Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chalk River re-opening now pushed back to 2010

Update (Thursday a.m.) below. Date for re-opening is now reported as spring 2010, eight months away.

Some big developments on the isotope matter tonight. Atomic Energy Canada Limited's latest update moves the time line for re-opening backwards now, a huge development.
Guidance on the duration of the shutdown continues to be founded on the best evidence available, including the most up-to-date analysis of the inspection data, progress on repair strategies, and critical path requirements for restart after an extended shutdown. At this time, the application of the band weld build-up technique, and the increased number of sites, indicates the NRU will return to service during Q1 2010. Further guidance on a return to service date will be provided when more data is available.
The scramble for medical isotopes from foreign producers will continue for Canada for a longer period now and the pushing back of the date has got to start re-seeding those doubts about whether Chalk River will re-open at all. News of this delay further magnifies the delay and inaction from the Harper government in tending to this significant health care failing.

This news tonight is apparently an occasion that will bring out Minister Lisa Raitt from wherever she's been this summer (and Aglukkaq). They've issued a statement, once again expressing passive "disappointment," and professing all that they are doing. But the central point as always is that they've missed the boat on this issue. They're managing from behind now when they should have taken significant action over a year and a half ago:
As Ministers of Natural Resources and Health, we are very disappointed with AECL’s announcement today that the return-to-service of the National Research Universal reactor (NRU) has been delayed until early 2010. We have asked AECL to provide a firm return-to-service plan as soon as possible, and we have underscored to them that their first priority is to return the NRU reactor to service, consistent with maintaining the highest standards of safety and security.

We understand this news will cause some concern for Canadians and their families. Be assured, our Government continues to take every step necessary to protect the health and safety of all Canadians.

The Government of Canada continues to work with provinces, territories, the medical community and international partners to address Canadian needs during this outage. The Minister of Health’s Special Advisor on Medical Isotopes continues to advise on the use of alternatives and mitigation strategies in the short term. We have given rapid regulatory approvals to health care providers to use alternative sources of supply. The careful management of available supplies by the health care community and the use of alternatives have been absolutely essential during this outage. The medical community has done impressive work in this area, and we are grateful to them.

International cooperation in the management of available supply has been effective to date, and we continue to work with our international partners and reactor operators to increase production and adjust reactor schedules where possible.

For longer-term options for reliable isotope supply, the Expert Panel on Medical Isotope Production is now reviewing 22 submissions from a range of groups, including academic institutions, the private sector and public sector organizations. The panel will report to the Minister of Natural Resources by November 30, and will provide recommendations for the Government of Canada going forward.
Managing from behind now. Long term option panels are of no use for the shortage now and international reliance is proving to be a strain. While it is commendable what stretching and contorting the medical community has been able to do to date, the strains on the system are becoming apparent and there is no action from the federal government on helping with the increased hospital costs that are being documented across the country, particularly in Ontario and Quebec.

There are also the puzzling moves by the Prime Minister himself to factor in on this file, recently moving the associate Deputy Minister of Natural Resources over to the Privy Council Office in June, in the midst of all this. Why did he think it wise to remove a key knowledgeable public servant from Natural Resources at this moment?
Serge Dupont, currently Associate Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, becomes Deputy Minister (Intergovernmental Affairs), Privy Council Office, with additional responsibility as Special Adviser to the Minister of Natural Resources on Nuclear Energy Policy, effective July 20, 2009.
He seemed to recognize Dupont's importance to Natural Resources by retaining his status as a Special Adviser on Nuclear Energy Policy for Raitt, but still, this micro-management out of the PMO may be taking its toll. Is Mr. Harper running the file in his one-man show? That's a rhetorical question.

So, they're disappointed, again, repeating almost verbatim their last press release. Why on earth would Canadians trust these people with these issues?

Update (Thursday a.m.): Two more issues to raise here.

1. CP with further information late last night, it will be "eight more months" until re-opening, so it's worse than the AECL release portrayed it. Spring 2010 when late this year was initially the target.

2. What's becoming apparent too, if you read that CP report, and there have been signs of it in reporting from across the country, is that certain regions of the country are faring better than others in dealing with the medical isotope shortage to date. Ontario and Quebec seem to be the hardest hit while, as the CP report notes, B.C., for example, hasn't been to date. This may be due to the higher population/higher demand in central Canada and additionally, the private supplier deals provinces have respectively made.

Whatever the case, the discrepancies nationwide should be noted. We pride ourselves on equal access to treatments nationally, certain parts of the country not having access to isotope sources is a failing that shouldn't be occurring and is where national leadership comes in. Given Chalk River's extended shutdown date now, it may be that the rest of the country that's been comfortable to date starts to feel the pinch too.

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