"Don't get hooked by medical arguments"
by Wendy Oser
As we increasingly try to take responsibility for all radioactive materials and their effects on future life, the thorny question of radioactive isotopes used in medical diagnosis and treatment arises. What dangers do these uses pose for present and future generations? Do their benefits outweigh the risks?
Many corollary questions arise for the public and for medical professionals: Will on-site medical storage in hospitals endanger surrounding neighborhoods? Are "low-level" radioactive dumps (such as the shallow land burial proposed for Ward Valley, California) a necessity, if medical treatment with radiation is to continue? Would the cessation of military and nuclear power production deprive us of life-saving radionuclides?
In Radioactive Waste: The Medical Factor, Minard Hamilton thoroughly examines the production, use and management of radionuclides commonly used in medicine. Her report should stimulate informed discussion on the "low-level" radioactive waste problem among the medical community, public interest groups, government officials, and the utilities and corporations dealing with the waste -- and, hopefully, additional research.
Some of the valuable information revealed in this report:
- The short half-lives of most medical radionuclides (hours, days, weeks) enable them to be stored on site until the material has decayed to undetectable levels.
- A number of hospitals and research institutions already store wastes on-site.
- Medical research is likely to develop less dangerous products for medical procedures that now use radioactive isotopes.
- Only one percent of the "low-level" radioactive waste stream is generated by research and medical wastes.
- The "low-level" waste stream from utilities using nuclear power accounts for 99 percent of the radioactivity, measured in curies, shipped to burial grounds.
- Radiation therapy increasingly involves X-ray machines or linear accelerators. These generate radiation by electrical source only when turned on, producing no radioactive waste.
- Radionuclides chosen for diagnostic use require a relatively short radioactive half-life and biological half-life (the time required for the body to eliminate half of a radioactive dose received) -- "just long enough to allow for the preparation and administration of the radiopharmaceutical, its concentration in the region of interest and the subsequent imaging procedure," but not so long as to leave radioactivity in the patient after the test.
- In a survey of nine Los Angeles area hospitals each reported storing all radioactive material from patient care on-site for 1 to 2 months, by which time everything had decayed to background level. They had no waste to send to a radioactive waste disposal site. Only the two hospitals which used radionuclides in research as well as patient care produced any radioactive waste requiring shipment. This supported the observation that the majority of hospitals in the U.S. are not directly contributing to the "low-level" radioactive waste being shipped to disposal sites in the U.S.
- A number of radionuclides used for medical purposes are produced in cyclotrons owned by private companies. Cyclotrons are 100 to 1000 times cleaner than research reactors, and the production of waste is minimal.
Physicians and research scientists who honor their commitment to the health of present and future generations should join the debate on radioactive waste.
The report shows that the medical community can eliminate its "need" for radioactive waste burial through the development of non-radioactive alternatives, greater reliance on short-term on-site storage, and electrically generated, waste-free radiation therapy.
There is a terrible irony in the deceptive argument that current medical uses of radioactive materials justify "low-level" waste burial, because this very practice will threaten the health of generations to come. Rather than allowing this argument to go unchallenged, physicians and research scientists who honor their commitment to the health of present and future generations can become informed and join the debate on the whole problem of radioactive waste.
Radioactive Waste: The Medical Factor, by Minard Hamilton, is available from Nuclear Information and Resources Service for $5, 1424 16th Street NW, #404, Washington, DC 20036 USA. tel: 202/328-0002
Minard Hamilton is a Research Associate of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a consulting firm based in New York City. She has been researching, writing and studying about nuclear waste since 1978, was the co-founder and director of the Radioactive Waste Campaign, co-author of Deadly Defense, a report on radioactive contamination at U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons factories, and author of Low-Level Waste Facilities in the U.S. and Canada.
Wendy Oser is a grandmother, a downwinder, and editor of the Nuclear Guardianship Forum.