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Federal Coalition urged to retract claims linking medical technologies to nuclear power plans

Introduction by Croakey: Traditional owners of the Jabiluka uranium site in the Northern Territory are concerned the Federal Opposition’s plans for nuclear energy will increase demand for mining on their land, according to an ABC report.

As Croakey has previously reported, the Coalition’s nuclear plans have also been slammed by health, medical and scientific experts, with particular concerns for impacts upon First Nations peoples’ health and wellbeing.

In the article below, Dr Margaret Beavis OAM, Vice President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW), calls on the Opposition to retract “patently false” claims made about a link between nuclear power and radiology, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine, which seek to “misrepresent nuclear medicine for political gain”. She also notes the likely derailing of climate action, and the problems of toxic waste and the potential for accidents and nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, Independent MP Dr Monique Ryan has urged Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to call an early election, warning that the Coalition has “recklessly jammed a stick into the spokes of the Australian economy by refusing to reveal a 2030 emissions reduction target and confusing the country with a threadbare nuclear energy announcement”.


Margaret Beavis writes:

The proposal for nuclear power in Australia needs more scrutiny from the public health perspective.

There are three aspects that are particularly problematic.

Firstly, investment in renewables will be damaged, making urgently needed decarbonisation much harder, worsening the very well documented health impacts of climate change.

No-one is pretending nuclear power can be implemented quickly. But for those who feel optimistic, looking at democracies similar to ours demonstrates the reality. The Hinkley Point plan in the United Kingdom, Flamanville in France, and Vogtle and VC Summer (abandoned after spending USD 9 billion) in the United States all have had both massive delays and major cost blowouts.

Slower roll out means even more coal and gas, and all the climate and health impacts that go with that. Compounding these delays will be the need in Australia for legislation at both state and federal level, and our lack of expertise and established workforce.

Secondly, the Coalition claims made about radiology, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine are patently false and deliberately misleading.

A letter sent by Coalition MPs to their constituents last month claimed that:Nuclear energy already plays a major role in medicine and healthcare, diagnosing and treating thousands of Australians every day.”

We do not have, and have never had, nuclear power in Australia, and nuclear power has no connection to our world class nuclear medicine sector.

Australians will continue to benefit from diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicine irrespective of whether Australia’s future is powered by reactors or renewables. Nuclear power is not nuclear medicine, it is not X-Rays, and it is not radiotherapy.

X-Rays and radiotherapy do not use a nuclear reactor at all. Nuclear medicine in Australia – used to diagnose and treat some types of heart disease, thyroid conditions, infections, injuries, and cancers – involves radioactive elements (isotopes) that are made using a small research nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in NSW.

Lucas Heights cannot and has not produced commercial power. But, like all nuclear reactors, it does produce radioactive waste that remains highly toxic for 10,000 years.

The Coalition also claims, on a website promoting the “need” for nuclear energy in Australia, that: “Research and advancements in radiation technology continue to evolve, providing new and improved methods for both diagnosing and treating diseases…”

False connections

Advancements to improve health outcomes and to reduce the size and risks of radiation exposures will occur whether or not Australia has nuclear power. With renewable energy, nuclear medicine will still exist and advance – our loved ones will still be treated and be cared for.

It’s disappointing that the Coalition has chosen to misrepresent nuclear medicine for political gain, and to make false connections between nuclear power and health.

Finally, it is important to consider the problems of waste and the risk of accidents, attacks and weapons proliferation.

Nuclear power poses significant risks to the health of people and the planet.

It is far from the zero emissions technology its acolytes claim it to be.

As noted, reactor waste is highly toxic for over 10,000 years. It remains globally an unsolved problem. The failure over decades to find a site for Australia’s existing limited amount of intermediate waste illustrates communities’ concerns.

First Nations communities have been repeatedly targeted. They have suffered enough from the impacts of British nuclear testing in the fifties and sixties.

Accidents can and do occur. There have been many near misses and at least 15 accidents risking uncontrolled radioactive release, involving fuel or core damage in Canada, Germany, Japan, Slovakia, the UK, Ukraine and the US.

Attacks on facilities could also cause extensive releases of radiation. A significant radiation release would require major long-term evacuation.

In addition, nuclear power is clearly linked with nuclear proliferation. Tilman Ruff, formerly at the Nossal Institute for Global Health in the School of Population and Global Health at University of Melbourne and co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), wrote in 2019:

South Africa, Pakistan and North Korea have primarily used the HEU (highly enriched uranium) route to build nuclear weapons, India and Israel primarily a plutonium route. All have used facilities and fuel that were ostensibly for peaceful purposes.”

Indeed, the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons was part of former Australian Prime Minister John Gorton’s reasoning when considering a nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay.

In summary, building nuclear power in Australia will have significant long term adverse public health impacts. Extravagant claims that existing medical technologies and medical advances are somehow linked to plans for nuclear power are plainly wrong.

We urge the Coalition to retract these statements and remove inaccurate information from its marketing materials. We also urge they reconsider this policy, given its major health impacts both locally and globally.

Dr Margaret Beavis OAM is Vice President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW) and a former GP who teaches medicine at Melbourne University. She has lectured on nuclear medicine and nuclear waste in Melbourne University’s MPH program.

Coalition parties asked to respond

Croakey has asked Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Leader of the Nationals Party David Littleproud for responses to the below questions raised in three articles Croakey has published on the Coalition’s nuclear energy plan.

  • Health, medical and scientific experts have rejected your nuclear energy plans as dangerous and a way to delay climate action. What is your response?
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities have raised concerns that nuclear energy would harm their health, wellbeing and connection to Country. What is your response?
  • Additionally, health professionals have called for the Coalition to retract claims that medical technologies are linked to nuclear power plans. What is your response?
  • Will you continue with your nuclear energy plan if local communities oppose reactors?
  • How will you manage harms to health by delaying action on climate change and decarbonisation?
  • Who will provide disaster insurance (Fukushima clean up estimated at $470-$660 billion)?

See Croakey’s archive of articles on the climate emergency

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