A Non-Reactor Future for Lucas Heights

Jim Green
National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia

This paper was written in 2003.

1. Summary
* most of the work at ANSTO's Lucas Heights facility does not depend on the operation of a reactor.
* a good case can be made for greater investment in non-reactor technologies/programs at Lucas Heights.
* pursuit of a non-reactor future for ANSTO offers several advantages, including a large reduction in the generation of radioactive waste.

2. Most of ANSTO's activities do not depend on the reactor:
* Prof. Geoffrey Wilson analysed ANSTO's program expenditure and found that in 1991-92, reactor-dependent research cost $8.35 million (31%), reactor-independent research cost $18.45 million (69%). (Research Reactor Review, 1993, Appendix 1, pp.31-32, 41-43.)
* Drawing on ANSTO's 1992-93 Program of Research, former ANSTO scientist Murray Scott concluded that the HIFAR and MOATA reactors were used in 8 of 17 projects. In person-years this amounted to 45/215 or 21%. The figure fell to 14% when the adjacent CSIRO facilities were included. (Submission to 1993 Research Reactor Review.)

3. Advantages of a non-reactor future at Lucas Heights:

A good case could be made for further investment in non-reactor technologies if HIFAR is permanently shut down without replacement. These alternatives include particle accelerators (linear accelerators and cyclotrons), possibly spallation technology, safeguards projects using particle accelerators, etc etc. This would open up a win-win scenario:
* few if any job losses (possibly more jobs)
* broadly equivalent (perhaps greater) benefits for medicine and science
* advantages in relation to 'national interest' / non-proliferation objectives
* a large reduction in radioactive waste generation (and no more generation of spent nuclear reactor fuel)
* less contentious management of existing waste stockpiles in the context of a serious attempt to minimise waste production by the closure and non-replacement of HIFAR
* public support for ANSTO instead of division and hostility
* public and occupational health and safety advantages (e.g. there have been no fatal cyclotron accidents, but at least five fatal research reactor accidents).

4. Research reactors are yesterday's technology:

"The future direction of nuclear medicine lies with cyclotron produced products and accelerators. ... Labor remains unconvinced of the arguments for the need for a new reactor and believes it is completely inappropriate for a reactor in suburban Sydney at Lucas Heights. ... The Howard Government has committed more than $300 million for the new Argentinian designed reactor. This is not the best investment of that money. It is the wrong way forward for Australian nuclear science." (Joint media release by then Shadow Ministers Martyn Evans, Jenny Macklin, and Nick Bolkus, 4/11/01.)

Over half of all research reactors ever built have been closed and the number in operation continues to decline. For example, according to the IAEA, there were 297 in operation in December 1994 but only 265 in May 1998, i.e. 32 permanent shut-downs in 3.4 years or almost 10 annually. Conversely, the number of cyclotrons in operation continues to increase.

Some multipurpose research reactors are being replaced by reactors, but most are not being replaced or are being replaced by non-reactor technologies. To give a few examples:
* plans for a new research reactor in the USA were scrapped in favour of a spallation source.
* in the USA, plans to resume production of the important medical isotope molybdenum-99 were scrapped in favour of ongoing reliance on imported Mo-99.
* Belgium is planning to replace a research reactor with a spallation source.

5. Jobs at Lucas Heights:

Staff numbers at Lucas Heights peaked at 1354 in 1976. Staffing has fallen to the current level of about 750-800 despite the operation of the HIFAR reactor throughout this period. The new reactor will not ensure job security for ANSTO employees. History suggests that staff cuts and cuts to program funding will partially fund the $300 million new reactor. Staff cuts are all the more likely if/when cost blow-outs associated with the new reactor project begin to bite.

6. Alternatives to a domestic reactor for medical isotope supply:

Ongoing reliance on existing cyclotrons in Australia, plus a greater reliance on imports, is a perfectly viable alternative to a domestic reactor. This option is tried and tested whenever the HIFAR reactor is shut down for extended periods for maintenance.

The only problem with greater reliance on imported reactor-produced isotopes is that it leaves other countries to address the waste legacy. Therefore, a R&D program should be initiated to reduce reliance on imports in favour of non-reactor technologies, esp. particle accelerators including cyclotrons. Important in this regard is a paper by nuclear physicist Dr. Robert Budnitz, and energy and technology consultant Dr. Gregory Morris (the report is at: <www.geocities.com/jimgreen3/medicine5.html>). The report argues that "importation of radioisotopes and more extensive use of accelerators for isotope production represent 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/cyclotron technology).

Specifically, the Budnitz/Morris report argues that Australia ought to pursue a R&D project into accelerator/cyclotron production of technetium-99m (the most commonly used medical isotope): "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."

Serious pursuit of a R&D program along the lines suggested by Budnitz and Morris would probably require investment of a medium-sized research cyclotron, and a good case could be made for locating it at Lucas Heights given the concentration of Australia's nuclear expertise there. The only other cyclotron of potential value for this R&D program is the National Medical Cyclotron in Sydney, but the NMC is already overstretched with its existing isotope-production role.

Closure and non-replacement of the HIFAR reactor might also free up resources - and generate political momentum - for the more rapid spread of small PET cyclotrons (costing a few million dollars each) for the production of short-lived isotopes for use in Positron Emission Tomography (the cutting-edge of nuclear medicine). Currently there are two PET cyclotrons in Melbourne and one is being built in Perth.

More information on medical isotope production and supply options:

* www.archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/lh

* Medical Association for the Prevention of War, 2004, "A New Clear Direction: Securing Nuclear Medicine for the Next Generation", www.mapw.org.au/download/new-clear-direction

* Papers at: web.archive.org/web/20071130183244rn_1/www.geocities.com/jimgreen3

7. Alternatives to a domestic reactor for scientific research:

HIFAR's contribution to scientific research has been modest, at best. See the comments by Professor Barry Allen (former Chief Research Scientist at ANSTO), former ANSTO scientist Murray Scott, Professor Ian Lowe, the 1993 Research Reactor Review and others at <www.geocities.com/jimgreen3/science2.html>.

Even a more powerful, new reactor will be well down the global list (e.g. comparing neutron flux) and simply won't be capable of 'world class' research despite the government's claims to the contrary.

There is little scientific support for a new reactor beyond the small number of scientists with a direct interest in neutron beam research. There would be still less scientific support if not for the government's highly-questionable insistence that science funding has not been reduced to pay for the reactor. As then Shadow Science Minister Martyn Evans said in 1997, "The money should have been competitively offered and judged against other needs for science." ('Search' science magazine, 1997, Vol.28(10), p.296.)

There are several alternatives to a new reactor for scientific research, including particle accelerators, spallation sources, synchrotron radiation sources, and suitcase science (i.e. funding for Australian scientists to access overseas facilities). In all cases, the alternatives are preferable to a reactor in relation to radioactive waste and safety. Claims that synchrotron, accelerator and spallation facilities complement (but cannot replace) reactors understate the extent to which different facilities can be used for identical or similar applications. Alternatives to a new reactor were not properly evaluated prior to the September 1997 decision to fund a new reactor.

8. Alternatives to a domestic reactor for national interest / foreign policy objectives:

ANSTO is involved in useful environmental sampling safeguards work - but this uses ANSTO's tandem accelerator, not the reactor. No doubt there is scope to increase ANSTO's involvement in safeguards work using accelerators and other non-reactor technologies. And of course non-proliferation and disarmament objectives are fundamentally political/diplomatic in nature (e.g. expanded IAEA inspection rights), not technical.

The HIFAR reactor is of little or no direct value in pursuing non-proliferation objectives. It has been used for a video monitoring safeguards project, but of course that project could have easily been carried out elsewhere. Whatever advantages stem from training scientists on a domestic reactor i) are minimal, ii) can be compensated for by overseas training, and iii) are negated by a range of problems which also stem from the operation of a reactor in Australia.

The operation of a reactor compromises Australia's capacity to pursue non-proliferation / disarmament objectives in several ways:
* For example, it creates a political imperative to downplay the proliferation risks associated with research reactors and associated technologies. Research reactors are used to produce plutonium for the nuclear arsenals of India and Israel, and research reactors have been used in support of covert weapons programs (some systematic, some preliminary) in 20+ countries - see <www.geocities.com/jimgreen3/rrweapons.html>. The government's argument that building a new reactor will assist with non-proliferation objectives is circular, foolish and may be setting a dangerous new precedent.
* Ongoing generation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) creates a political imperative to downplay the proliferation and safety risks associated with SNF reprocessing. This contradiction is most acute for SNF from HIFAR, which contains highly-enriched uranium (DFAT has said that reprocessing HEU-SNF is "contrary to sound non-proliferation principles") but also applies to the new reactor.

There is no direct connection between the operation of a reactor and Australia's place on the Board of Governors of the IAEA. In any case the IAEA position raises numerous problems, not least the active role played by the IAEA in the promotion of dual-use nuclear technologies. The 1993 Research Reactor Review said that there "was no evidence before the Review sustaining the view that permanent membership of the Board of the IAEA is crucial to advancement of Australia's national interest" and that there might even be advantages in not being so closely identified with some of the IAEA's stances (p.xix, pp.100-103).

Cancellation of the plan for a new reactor, and pursuit of non-reactor technologies for medicine, science and safeguards work opens up another potential benefit: Australian promotion of non-reactor technologies in the Asia Pacific region. The development and promotion of non-reactor technologies would represent a useful, if modest, non-proliferation initiative.