could be attributed to medicine, but if measuring by radioactivity the figure would still be in the range of 10-20% (again because the radioactivity figures are dominated by spent fuel).
'Nuclear Medicine in Australia: a Joint Health Sector Position Statement', online at
Joint letter to federal senators from medical organisations, online at
Medical Association for Prevention of War − nuclear medicine section:
Jim Green − nuclear medicine research:
Proposed NT dump: Friends of the Earth:
Proposed NT dump: www.beyondnuclearinitiative.com