BY JIM GREEN
A report written by a US nuclear consultancy firm calls the bluff on the federal government's claim that a new nuclear reactor is required in Australia to produce medical isotopes.
The report, titled Alternatives to a 20 Megawatt Nuclear Reactor for Australia, was written by nuclear physicist Dr Robert Budnitz and energy and technology consultant Dr Gregory Morris, both from the California-based consultancy firm Future Resources Associates (FRA). It was commissioned by the Sutherland Shire Council, which is fighting the federal government's plan to build a new reactor in the southern Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights.
The production of isotopes for medical diagnosis and therapy has been the major selling point for the planned new reactor. This argument has produced an endless stream of misinformation, since there is no doubt that Australia could do as most other countries do — rely on particle accelerators such as cyclotrons to produce some isotopes and import others.
The government's case was not helped when the president of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Physicians in Nuclear Medicine, Dr Barry Ellison, admitted that he did not know that the existing HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights was shut down for maintenance for three months last year.
The FRA report, released on August 8, argues that "importation of radioisotopes and more extensive use of accelerators for isotope production represents a viable alternative to the building of a new reactor in Australia".
The report argues that this approach would have several benefits when compared with the plan for a new reactor, including reduced generation of radioactive waste, possible cost benefits, similar or better employment prospects, and better intellectual property opportunities (arising from the development of accelerator technology).
The report argues that Australia should develop and implement an accelerator method to produce technetium-99m, the isotope used in about 75% of all nuclear medicine procedures.
Accelerators, such as the cyclotrons located in Sydney and Melbourne, already produce 20% of the isotopes used in nuclear medicine, and implementation of an accelerator method of technetium-99m production would dramatically reduce the reliance on reactors, whether located in Australia or overseas.
Future Resources Associates specifically identifies two accelerator methods of producing technetium-99m which could be pursued in Australia — an electron accelerator method developed at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and a proton accelerator method developed by researchers at the University of California and elsewhere.
The Future Resources Associates report argues, "Development of accelerator-based production of Tc-99m would probably require a one-to-two year effort involving several person-years of work, and a few million dollars of investment. The pay-off would be that Australia would develop and possess valuable expertise in a nearly radioactive waste- and proliferation-free route to the production of the world's medically most important radioisotope."
Some scientists, along with environmental and anti-nuclear groups, have long argued for research in Australia into accelerator methods of technetium-99m production. Public pressure forced the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), operator of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant, to agree to a collaboration with the University of California in 1993.
However, ANSTO quietly shelved the proposed collaboration. Its treatment of Dr Manuel Lagunas-Solar, head of the University of California research team, led Lagunas-Solar to write to Prime Minister John Howard in September 1997 saying, "It is my understanding that my work has been reviewed by ANSTO, without the benefit of my direct participation, and clearly using outdated and incomplete information. ANSTO also provided statements to parliament based on information (also out of date) available through our internet site. Based upon a general analysis of ANSTO's review, I strongly feel that it does not provide an objective and balanced review of the actual status or the conclusions of our work."
ANSTO operates the National Medical Cyclotron in Sydney but has never used it to explore innovations such as cyclotron production of technetium-99m. In 1994, the federal Labor government rejected thorough, costed plans to develop a cyclotron method of technetium-99m production.
Tracie Sonda, mayor of the Sutherland Shire Council, said the Future Resources Associates report will be forwarded to the federal and state governments and opposition leaders, seeking their responses.
Sonda said, "Building and running another nuclear reactor will not just cost Australians half a billion dollars, it will cost us the chance to lead the world in nuclear medical technology. If we are truly serious about 'innovation' and 'knowledge nation', then this report cannot be ignored."
[The Future Resources Associates Report can be obtained from Cat Reimer at the Sutherland Shire Council, phone (02) 9710 0554, email <email@example.com>.]