Thursday, July 09, 2009

The buck stops...elsewhere

It's fair to say that this kind of headline will become a much more frequent occurrence in coming days and months: "Hospitals in isotope crisis as shipment delayed in Europe." With Chalk River's production of isotopes now delayed until late this year or perhaps next (or never) and no operational domestic backups capable of filling the void left by Chalk River, Canada must rely on other nations' facilities. This is an essential weakness of the nuclear medicine "strategy" that the Harper government has decided to adopt: seeking to privatize AECL, getting out of the isotope business eventually and mothballing the brand new MAPLE reactors that we do have and that experts say can work.

In addition to the MAPLES option, another quick little reminder here to underscore the fix the Harper government's gotten us into through their inaction. The McMaster reactor, for e.g., could ramp up isotope production but it would take 18 months to be ready. When ready, it could produce 50% of what Chalk River did. The last Chalk River shutdown occurred in December 2007. Meaning that if this government had its act together and had the slightest concept of risk management, i.e., having a plan B in place (to simplify a broad concept for this situation), we might be faring a little better with that McMaster reactor helping out by now. Instead, here's what we've got. Dependence on overseas sources for medical isotopes that have a 66 hour "half-life." And Harper Ministers pointing the finger of blame at others.
An airplane carrying a shipment of medical isotopes was delayed at a Paris airport on Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of scores of crucial medical tests in Canada and highlighting the fragility of this country's system for detecting heart ailments and cancer.

Federal ministers of Health and Natural Resources warned of further shortages as they pointed the finger at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns the nuclear reactor that until a few weeks ago produced a third of the world's medical isotopes.
The situation that stalled the European shipment at the Paris airport was resolved, but hospitals will receive their isotopes 24 hours late, forcing them to reschedule tests for cancer, bone fractures and infections around artificial hips and knees that had been set for Friday.

“This has been the most severe shortage,” Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine, said in an interview. “This just demonstrates the fragility of relying on stuff coming from halfway around the world.”

The delay means many hospitals across Canada will have few or no isotopes available for tests Thursday and Friday, Dr. O'Brien said. Brantford General Hospital in Ontario, where he practices, can diagnose only one patient on Friday, he said. The other 13 patients who were to be tested have been moved to the weekend.
Additional interview with O'Brien from yesterday, here.

Back to the lack of risk management that would get any team of executives fired if they were so poorly overseeing their operations:

Nuclear medicine officials said the shutdown of Chalk River, which has been plagued with problems in recent years, reveals a lack of planning and backup solutions by Ottawa.

“It's a national disaster,” Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, said in an interview. “The government has not been pro-active.”

And here's the finger pointing by the Harper crew, who are passively "disappointed" in AECL, even though they have ministerial responsibility for the Crown corporation:

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt issued a joint statement saying they are disappointed the repairs will be delayed. They said the shutdown will result in a significant shortage of medical isotopes in Canada and around the world this summer.

I have directed AECL to give paramount priority to bringing the Chalk River reactor back to service as quickly and safely as possible and will hold AECL accountable to that end,” Ms. Raitt said in the statement. (emphasis added)

Strong words, though obviously not felt strongly enough to warrant her actually being present at the announcement yesterday of a major problem in the nuclear energy file for which Ms. Raitt is responsible. Too much to ask of the Harper crew that they be present, they'd rather issue written statements from the bunker and remain invisible when the going gets tough.

And the tough talk from Ms. Raitt is, again, about 19 months too late. In December of 2007 when Conservatives were railing about the risks to the health of Canadians that the shutdown then posed, that would have been the time to be gettin' all angry and in-charge on the file. That would have been the decisive leadership moment to demonstrate that the government actually cared about governing with the health interests of Canadians in mind. Anything they're doing now is just playing catch up and covering over their incompetence. Getting ahead of the curve, that's what a government would want to be doing, one would think, with crucial nuclear medicine of importance to Canadians.

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