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Lucas Heights Reactor - Background From SBS

Transcript from SBS Online... see...

Lucas Heights - August 10, 2000

Most anti-nuclear protests in Australia have been about uranium mining and yellowcake. The fears that some Americans and Europeans have about their nuclear power stations just don`t apply here, except at Lucas Heights.

For years, residents of outer Sydney have complained about having to share their suburb with a nuclear reactor. It`s the only one in Australia. Its purpose is research for science and industry, and most importantly, we`re told, the making of medical radioisotopes.

Now, the Federal Government is determined to spend $300 million on building a brand-new one - contracts were recently signed with an Argentinian company. But awkward questions are being asked about safety, secrecy and necessity.

Beyond the health and environmental issues, we`re told there are many important reasons why Australia does have a nuclear reactor. Like them or not, those reasons are too often ignored in the heat of the argument. Alan Sunderland reports on the campaign to convince Australians that a new reactor is safe, useful and important to the nation.

Just a few weeks ago, behind the secure gates of the Lucas Heights nuclear facility, a group of invited guests watched a brief ceremony that had been almost 10 years in the making.

HELEN GARNETT, DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIAN NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY ORGANISATION: But it simply says, "The future - July 13 2000", and I guess that`s what we`re in essence toasting is the future, and we`ll now cut the cake.

The cake was cut and then, more importantly, the contracts were signed for a nuclear reactor costing a massive $300 million, which would guarantee Australia`s nuclear industry for another 50 years. Outside, local protesters might as well have saved their breath. The operators of Lucas Heights say it`s more dangerous driving through Sydney`s traffic than living near their reactor.

HELEN GARNETT: International practice shows that research reactors are in fact designed to be safe and to be operated in and near cities.

They`ve been splitting the atom at Lucas Heights since the 1950s, when Australia was still debating whether to embrace nuclear power. Some were even considering nuclear weapons. Both options are long abandoned, but the reactor, known as HIFAR, keeps humming.

There have been safety worries from time to time - leaking waste drums, a damaged monitoring site, even workers exposed to too much radiation when they pulled out a fuel rod by accident. But generally, the administration remains unconcerned.

SENATOR NICK MINCHIN, FEDERAL INDUSTRY MINISTER: The Lucas Heights reactor has operated so well, so safely and so advantageously for 40 years, there is simply not a case to abandon that.

Its replacement will be safer, more powerful and more expensive. In fact, it will be the single most expensive scientific research facility in Australian history. But in the never-ending debate over its safety, a more fundamental question has been overlooked - why do we need such a costly reactor at all?

Our search for answers takes us inside the Lucas Heights complex. Not to the reactor itself, but to a very plain-looking building beside it - Building 23.

DR STUART CARR, DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIAN RADIO ISOTOPES: This is the main production facility, where we produce most of our products.

Dr Stuart Carr runs Australian Radioisotope Industries at Lucas Heights. In this carefully controlled environment, he oversees the manufacture of radioisotopes used in nuclear medicine.

DR STUART CARR: So what we`re going to do is, if you go left here, you can go into the area where we produce iodine 131 products.

In the battle to win public support for the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, medical radioisotopes are the chief weapon. The iodine, iridium and technetium produced here are used in cutting-edge nuclear medicine around the country.

HELEN GARNETT: The fact is that on average, every Australian is going to need a nuclear medicine procedure in their lifetime. The use of nuclear medicine is growing quite rapidly.

Growing rapidly, and at least 80% of the demand is being met by Lucas Heights. Most of that demand is for one particular isotope - technetium 99, which is supplied to hospitals in sturdy, lead-lined generators.

STUART CARR: Each hospital would have one of these garages, and the generator would be loaded into the garage as so, and these are lead doors, to minimise the radiation.

Technetium 99 is used as a diagnostic tool, helping doctors to identify anything from a minor bone fracture to terminal cancer and heart disease.

In this Melbourne hospital, radioisotopes are used to test for heart problems. After being injected with the isotope, the patient is wired up for monitoring, and then examined under a powerful gamma camera. The resulting images display not just how the heart looks, but how it functions. In other practices, like this busy nuclear medicine clinic in Sydney`s Bondi, radioisotopes help to pinpoint damage from things like sports injuries.

But medical radioisotopes are most well-known, and most valued by the public, for their use in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

PROFESSOR ROD HICKS, PETER MacCALLUM CANCER INSTITUTE: Several of them we couldn`t even find, they were so small. One we found down here the size of a pinhead, and if we didn`t know there was an abnormality there on that scan, we would have called that a blood vessel.

Professor Rod Hicks works at the Peter MacCallum Institute, one of Australia`s leading cancer treatment centres.

PROFESSOR ROD HICKS: I think it`s absolutely vital that we have access to this kind of technology. If we`re going to be a leading health care provider, we`re going to provide world-quality research and treatment, we`re going to need access to these kinds of chemicals and isotopes.

Isotopes like iodine 131, which has been used for decades in the treatment of thyroid cancer. Its success as a therapy means the survival rate for thyroid cancer is now more than 90%. No one knows that better than Kerry Leith. In 1996, Kerry was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had surgery, followed by treatment with radioiodine. It was a difficult and exhausting process.

KERRY LEITH: You`re hospitalised for four days in a lead-lined room. It sounds funny, but the nursing staff, they do come in and see you, but they wear plastic robes and things, and you throw away all your cutlery, etc. You`re there for the four days and then you`re radioactive for another probably two weeks.

Four years later, the treatment is continuing, but Kerry`s health is good. She`s got a bouncing 21- month-old daughter, and she has nuclear medicine to thank for that.

KERRY LEITH: Who knows? I mean, I could be here, I might not be here. But if they hadn`t have done that, if I hadn`t have had that treatment, I do think it would have got a lot bigger and elsewhere in my lungs. Tumours could have appeared anywhere in my body.

It`s a ringing endorsement of nuclear medicine, and the implication is that without a reactor at Lucas Heights, success stories like this just couldn`t happen.

DR. BARRY ELISON, PHYSICIANS IN NUCLEAR MEDICINE: We as physicians feel it`s crucial. It`s crucial for the ongoing use of nuclear medicine in this country.

STUART CARR: If we want to maintain a reliable supply to meet the needs of the Australian community and the broader Asian export market, it`s essential that we have a replacement reactor.

With so much compelling evidence in its favour, it seems impossible to argue against the reactor. Surely it`s necessary to save the lives of countless Australians? Well, plenty of people - both opponents and even some supporters of the reactor - would disagree.

SENATOR MICHAEL FORSHAW, ALP SENATOR: If you can argue that, "Look, if we don`t have this reactor then people might die," then it`s a pretty powerful argument. But of course, it`s an absolute lie.

Those who oppose the building of the new reactor say the very emotive medical debate tends to conceal several important facts. Firstly, the vast majority of isotopes are used for diagnosis, not treatment - very important, but not necessarily life-saving.

Secondly, almost half of Australia`s medical isotopes, based on dollar value, don`t come from the reactor at all - they come from cyclotrons like this one at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. The cyclotron is conventionally powered, it doesn`t use nuclear fission, and it`s at the cutting edge of modern nuclear medicine.

DR JIM GREEN, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, WOLLONGONG UNIVERSITY: Now you can produce a wide range of cutting-edge diagnostic isotopes using cyclotrons, you can also produce some therapeutic isotopes using cyclotrons, and with a greater investment in research and development into cyclotrons, you`re going to get the results.

For example, Australia is leading the world in positron emission tomography, or PET scanning. This is the new generation of diagnostic imaging for cancer, and it uses isotopes exclusively from cyclotrons.

PROFESSOR ROD HICKS: Now we can do most of the things that are done on standard nuclear medicine equipment on a PET scanner now, with greater accuracy, higher sensitivity and much greater detail.

Even so, the more environmentally-friendly cyclotron can not entirely take the place of a reactor. Professor Ken McKinnon chaired the review into a new reactor in 1993, still the most comprehensive study into the matter.

PROFESSOR KEN McKINNON, REACTOR REVIEW CHAIRMAN: Evidence was put to us that there were alternatives such as isotopes generated by cyclotrons. We didn`t find any support for that view at all, and as far as I know, nothing has transpired in the intervening years to support the view that other than a reactor would produce the isotopes required.

So a cyclotron, it seems, will only do half the job. For the rest, we need a reactor. In that case, say the critics, the answer is simple - just import the isotopes.

Professor Barry Allen spent thirty years working at Lucas Heights. He`s now a cancer researcher at St George`s Hospital.

PROFESSOR BARRY ALLEN, ST GEORGE HOSPITAL: Considering the cost of a reactor, from the scientific point of view, it`s not justified. From the production point of view of radioisotopes, well, Australia needs radioisotopes, but they can be imported, and we import cars, we import lots of things.

The argument goes that no matter how convenient it might be to have locally-made isotopes, the $300 million dollar price tag for the reactor is just too much.

PROFESSOR BARRY ALLEN: A few years ago, there was a list of, like, the 10 top facilities needed for scientific research and development in Australia. A new reactor was one of those - it was worth as much as the other nine.

But is it practical to import radioisotopes? Many of them have short half-lives, which means they deteriorate quickly. Well, many countries do. Great Britain, the United States and Japan all import much of their requirements, despite having research reactors of their own.

JIM GREEN, SCIENCE LECTURER, WOLLONGONG UNIVERSITY: There`s been a lot of rhetoric about so-called life-saving medical isotopes, but very little information. Already, a significant range of isotopes is imported - it`s possible to import a greater range.

Jim Green opposes the reactor. He says Australia could easily import the main isotopes. Technetium 99, for example, is used in about 80% of all nuclear medicine, and it only has a half-life of six hours. But it is made in these molybdenum generators, which last a week or two and are regularly transported around the world.

JIM GREEN: ANSTO imports molybdenum from South Africa. It`s a one-stop flight from South Africa to Perth to Sydney.

ANSTO, the operator of Lucas Heights, has long insisted that importation is not an option because Australia is a long way away from major suppliers, and international flights are unreliable.

HELEN GARNETT: If indeed there`s a live cargo on a plane, then indeed they don`t tend to put the radioisotopes in the same hold, so a racehorse or a dog is at the airport to go on a plane, an isotope pitches up for an emergency - it`s the package that stays, not the dog or the horse.

The counter-argument is that Australia already relies on imports whenever Lucas Heights shuts down. This year, the HIFAR reactor closed for maintenance for three months, and no one seemed to notice.

PROFESSOR BARRY ALLEN, ST GEORGE HOSPITAL: Every now and then when HIFAR closes down, we have pretty good import conditions. It can go wrong a bit, but they can go wrong at any time.

JIM GREEN: The reactor was shut down for three months earlier this year. I`m told by ANSTO scientists that there were very few, if any, problems relying on Australia`s cyclotrons plus imported isotopes, but ANSTO management won`t tell us a thing.

HELEN GARNETT: The fact of the matter is that some isotopes are not available during those shutdown periods at all, and that indeed, the supply of several is disrupted every time there is a shutdown.

Concrete examples are hard to find, but some doctors do confirm imported isotopes sometimes go astray. Dr Paul Roach at Sydney`s Royal North Shore Hospital occasionally uses two rare isotopes not produced at Lucas Heights.

DR PAUL ROACH, ROYAL NORTH SHORE HOSPITAL, SYDNEY: We have certainly had delays with the importation of both those products, which obviously cause inconvenience to patients and potentially increase in costs. To keep a patient in a hospital like this one unnecessarily for a few days while we wait for the delivery of the isotope can certainly add to the cost to the taxpayer.

The picture being painted is not one of a looming crisis without a reactor, but rather of some delays and inconvenience.

DR BARRY ELISON: It`s true - Australia could get their supply from other countries. But I think the word you used is `reliably`. I don`t believe anybody can guarantee reliable delivery.

But if there is no evidence that the closure of Lucas Heights would shut down nuclear medicine in Australia or lead to patient deaths, is the Government pushing the medical argument too hard and too emotively to win over public opinion?

JIM GREEN: Look at it from the Government`s point of view. They`ve got to sell a nuclear reactor in Sydney`s largest city - obviously, they`re going to push this argument about so-called life-saving medical isotopes.

SENATOR NICK MINCHIN: Well, the people who argue that, or make that attack, are those guilty of the most emotional, irrational attacks on the research reactor. Now, I always prefer rational debate of political issues, not emotional debate, but I think inevitably if you start attacking the reactor on emotional grounds, you`ll get an emotional response.

So one side of the debate argues that no nuclear reactor could possibly be safe; the other suggests that nuclear medicine couldn`t possibly survive without it. Each side uses powerful images of people either dying of cancer or being cured of it. The irony is that medicine is not the only reason, nor even the main reason for building the reactor.

PROFESSOR KEN McKINNON: Medical isotopes are important, but that alone would not justify the investment required for a new reactor.

The McKinnon report found that the main reason for a new reactor was to serve Australia`s national strategic interest, not to make isotopes.

PROFESSOR KEN McKINNON: This is a very important and very worthy activity, but it alone would not justify the investment required for a new reactor. Essentially, this was a decision for the government; it involved more factors than could be made public, and if the government wants it on national interest grounds, which we sympathise with, it should just simply go ahead.

The national interest. This takes us deep into the murky waters of international relations and nuclear strategies. Countries in our region are building new reactors for all sorts of purposes. Waste is being transported back and forth across the Pacific - some countries may be doing things they really shouldn`t, whether it be producing weapons-grade plutonium or disposing of their waste thoughtlessly.

PROFESSOR KEN McKINNON: Some of the reasons why you`d have nuclear expertise in Australia, which are very pertinent from the government`s point of view, can`t be aired in a way that allows cool debate about it, because for one thing, it would evoke foreign affairs considerations - it might frighten neighbouring countries and so on.

JEAN McSORLEY, NUCLEAR CAMPAIGNER: It`s about intelligence gathering, and what we do with that intelligence - who we feed it back to, our allies, particularly the Americans under the ANZUS treaty.

SENATOR NICK MINCHIN: If we`re to have a seat at the table in the international community, and to be able to play a constructive and technically well-based part in the international effort to contain nuclear weapons, then there is a strong view in our security and defence and foreign affairs community that we need the sort of expertise which the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation possesses.

But will a research reactor at Lucas Heights, which doesn`t reprocess or enrich uranium, help us understand nuclear power overseas?

JIM GREEN: I don`t think you have to have your own reactor to understand what other countries are up to with their reactors - I mean, they`re much of a muchness, these research reactors. The real issues are transparency and accountability, and ANSTO does nothing to further those issues, domestically or internationally.

HELEN GARNETT: In actual fact, practice would show that Australia plays way beyond its weight in international affairs, and particularly in influencing the nuclear area, and that that`s due to the depth of technical expertise the country has.

In many ways, this is the debate that Australia needs to have about its involvement in nuclear policy and practice. With the contracts signed for a new reactor, the time for debate might appear to be over. But it`s not, for one very important reason nuclear waste, barrels and barrels of it.

In the past, Lucas Heights, and a number of other facilities around the country have had real problems storing it safely. They still have problems disposing of it. Some of the low-level material will be buried in the outback, but the more serious stuff is still looking for a home.

HELEN GARNETT: We`re required to have a strategy for managing the fuel, and there is a strategy for fuel management, so that is in place. The issue of what happens to the very small amount of intermediate-level waste that`s returned to Australia starting around 2025 is an issue that is still to be resolved.

In fact, the search for a repository hasn`t even begun. Yet the issue was meant to be resolved before the contract for a new reactor was signed.

PROFESSOR KEN McKINNON: We believed that there was a big waste issue to be solved, and there isn`t really much evidence that it has been solved. It`s really half of the decision to take a decision to have a new reactor while not taking the decision to have a decent, safe, long-term repository.

Opponents now believe the waste problem is the sleeper in this debate, and it will bring the whole reactor issue back onto the public agenda. The South Australian Parliament has already passed legislation preventing an intermediate waste dump there, and NSW is considering doing the same.

LEE RHIANNON, NSW GREENS MP : It is a very urgent situation because just recently, the Coalition Government has pushed through the contract for the second reactor at Lucas Heights. And for that reactor to go ahead, they have to have some waste management plan - somewhere to get rid of all that nuclear fuel once it has been used.

The Federal Government says it will overrule the States if it has to.

SENATOR NICK MINCHIN: That is an absolute furphy by those who oppose having a reactor. They`re trying to use the waste issue to somehow stop the reactor being built. Well, I`m sorry - the reactor will be built, and we will have waste facilities built in plenty of time to take waste from the new reactor.

But for the Federal Government, it seems the fight over nuclear waste is just beginning. Next week in Federal Parliament, the Australian Democrats will move for a new Senate inquiry. With Labor backing, they`ll pursue not just the waste issue, but the whole question of why the reactor is being built at all.

SENATOR MICHAEL FORSHAW: There are some big battles to come over the whole issue of management and storage of waste.

SENATOR NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA, AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRATS: I think that opens up a whole Pandora`s box, and it`s one that clearly needs to be examined. Is there a national security issue here, and if there is, well, we`d better hear about it.

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