Darling Downs nuclear issue: expert corrects the record

NUCLEAR waste on the Darling Downs. It's a controversial issue.

A meeting staged by a group opposed to a propsoal to store nuclear waste in Oman Ama, Friends of Oman Ama, recently held a meeting on the issue.

Bruce Wilson is the Head of Resources Division at the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

In this opinion piece he responds to what he calls unanswered questions and mistruths.

Radioactive waste: facts not furphies

I congratulate the Friends of Oman Ama for organising their information session on February 12 about the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. We had met with most of the presenters in recent months, and there is no mistaking their passion and views.

The Department advised the organisers that, as requested by several Inglewood locals, a number of experts would attend to provide any relevant information. We, along with the rest of the audience, were surprised to be told that a lecture-format would be applied, and that questions, comments or perspectives from audience members were banned.

The Government process to find a location supports people holding whatever view they want, but unfortunately the meeting format meant incorrect statements about the department, process, nuclear science and ANSTO were not responded to.

I am taking this opportunity now to correct this.

Firstly, several presenters said the waste that would be managed in the facility has very little to do with nuclear medicines. This is wrong.

While only a small amount of the final nuclear medicines used by patients will end up at this facility, the production of the 10,000 patient doses at ANSTO each week does generate longer-lived radioactive waste, which forms most of the current waste stream.

Here are the numbers: around 75% of the low level waste is from nuclear medicine production, and 98 per cent of the intermediate waste is directly attributed to medicine production. To suggest this is not waste associated with nuclear medicine is to deny reality.

Secondly, statements that Australia could import nuclear medicines instead of making our own, are misleading.

There are many nuclear medicine products that simply are not suitable to be imported.

Of the medicines that can be, to import them would dramatically increase costs for patients and taxpayers and significantly reduce our security of supply of medicines.

It would also mean increases in amount of global waste, as we would need more material because of decays over travel distances.

And quite possibly it would also mean that we would be relying on, and creating demand for, high-enriched uranium reactors - which would fly in the face of Australia's nuclear non-proliferation goals.

Thirdly, the argument that we could switch to non-reactor technologies to make nuclear-based medicines is just false.

While accelerators are fantastic for producing PET scan medicines, they can't effectively produce the workhorse of nuclear medicine, technetium-99m, which accounts for 75-80 per cent of global nuclear medicine procedures.

At best, accelerators produce lower amounts of lower quality technetium-99m, at a higher cost with less reliability, and this is expected to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Fourthly, suggestions that ANSTO has a poor safety record, or are somehow directing this process, are both in error.

ANSTO are the Government's nuclear experts and are lending their experience in waste management, but are not involved in decision-making or administrative processes for this project.

ANSTO's safety record at Lucas Heights is world-class, and during more than 60 years it has never had a radioactive incident that has impacted on human health or the environment.

Fifthly, no evidence was provided to support the claim that house or property prices in the region will decline by more than 80 per cent - a claim that is wholly unsupported by fact or international experience.

The Champagne region of France hosts such a facility in some of the world's most expensive agricultural land, in the Lakes District of England near the Drigg Repository, house prices are up 22 per cent in recent years, and near Lucas Heights in Sydney it's more like 72 per cent.

In the course of our consultations we have also spoken with several banks and grain/meat buyers who have all confirmed the facility would not trigger a re-evaluation or impact agricultural production or prices. It also will not impact organic or export accreditations.

You could quite easily argue the opposite: that the new jobs from the project along with community benefit measures could actually increase the value of local homes and land.

Finally, it was disappointing to hear totally untrue allegations of special deals or promises being done in the community by the Government - this is absolutely false.

Let me be clear that any funding made available to any community through this process will be set within a structured framework that ensures transparency, value for money and equality of access to all members of the community.

I look forward to attending future meetings in Oman Ama and Inglewood where the facts and points of view can be aired in a balanced and fully informed way.

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