Saturday, May 30, 2009

 

THE ISOTOPE FIASCO

The Government is paying the price for dragging its feet on the repairs and improvements to what once was one of our proud Canadian achievements. The Chalk River facility was among the first, after Atomic Bombs fell on Japan in 1945, to harness nuclear energy for the good of mankind.

At Chalk River in eastern Ontario, scientists developed the CANDU nuclear electricity generating system used in several jurisdictions around the world. When it works, the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River is the world's largest single source of the Isotope required for 85% of the world's nuclear medical procedures. The trouble is the reactor is old...and these days it isn't working. The break-down has led to a worldwide shortage of the precious isotope and a looming crisis for the medical community.

Although plenty of warnings were posted about the ageing reactor when a similar crisis forced a world shortage late in the fall of 2007; it is not just the Harper Government which is to blame. For most of the last 20 years successive governments have ignored the plight of the decrepit facility which is operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Although the reactor is increasingly unreliable, efforts to replace it were abandoned in 2008 by the Conservative Government after the flawed design of two modern replacement reactors led to uncontrollable cost overruns.

Despite the unreliability; Kanata, Ontario based MDS-Nordion, in the same period, has evolved into the world's leading supplier to the nuclear medicine community from this single source of isotopes produced at Chalk River. The web is now untangling. In a brief letter to its customers late on Thursday, MDS Nordion confirmed that the reactor will be out of service for at least 3 months and the company..."anticipate(s) that the medical community and your patients will continue to experience a significant shortage of isotopes."

Back in 1976 as a young reporter working for the CBC in Hamilton, Ontario I was given a tour of the reactor operated by that city's McMaster University. I had never seen a nuclear reactor, I remember my visit to this day. McMaster was the first university in the British Commonwealth to own and operate an experimental atomic plant. Built in 1959, it is just two years younger than the seriously defective National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River. From several indicators though it has apparently received over its 50 years of existence the "tender love and care" the Chalk River plant so desperately lacks.

Not the least of which is that just today comes word that McMaster has tapped into $22-million in Federal and Ontario "infrastructure" funding to convert its reactor to the production of medical isotopes. It is apparently the only other Canadian reactor which is capable of producing "molybdenum-99" which decays into the medical isotope. The irony is that a 50 year old reactor may be in line to replace a 52 year old reactor which is on its last leg...and the government thinks that is just fine. Good grief!

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