Tuesday, May 19, 2009


In the mid nineties one of my last responsibilities as Executive-Assistant to the President of the CBC was to arrange and accompany the Corporation's Chief-Executive on a private charter to Moncton, New Brunswick.

There, the CBC President, Tony Manera, was to meet with the Minister of Canadian Heritage over a major funding issue. Manera resigned his Presidency several weeks later...I digress.

The aircraft we flew from Ottawa to Moncton and (as I recall) from Moncton to Calgary was a Cessna Citation Princess then dubbed around the Ottawa International Airport as the "Glowing Princess" as its overnight job was to ferry precious radio-active isotopes world-wide most every day, produced at the nearby Chalk-River nuclear reactor.

I am reminded of that flight each time the news breaks that the aging reactor, the world's largest single source of nuclear medical isotopes, shuts down...Here we go again.

Hardly two weeks ago the Prime-Minister and several of his entourage were in Prague to advance the goal of Canada-European Union trade talks which some predict have the potential of being bigger than the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) : But each time that damned Chalk-River reactor is forced out of commission; seems to me it amounts to another black-eye for Canadian trade potential.

Everyone pretty much remembers how back in November of 2007 a month-long shutdown at the same facility sparked a global shortage of medical isotopes which are used in the diagnosis and the treatment of cancer and heart ailments. The issue was then resolved only when Parliament voted to by-pass the shutdown order by the Nuclear Safety Commission on the promise by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that there was absolutely no risk of a nuclear melt-down at the facility which has been operated for 52 years by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. It has since been reported that there have been at least three, perhaps five, leaks of heavy water at the plant since that time...the most recent discovered last Friday which has occasioned the current shutdown.

The reality is that Chalk-River supplies more than 60% of the medical isotopes in the world. Both a source of pride when the plant works, and really bad news for our trade negotiators and our reputation when it fails as it has been doing increasingly more often because successive governments here have failed to develop any long-term plans to prevent the repeated problems. It takes years, if not decades to plan and build a nuclear reactor. At age 52, Chalk-River is amongst the world's oldest still operating, albeit tenuously it seems.

As early as Saturday this week the world's medical community will likely face its worse shortage of the precious nuclear isotopes in history and Canada will bear the brunt of the criticism when patients in just about every developed country on the planet start to suffer the consequences.

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