Friday, July 10, 2009

Today in isotope bungling, the U.S. goes its own way

A predictable and damaging development for the future of the Canadian nuclear medicine industry crystallizes: "Canada’s isotope industry in peril as U.S. moves to make its own supply." See also the Star report today, "U.S. is poised to enter medical isotope market." The U.S. has taken the big flaming hint from Mr. Harper's recent pronouncement that Canada's getting out of the isotope business for good in the long run combined with our current latest shutdown. They've decided to "go their own way." Mr. Harper's shoulder shrugging nuclear policy may have cost us quite dearly. Under him, we're losing our position which has been described as follows: "Canada's world dominance in the estimated $4-billion global molecular imaging and radiotherapeutics market." Because who needs a high tech industry here in Canada like that one that we've historically been leaders in, right?

The news that the U.S. is going to abandon Canadian isotope production and make their own has been reported of late elsewhere. Canwest in mid-June had a good report providing context about American reliance on Canadian isotope production and American re-thinking that was beginning in light of Canada's recent problems:

Many in the U.S. medical community previously supported Canada's use of highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium (HEU) to produce much of the U.S. and world supply at the 52-year-old NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ont., about 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

But that support collapsed significantly with the May 14 shutdown of the reactor, when it began leaking radioactive water. It's expected to be off-line until at least September -- and possibly longer.

Last week's announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Canada is "eventually" going to get out of medical-isotope production seems to have squelched lingering speculation that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. might reverse its decision to mothball MAPLE 1 and MAPLE 2, two other technically troubled isotope-producing reactors at Chalk River.

U.S. nuclear-medicine and heath-care officials have now joined in an unprecedented coalition with the U.S. non-proliferation movement, using Monday's letter to urge the Senate and House appropriations committees to fund domestic production using LEU, "as quickly as possible." (emphasis added)

See how Harper galvanizes action elsewhere? The Economist also wrote about American impatience with Canadian production around the same time:
Health officials in the United States are seeking an American supplier of medical isotopes, having decided that Canada is no longer a reliable source of molybdenum-99, which when processed into technetium-99m is used in two-thirds of all diagnostic medical-isotope procedures south of the border. As long as AECL was working on two replacement reactors, American processing firms were content to wait. But Canada cancelled the replacement programme last year when the new reactors, already eight years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, failed tests.
Way to go, Steve! Note how the closing of the Maples reactors has figured prominently in the American decision-making. That could be one of the worst decisions made by a Canadian government in recent memory.

So, as the both the Globe and the Star report today, the American government is accordingly acting in their own self-interest and have used Canada's halting performance as the catalyst to ramp up their own capabilities:

An official from the National Nuclear Security Administration said this week the outage at Canada's National Research Universal reactor – which usually fills about 60 per cent of the U.S. demand for medical isotopes – has prompted a "supply crisis" that has captured the attention of officials in the White House.

"The United States is at the nexus of two related priorities: Discouraging the use of proliferation attractive (highly enriched uranium) in civilian commerce, and a health crisis from the lack of sufficient supplies of (molybdenum-99)," said a presentation Wednesday by Parrish Staples, director of the U.S. Office of European and African Threat Reduction. "The volatility of the current supply stream of (molybdenum-99) and the issue of (highly enriched uranium) in the civilian sector have drawn attention to the need for new producers to enter the (molybdenum-99) supply chain."

Staples said it would cost about $120 million (U.S.) to set up a process for domestic production of molybdenum-99 using low-enriched uranium. (Star)

To reiterate, from the above reporting, the Americans weren't looking to abandon Canada's supply until the Harper government's actions basically forced them to do so. The shutdown and the signal from Harper about Canada abandoning the industry in the long term have confronted the Americans with the necessity to act on the health front. It has also provided them the opportunity to act on the national security aspects they're concerned about.

The implications for Canada of all this, some of which are suggested in the Globe report:
  • What real incentive will there be for Canada to commit to a fully functional nuclear medicine industry in Canada if the U.S. is making its own isotopes? The U.S., a major customer will have disappeared.

  • And so might the nuclear scientists, technicians and researchers in this Canadian industry disappear as well. The brains will drain, go where the research action is. We'll be losing out on being a leader in this area at a time when nuclear energy is becoming more important for the world, not less.

  • Canadian patients will therefore become dependent on the U.S. for production and delivery of these materials. That will likely involve increased cost to our hospitals and therefore our medical system and ultimately we the taxpayers.
  • The market value of AECL, which the Conservatives want to privatize, surely just took another big hit with this news as well.
  • The Conservatives are, in essence, permitting the farming out of a capability in a high tech industry we've historically played a leading role in.
How is any of this a good strategy? What a result for Canada, with patients requiring these isotopes just hanging in the balance.

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