Australia’s peak nuclear organisation has warned it could be forced to cease production of life-saving cancer medicine if a controversial nuclear waste dump, planned for South Australia, is scrapped.
The chief executive of Australia’s Nuclear Science Technology Organisation (Ansto), Shaun Jenkinson, said the federal government organisation would not be able to keep producing nuclear medicine if it ran out of waste storage space at its Lucas Heights facility.
The federal government was planning to build a nuclear waste facility near Kimba in SA to store low level nuclear waste permanently, and intermediate level waste until a permanent solution was found.
But it is facing legal challenges from the traditional owners, the Barngarla people, and opposition from the Greens and conservation groups who want the project cancelled.
Liberal National senator Susan McDonald said Jenkinson’s claim was “confronting”. But the Australian Conservation Foundation said it risked causing unnecessary concern to vulnerable people.
Ansto produces 80% of Australia’s nuclear medicine needs, including radiopharmaceuticals used to diagnose, monitor and treat cancers. Its Lucas Heights facility delivers up to 12,000 doses a week to hospitals and clinics around the country. Ansto’s current storage is projected to reach capacity by 2027, but new storage being built is expected to last a decade beyond that.
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The SA site is meant to be ready by 2030.
Jenkinson told senate estimates that a national repository was “best current practice” and that Lucas Heights – where low and intermediate level waste was now stored – was “never set up as a permanent waste facility”.
Asked what would happen if the national facility was “delayed or cancelled”, Jenkinson said if the dump was cancelled, waste production would stop.
“We would cease … some part of our operations,” he said.
“Which could be things like nuclear medicine, if we didn’t have enough space on site to store the output.
“It’s used in the diagnosis, staging and treatment of cancers, typically the larger amount of it has been used in diagnosis but we’re seeing therapeutics developed now, which are very exciting.”
Jenkinson also said importing those medicines was “very challenging” because they have a short half-life; in some cases they only last for a few days.
Those comments confirm a parliamentary report on Ansto’s need for extra storage. It found that, without the ability to store waste, Ansto would be “forced to cease nuclear medicine production, leading to major disruptions for Australia’s healthcare system”.
Guardian Australia asked Ansto for more information about when it would no longer be able to safely store waste at Lucas Heights.
A spokesperson said it would need more storage facilities by the end of next decade if the national facility did not go ahead, on top of the already planned extension.
McDonald said the idea that Ansto might have to stop producing treatments was an “incredibly confronting thought”, while quizzing the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency in estimates.
“We all have people in our lives who have benefited from Australia being able to produce its own nuclear medicine,” she said.
Dave Sweeney, the ACF’s nuclear free campaigner, the Greens, and others, argue that waste could continue to be stored at Lucas Heights.
“Linking continued nuclear medicine access to the development of a highly controversial radioactive waste plan in regional SA risks causing unnecessary concern to vulnerable people,” Sweeney said.
“For years we have been assured by department officials that nuclear medicine production and supply is not dependent on the rushed development of a national radioactive waste facility.”
He was also critical of a plan to move the intermediate level waste to the new facility, but only keep it there until a permanent spot was found.
The Barngarla people said they were “deeply disappointed” that new studies had begun on the site.
The federal government said “characterisations works” were necessary and did not constitute the beginning of construction. But Barngarla’s chair, Jason Bilney, said it was an “unwelcome escalation”.
“Right now we are hearing a lot of talk about a voice to parliament. We want them to hear our Barngarla voice that says a very clear ‘no’,” he said.