Friday, June 12, 2009

What if we had a solution to the isotope crisis...and our government ignored it

As we discovered yesterday, what the Prime Minister is telling us about Canadian capabilities to produce medical isotopes, while we are in the midst of a health care crisis involving medical isotopes, is just not squaring with expert opinion. That was established at the Natural Resources Committee yesterday where Mr. Harper's defeatism about the MAPLE reactors at Chalk River was contradicted by some "yes we can" scientific testimony. Some fine blogging has been done on that discrepancy and what it means. For example, it means things like this:
In fact, Harper is lying. He wants to sell AECL, following in the footsteps of Brian Mulroney, and he knows if Canadians believed that the MAPLE reactors were viable he would face a grassroots outrage.
Yes, exactly. At a time of growing national outrage from cancer patients, families and plain old ordinary Canadians who are very concerned about this shortage, knowing that we have facilities (the MAPLE reactors) that have been mothballed by the Harper government that could actually be working and producing isotopes is big. Huge.

In fact, Harper's announcement that Canada would be getting out of this business altogether has started to evoke a backlash already:
The decision has implications far beyond isotope production, physicist Dominic Ryan of McGill University's Centre for the Physics of Materials told The Canadian Press in an interview.

Not only has the NRU provided the research base for Canada's nuclear energy industry, it's been a workhorse for neutron-beam research on such non-nuclear applications as analyzing booster rocket welds on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle and certifying steel from Regina-based IPSCO Inc., safe for bridge-building.

"Other nations are investing in research reactors," Ryan, the president of Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, said in an interview Thursday.

"And we're just talking about closing the darn things down - the only one we've got.

"And we had the first!" Ryan added, his voice rising with incredulity. "We were in this game ahead of everybody. It really is annoying."
Ryan is a "respected nuclear physicist." Sensing danger at such a compelling appeal to the national interest that lies in sponsoring such research, spokesthingy Kory Teneycke came out to attempt to squelch any such thoughts. Witness spokesthingy gone wild:
"The government has put $30 billion into AECL over its history and it's been one of the largest sinkholes of government money probably in the history of the government of Canada," Teneycke told The Canadian Press.

"So I don't think describing it as an unmitigated success is accurate."

Teneycke added there's been "some pretty well-founded, sharp criticism of the history of AECL . . . . I don't think we're going out on a limb to say it has been a fairly dysfunctional place." (emphasis added)
A tad overdone? Yeah, bit of a problem for Teneycke:
Teneycke later backed away from his earlier comments, saying he "spoke in haste and in error" and should have limited his remarks to the MAPLE reactors and not AECL as a whole.
Why would he back off? AECL's presently making a big sale of a reactor to the province of Ontario for one thing. And the Harper government recently announced they were trying to sell AECL. Not to mention AECL, in the meantime, still being charged with getting the Chalk River back up and running. To have the Prime Minister's spokesman labelling it a "sinkhole" and "dysfunctional" in order to politically protect the government and stave off criticism such as Professor Ryan's above, is irresponsible in respect of the first two reasons. In respect of getting the reactor back up, not exactly a helpful relationship building exercise.

The overall points being...

The Conservatives are precipitously walking us away from an area of scientific research that Canada has led in. An area of research that is likely to be more important going forward. They have no vision. They don't believe in government fostering such projects despite what the Professor Ryans of the world say. It's too hard to manage, being a complex governmental task. And running it doesn't jibe with their ideology which pushes them to privatize wherever and whenever possible. Sell it off to the French or the Americans. A crisis is a perfect opportunity. Meanwhile, the respected scientists and experts are telling us to wake up to what will be gone after decades of monetary and intellectual commitment. Canada is changing radically under these Conservatives and the nuclear issue at Chalk River is a symptom of that.

And secondly, and perhaps most importantly at the moment, they're not being up front with us on the fact that these MAPLE reactors could be working. At this time of isotope shortage, that's something Canadians need to know.

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.