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Waste that will be radioactive for years currently stuck in Australian hospital basements

9 November 2020

A roundtable at Parliament House involving medical experts has been told the establishment of a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility is essential to ensure that Australia can continue to provide world class nuclear medicine treatment.

Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt said the clear message from the roundtable is that Australia cannot continue to generate nuclear medicine and life-saving treatments without dealing with the waste by-product, which has been accumulating for over 70 years.

”Radioactive waste is currently held in more than 100 locations around the country including hospital basements, universities, and research facilities like ANSTO and the CSIRO,” Minister Pitt said.

“Around 80 per cent of the low and intermediate level radioactive waste that is generated in Australia is directly associated with the production of nuclear medicine.

“Some of Australia’s leaders in nuclear medicine came together today to discuss the importance of nuclear medicine and research, and how radioactive waste can be best managed.

“The roundtable comes as crucial legislation is expected before the Parliament to establish a National Radioactive Waste Management Facility at Kimba in South Australia.

“The facility will play a crucial role for Australia’s nuclear medicine industry, and our ability to drive further innovations in nuclear medicine and research.

“Along with the benefits from Australia’s past, current and future nuclear medicine generation capability, comes a responsibility to properly manage the by-products including radioactive waste.

“We now have a site that is technically suitable and near a broadly supportive community, and we need to pass the supporting legislation to make this happen.”

Today’s roundtable brought together clinicians, scientists, academics and business, including physicist and President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Nuclear Medicine, Dr Daniel Badger.

“We need a better solution than radioactive waste items sitting in shielded rooms in hospital, university and research facility basements around Australia,” Dr Badger said.

“There are radioactive sources in some hospital basements that have been sitting there since before I was born."

Dr Badger identified some of the radionuclides as caesium-137, radium-226, barium-133, carbon-14, tritium (H-3), plutonium-238 and americium-241.

“Some of them were used for radiotherapy treatments using radioactive materials, and were not disposed of at the time,” Dr Badger said.

“Others are sources used for the calibration and testing of instruments and nuclear medicine scanners, which have since been superseded. 

“These have been decommissioned, but you can’t just get rid of the test sources so they are sitting in a waste store in a basement. There is also some waste left over from medical research.

“I’m quite certain there would be similar sources and situations in medical facilities all around Australia.”

Ross Bevan, Chief Nuclear Medicine Technologist at Canberra Hospital, was another leader who attended the roundtable.

“We’ve got longer-lived isotopes which are used for quality control to keep instruments such as our gamma cameras and dose calibrators optimised,” he said.

“These sources are small in physical size, but remain radioactive for more than 10 or even 30 years.

“This is the sort of thing that we would send to a waste facility if there was a cost-effective way to do so, but instead they are stored in basements and rooms around hospitals.

“There’s no danger as long as they’re properly managed, but it’s not ideal.” 

The insights from today’s roundtable will be recorded and presented to government for consideration.

To find out more about the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility, visit: radioactivewaste.gov.au

Media contact: Minister Pitt's office 02 6277 7180