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Misconceptions about radioactive medical isotopes

By Noel Wauchope - posted Tuesday, 29 August 2017


Australians get their information about medical isotopes straight from The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation(ANSTO) via handouts faithfully retailed via the mainstream media. Some recent examples of media coverage:

The message is straightforward and goes like this:

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The purpose of the Opal nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights is to make medical radioisotopes to treat cancer. Australia needs a national radioactive waste dump in rural South Australia, thousands of miles away from Lucas Heights, to dispose of the low-level medical radioactive wastes produced. And this will be a bonanza for the lucky rural community of Kimba.

Is this story true?

No. It is misleading on a number of counts.

First of all, a nuclear reactor is not essential for making medical isotopes. The IAEA lists 39 countries that use cyclotrons to produce them. That includes Australia, which has them not only at Lucas Heights itself, but also at hospitals in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia.

From the invention of the cyclotron (1931) , and discovery of artificial radioactivity (1934), non nuclear particle accelerators were used to produce them. Globally, particle accelerators produced the vast majority of radioisotopes with medical applications until the 1950s. Radioisotopes of medical interest began to be produced as a byproduct of nuclear weapons reactors during World War II. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the USA Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)'s main mission was promoting the military use of nuclear material, but “giving atomic energy a peaceful, civilian image” was also part of it. In1948 the AEC took over, and isotopes for biomedical research, cancer diagnostics and therapy were made in nuclear reactors and even became free of charge.

Australia was a bit slow to jump on the medical isotopes bandwagon. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor began its life in 1958 as the start of a plan for nuclear weapons for Australia.Then it was promoted as research for nuclear power, and later as for making medical radiopharmaceuticals. Lucas Heights and ANSTO itself are very much part of the nuclear lobby's plan to promote the entire nuclear industry in Australia.

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Australia does not need a national radioactive waste dump for medical wastes. Nearly all medical radioactive wastes are very short-lived - a matter of days, or even hours. There is no need to transport them across the continent. Australia does have a problem with higher level wastes: Spent reactor fuel sent to France, USA and UK for processing must be returned. This is the type of waste that needs deep and very secure disposal. That is sure to be the underlying purpose of the South Australian waste dump plan.

The planned national radioactive waste dump will not benefit the local community. Yes, there will be bribes - so far, not much – a $2 million Community Benefit Package to fund local projects, but I'm sure that the Feds will come with better than that. Jobs, no doubt. However, the underlying problem remains. The community is being asked to accept a temporary nuclear waste dump, which is to be set up long before any permanent dump is set up, if it ever is. Kimba, the proposed dump site, is likely to suffer the fate of so many sad sites in America -stuck with "stranded wastes" of radioactive trash. Think what that would do to Kimba's environment and reputation as an agricultural area.The nuclear lobby has argued persuasively that the Lucas Heights area has held nuclear wastes for decades. However, the Lucas Heights residents did not grasp the implications when the nuclear reactor was set up. They do now - that's why they want the wastes sent far away.

The global nuclear lobby is fighting a losing battle. The industry has always struggled to win over public opinion. In Australia, the industry's "foot in the door" is the Opal reactor at Lucas Heights. Following the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission's failed attempt last year, to introduce radioactive waste importing, the next sortie is to use Lucas Heights to get a national nuclear waste dump happening. To justify this, the argument put forward is the medical argument.

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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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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