Friday, July 24, 2009

Impact of Chalk River shutdown/isotope shortage in NY Times today

The New York Times has a report today on the medical isotope shortage, bringing Americans who haven't been paying attention (and the world) up to speed on the crisis situation that's unfolding due to the Chalk River shutdown. A lot of it is background that we in Canada know, but there are a few points worth a look. First, there's the speed at which the Americans are acting to replace our production of the isotopes. That's clear and there is significant bipartisan effort going into it:
On Tuesday, Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is one of the House’s fiercest critics of the nuclear industry, declared that the United States was facing “a crisis in nuclear medicine.”

Mr. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy, called for establishing new production facilities in the United States. He joined the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, to introduce a bill to authorize $163 million over five years to assure new production.

The White House is coordinating an interagency effort to find new sources of supply, involving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the Energy Department, but officials said the process would take months.
Second, the report omits, in its description of the Maples replacement reactors, any of the recent expert testimony to the effect that the reactors can work. It leaves the situation at this:
But when the new reactors were started up, both showed a problem: as the power level increased, the reactors had a tendency to run faster and faster, a condition called positive coefficient of reactivity. That is a highly undesirable characteristic in a reactor, one that contributed heavily to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. So Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which is owned by the Canadian government, said it would not open them.
Giving the impression that Canada has been forced to walk away from this replacement option out of necessity when it was a Harper government choice. And an ideologically motivated one at that which seeks to privatize and have government exit this long-standing role. There's a big difference and perhaps those reading the Times article might like to know that.

Third, there is a flip quote by a doctor there to the effect that the market is small, that it's more lucrative for a "big pharmaceutical" company to manufacture Viagra, since they can make more in two days than with these nuclear medicine isotopes in a year. This is offered as a partial explanation as to why no American source has sprung up over the years. But with Chalk River servicing the majority of the U.S. market, it likely wasn't viewed as a priority. Canada was a nice, stable supplier. Plus, as long as we, Canada, were building backups, the Americans were content to rely on us (as explained by the Economist). So why would anyone disrupt a long established supply? They wouldn't, and didn't, until Mr. Harper gave them a reason to act. And for Canada, which has been a leader in a $4 billion a year market for these products, and which has benefited from the research and development byproducts as well, it's been more important an undertaking than that unfortunate comparison the doctor offers. But I'm sure he'd get along well with the Harper Conservatives...

An end note, here's another U.S. doctor, on the medical state of affairs as a result of the shortage:
Without the tool, Dr. Graham said, the quality of medical care is “dropping back into the 1960s.”
You're welcome!

With love,

Stephen Harper's Canada

(h/t adamgoldenberg on twitter last night)

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