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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
13/09/2021
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Intermediate Level Solid Waste Storage Facility Lucas Heights, NSW

BEAVIS, Dr Margaret, Vice President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) [by audio link]

RUFF, Dr Tilman, AO, Member, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) [by audio link]

[11:20]

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Medical Association for Prevention of War to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. Evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Dr Beavis : Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. MAPW supports the construction of a new facility at Lucas Heights. As noted in ANSTO's submission, there will be minimal expected impact on the community, and ANSTO has an excellent record of managing this waste on site. This contrasts with the massive distress and community division a succession of nuclear waste storage proposals have caused in regional and remote Australia. I'll now address the sort of individual criteria of the committee.

The stated purpose and suitability: the facility is needed and the proposal is suitable. You've already heard Dr Carl-Magnus Larsson, head of ARPANSA, say that the 'waste could be safely stored at Lucas Heights for decades to come'. He said that there was no urgent need for relocation of this waste and that ARPANSA has not raised any safety concerns regarding storage of waste at the interim waste facility [inaudible] ANSTO.

Addressing the need for the work: clearly intermediate level waste has to be stored safely and securely. It's radioactive for over 10,000 years. Putting that in perspective, the Egyptian pharaohs were about 5,000 years ago, so it needs to be kept safe for a very long time.

Addressing cost effectiveness: this plan may prove to be very cost effective if, as a result of the extra capacity, there is time for an open and independent inquiry looking at world's best practice management of nuclear waste. Given current world's best practice standards, it's very likely that the plan to move the waste will not proceed. At some point ANSTO does indeed need to address the proper disposal or long-term management of intermediate waste. Countries, such as Finland, have spent decades researching how best to do this, and Australia could learn a lot from their research and expertise.

In terms of the current and prospective value of the work, as noted, this work may provide breathing space enabling the open—and I stress—independent review of the claimed need for a temporary storage facility in South Australia. The work would have even greater value if waste production was also reviewed and curtailed. If this were done, the proposed new site at Lucas Heights would take much longer to fill and be available for a much greater time frame.

It's worth remembering that the first principle of managing toxic waste is to reduce production. Currently ANSTO is rapidly expanding production of the nuclear medicine isotope called technetium-99 precursors, which is the most commonly used isotope. This export business continues because it is very heavily subsidised. There's no cost-benefit analysis and no attempt at full cost recovery.

Historically Australian supply has been one per cent of the world supply and, as a doctor, I support nuclear medicine. One per cent of the world's supply has been what Australia has needed. ANSTO is in the process of increasing from that one per cent for the last few years and aims to produce 25 to 30 per cent of global supply, with very little acknowledgement of the massively increased quantity of intermediate waste that this will generate. On top of that, concerningly, in terms of nuclear medicine, ANSTO has proved an unreliable supplier with multiple outages and supply shortages in the last few years. You will find references to that in our submission. When you're sourcing from a single nuclear reactor, one break in the chain shuts down the whole process. If technetium were instead sourced from multiple cyclotrons, which could be based in hospitals around Australia at not a huge cost—certainly much less than a nuclear reactor—if one of these cyclotrons broke down, there would be multiple other cyclotrons to supply technetium.

Additionally, clean cyclotron production of technetium has recently been approved through all the health hurdles in Canada. It's being implemented now there. This should rapidly become the future of isotope production. It avoids the high cost and the serious accident and terrorist risk inherent in nuclear reactors. It has no weapons proliferation potential, and it creates very little nuclear waste. You can use pre-existing cyclotrons. There are already cyclotrons in hospitals making other isotopes. Japan, the US, the UK and several European countries are all looking into implementing more reliable, safer, cheaper and much cleaner cyclotron production of technetium-99. I'll now hand over to Professor Ruff for some brief further comments.

Dr Ruff : Very briefly, I want to add one important element for the committee's deliberations that would support not just the proposed facility—as the previous witness and, I think, most of the submissions that you'll be deliberating on today have supported—but ongoing interim storage of Australia's intermediate-level nuclear waste at Lucas Heights, and whatever facilities are planned or put in train now should be amenable to implementing that capacity. The particular reason I just want to draw your attention to is the profoundly increased risks to the security of nuclear material that occur during transport, which are obviously minimised if they stay at Lucas Heights, and that's one of the key reasons that we're in favour of extended interim storage at Lucas Heights rather than anywhere else. But it would be a major concern for reliance on a plan to shift that waste—uncertain, as highlighted—to anywhere else but particularly to somewhere as distant as South Australia with either very long road transport through multiple states or sea transport through ports.

The two global databases on nuclear accidents and trafficking are run by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in the United States, the public source one, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both highlight, including in their most recent reports, that around half of the total reported incidents with nuclear materials occur during transport, and they highlight this as a particular vulnerability. Lucas Heights has, to my knowledge, been the subject of six publicly known terrorist threats. A couple of them have involved identification of explosive materials on or near the site. A couple have involved prosecutions of people with clear evidence of significant stages of planning. If that's an issue at Lucas Heights, then the vulnerability of transport is particularly highlighted. And it's clear in both the reports that I mentioned that there are well-organised terrorist groups of various kinds around the world that are interested in, and have a demonstrated track record in seeking to acquire, nuclear materials suitable for, essentially, dirty radiological bombs, and intermediate-level nuclear waste would be very suitable for that purpose. So that's one of the key factors why, from a health point of view, we're particularly concerned that multiple handling and, particularly, long-distance transport of hazardous nuclear waste be minimised.

Dr Beavis : The recommendations of MAPW ask for an open and independent review of nuclear waste production and disposal, and also that the committee recommend inquiry and research into shifting to cyclotrons rather than reactor based production of isotopes for nuclear medicine in a phased and transition manner. We're not talking about anything that would threaten nuclear medical supplies but, as rapidly as is feasible, to reduce the amount of waste that is produced.

CHAIR: We'll certainly put that question to the ANSTO people when they appear later in the day. In the meantime, you mentioned that ANSTO is looking to increase the capacity to produce nuclear medicine and to get into the export market. Surely, after the events of the last 18 months, Australia needs to be more self-sufficient, and, certainly, the viability of some of these procedures increases with the amount of volume produced. So surely it's a good thing that Australia is looking to export nuclear medicines?

Dr Beavis : It's a very complex market. Every year, the OECD and Nuclear Energy Agency—they haven't done it last year—put out a report on the supply of medical isotopes, and there's been a recurring theme on the problems with full-cost recovery and the problems with supply security. I'll just read you a bit from the 2019 report which I have in front of me which says that governments are not always aware of the extent to which molybdenum-99 production—that's the technetium precursor—relies on subsidies. I think all of us are aware. The report goes on:

Some governments were essentially subsidising the production of Mo-99 that was exported to other countries, thus subsidising imaging services in importing countries.

And this report is very keen for full-cost recovery, or FCR so they're trying to stop countries heavily subsidising exports because it's making the provision of new suppliers not cost competitive. I'll read a little further:

Other countries have decided to allow older facilities that were operating below FCR—

that's full-cost recovery—

to cease operations and have not subsidised extensions of their working lifetime. While this increased the risk of insufficient supply or challenged reserve capacity, decisions to end the operation of facilities … have been helpful in achieving the six NEA—

the Nuclear Energy Agency—

policy principles … by removing subsidised services from the market. These actions also reduced the level of subsidised reserve capacity and reduced perceived overcapacity within the market.

I can read you more, but, basically, what they're saying is that, because nuclear reactors are very, very expensive to set up, Australia is actually going down the path that Canada chose not to continue in the late 2000s. In 2009 and 2010, there was a massive global shortage of nuclear medicine for this technetium isotope. That was because the Canadian reactor supplied about 25 to 30 percent of the market. Canada has chosen not to replace those reactors for a number of reasons but not least because they were tired of accumulating all the nuclear waste from the export business of isotopes around the world. In fact, the OECD and the NEA are advocating that we should not be continuing to subsidise these nuclear medicine suppliers. It also means that, if you rely on a reactor, when that reactor breaks down, your tendency to create havoc in the global markets is much greater. It would be much better if there were decentralised, much cleaner production of isotopes. But, because we have a reactor and because ANSTO, as a business entity, has decided that it wishes to increase its market share—which, as a business entity, it's certainly entitled to do—it means that the Australian public is left with a great deal of waste. It's going to double the waste inventory, as you've heard, without really any social licence to do so.

Given that the OECD and the NEA are saying that we should not be continuing to subsidise this, I think what we need to do, as I said, is a phasing transition. We need a phased and coordinated reduction in Australia's production isotopes for an export business, and, for Australian owned nuclear medicine suppliers, we actually need to decentralise. Cyclotrons are about the size of a four-wheel drive and cost in the order of—actually, I shouldn't get into that, but it would be less than $5 million per cyclotron to have the work done and dusted. They are much cheaper to run, they don't produce the waste, they don't leave us with 10,000-year intermediate-level waste doubling in the next few decades. So I think it's something Australia should be looking at. I think the huge subsidies that are going into this export business—I'll backtrack. With new technologies and cyclotrons now being demonstrated to work in Canada, we need to have a review of how we produce our nuclear medicine so that we can have more reliable, safer and cleaner supplies.

CHAIR: We'll put that question to ANSTO, but who would have thought that the Medical Association for Prevention of War would be advocating against subsidising a very important tool in the fight against many cancers and other diseases? Deputy Chair, did you have—

Dr Beavis : I would just say that we are arguing for more reliable and cleaner supply of nuclear medicine and not leaving the public with a lot of waste.

CHAIR: [inaudible] the subject of a particular type of treatment. Deputy Chair, do you have any questions?

Mr ZAPPIA: Again, Chair, I would have had lots, but I will ask just one question based on those last few comments. Doctor, why do you believe that ANSTO is not going down the path that Canada has gone down and the path that you're recommending—that is, to increase the production of cyclotrons as opposed to isotopes?

Dr Beavis : I would be hesitant to second-guess how ANSTO thinks. I find that a difficult question. They may wish to increase the income that comes into ANSTO as a natural entity. I think they are not factoring in the cost of the waste. They've said explicitly they do not want responsibility for this waste that they are generating, and I think, if you don't have to worry about the waste, then putting subsidised material out into the global community—

CHAIR: Yes, yes.

Dr Beavis : Yes—I think you—

Dr Ruff : If I could add to that very briefly: without wanting to speak for ANSTO, I think the institutional context is worth looking at. They are a nuclear operator, so of course they're organisationally, professionally, bureaucratically and budget-wise invested in nuclear technology. Setting up a reactor is very expensive. The OPAL reactor cost at least $400 million, so there's a very high upfront cost, and they, presumably, like most other reactor operators, want to operate it as long as possible. They have no expertise or interest, and no history, in alternative technologies. So I think, from an institutional point of view, there's probably a pretty clear conflict of interest here. That's why we're deeply concerned that, in Australia, we're being left behind with emerging technologies. Australian medicine is very well placed. Cyclotrons are already dispersed in pretty much all of the major hospitals around capital cities because they produce isotopes for PET scans and other modern nuclear medicine interventions. But that's probably not an enterprise that ANSTO would be essentially involved in, and I suspect that's the context in which you're not hearing a peep from them or any active interest in progressing and advancing implementation of much safer technologies of the future.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Senator Hughes, do you have a quick question?

Senator HUGHES: Thanks, Chair. I'm just trying to get my head around this. You support the project at Lucas Heights. Lucas Heights has been managed incredibly safely, and it's pretty much in the heart of Sydney. But there seems to be this ongoing objection to anything elsewhere. As you mentioned, rural and regional Australia are being panicked by it, even though everything's been managed safely. I appreciate modern technology and emerging medicine, but, whilst we're on the way there, what is the significant objection to something that's in the heart of Sydney, fundamentally, and that has been managed safely for a significant amount of time versus something in a far less densely populated area? What's the basis for the objection?

Dr Beavis : I think the expertise and security at ANSTO is far greater. I also think the risks from this waste pale into insignificance compared to the risks of the nuclear reactor. So, if you're going to be keeping one large facility secure, you may as well keep it all there. The regulator has said quite clearly that there's sufficient space at Lucas Heights to store this waste for decades to come. And the expectation is there in Sydney. If you've got to look after the reactor—which we absolutely do have to do—

Senator Hughes interjecting

CHAIR: I'm sorry, Senator Hughes, but we've run out of time.

Senator HUGHES: I might ask other witnesses. Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: I thank the witnesses from the Medical Association for Prevention of War for attending today. If the committee has any further questions, they'll put them to you in writing. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to correct errors in the transcription. Thank you very much.