Sunday, July 19, 2009

Key recommendations from Health Experts Working Group report of May 2008 ignored

Some interesting reading in this May 2008 government report: "Lessons learned from the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor: A Report Submitted to the Minister of Health. " This is the report that was done by health and nuclear medicine experts, all respected professionals in the nuclear medicine field, on the December 2007 shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU) nuclear reactor at Chalk River. As you will see below, a number of key recommendations have been ignored by the Harper government.

First, a reminder of how central the Chalk River facility's role is for the world supply:
Fewer than 10 reactors in the world are capable of making medical isotopes; approximately 50% of the world's supply of raw material comes from Chalk River. Many of these, like the NRU reactor, are old and aging. No one reactor, and probably not even all of them in combination, can replace the production of Chalk River. Clearly, seeking international sources and cooperation may mitigate supply disruptions but, overall, the global market is limited and cannot compensate for the loss of the NRU reactor. In addition, any new replacement options will require significant lead time and financing to implement.
It's clear to anyone reading that information that failing to ensure backup options to that reactor would be in place would be devastating, particularly in light of the hardship from the brief 2007 shutdown that is relayed in this report ("the ability to provide service was teetering on the brink of disaster"). And one would think, wrongly it turns out, given the reliance of the international community upon Canada's production that there would be some sense of duty to attempt to ensure continued production.

Seized of such implications and of the fallout in their industry, the health experts made recommendations to encourage action to prevent future interruptions of isotope production in the event of another NRU shutdown. Notably, a "made-in-Canada" solution was key, contrary to what the Harper government is presently pursuing, i.e., getting out of the business, seeking a long-term supply for Canada from international reactors and essentially walking away from the Canadian industry:
3.1 A made-in-Canada solution is the preferred option for addressing Canadian shortages. To this end, the federal government should

* undertake a review of the risks and benefits of sourcing raw materials from outside Canada
* plan for the timely replacement of the NRU reactor and consider expeditious commissioning of Maple I and II reactors (5) .

3.2 CNSC and other relevent agencies should

* plan for the timely replacement of the NRU reactor for Mo-99 production
* extend the license of the NRU reactor to operate until other supply sources are online
* ensure the collaboration of Health Canada and others to ensure that the health care needs of Canadians are addressed.

3.3 The federal government should explore opportunities to use other nuclear reactors in Canada. To this end

* a survey should be conducted to evaluate the feasibility of other Canadian reactor facilities producing Mo-99
* if other facilities are capable, evaluate the feasibility of providing the necessary enhancements to their infrastructure.

3.4 Canada should promote formal cooperation agreements within Canada among the current reactor facilities to

* supply key medical isotopes (including Mo-99, I-131 and I-125) in the event of an emergency
* secure a domestic supply against future shortages of medical isotopes
* actively engage in developing new production methods and medical applications for emerging isotopes as a means of strengthening the industry in Canada
* offer a program for training scientists, engineers and regulatory officers in isotope production and safety.

3.5 Canada should work with its international partners to review global capacity to produce medical isotopes, encourage the development of international protocols, remove current barriers or obstacles to international movement of radioisotopes during periods of shortages.
Despite such recommendations, we know that the Harper government, concurrent to the release of this May 2008 report, announced on May 16 2008 that they were mothballing the Maple reactors that were planned backups to the NRU facility. So it's quite the thing to read the above recommendation that the Maples reactors be expeditiously commissioned yet see the recommendation simultaneously footnoted with information that essentially obliterates it. It's almost as if the experts were taken totally off guard that the government would ditch the Maples, which Canada has invested more than $500 million (some say $600 million) in building and which many experts say can work. This group of health experts and nuclear medicine specialists certainly didn't find it out of the ordinary to be including the Maples as an option in their report.

Further, we know that the government did not take any other steps to "secure a domestic supply." They did not pursue the funding of other university reactors that might have capacity, such as the McMaster facility, until May 29, 2009, i.e., after the most recent shutdown. Even with that initial funding of McMaster, it's still not enough to ramp up that facility. They need $30 million more.

And now we sit with the Chalk River facility down, the Dutch reactor down as of Saturday with all the health care impacts that will have. There really needs to be accountability for the lack of action over the last 18 months in respect of domestic isotope production.

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