Sunday, August 16, 2009

Experts-for-the-reconsideration-of-the-Maples-reactors For Dummies™

Since we're now looking at the spring of 2010 for Chalk River to re-open...and the nuclear medicine community is shaking its head wondering what is up in Canada, thought it would be an opportune moment to recap the experts who argue the Harper government should take another look at its decision to mothball the Maples reactors. Given that there are many who suggest we may have a solution sitting right in front of us, it might be useful to collect their views all in one place. And this collection leads to the obvious question. If there are so many experts who say the government should reconsider its decision and we know that Canada is clearly in need of a long term solution for isotope production, why will the Harper government not get moving on looking into this?

The experts:

U.S. National Academy of Science: its January, 2009 report, Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium, The National Academy of Science Committee stated that "the Committee assumes that the worst-case scenario for fixing the MAPLE reactors involves the replacement of the reactor cores. The cost of such replacements would likely be small (tens of millions of dollars) in comparison to the cost of building a new reactor (hundreds of millions of dollars) or refurbishing the (National Research Universal) NRU (also hundreds of millions of dollars according to a representative of Natural Resources Canada).
Harper government appointed "Ad Hoc Health Experts Working Group on Medical Isotopes," May 2008:
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.
Jill Chitra, engineer & executive at MDS Nordion:
The MAPLE reactors faced challenges. But they did work. They created isotopes, they’re complete and they await final commissioning. These facts have been validated by independent observers. Indeed, numerous international experts have said that the MAPLE reactors could be brought into full service.
University of Waterloo engineering professor Jatin Nathwani:
"A parallel path followed with urgency can bring the already built MAPLE reactors to an operating state in perhaps the next six to 18 months," Nathwani said.
More from Nathwani, here.

Dr. Harold J. Smith, ex-Manager, MAPLE Nuclear Commissioning:
The Maple reactor design is probably the safest reactor design in existence since it actually has three shutdown systems, two fast and one slower. In the strange world of reactor licensing, credit in safety analysis is taken only for the second trip on the slowest shutdown system, thus ignoring the two fast systems completely. The Maple reactor operated like a dream and was/is fully capable of meeting all objectives. All you have to do is finish the last test or put Hanaro-design fuel in it.
Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission:
Keen told MPs the backup plan to the NRU — a pair of fully-built reactors known as the MAPLEs — could work.
Keen said she believes the technical trouble that prevented AECL from getting the MAPLEs licence for full-time production could be solved. "We haven't involved international experts enough in this," Keen said.
Think the experts would be rushing to our door at the moment if we asked them.

John Waddington:
Chitra's testimony that the MAPLEs had produced isotopes was backed up at the committee by an independent expert, John Waddington. He served on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the safety regulator, until 2000. Waddington is not connected with AECL or MDS Nordion.

Asked by Conservative MP Leon Benoit if Chitra had answered correctly when she said the MAPLEs produced isotopes, Waddington said: "You already had an accurate answer from Ms. Chitra."

Waddington was then asked if the MAPLEs were operating safely when they produced isotopes in those early tests. He said: "The MAPLE reactors were safe throughout their operating history in terms of the commissioning tests. If they were not, they would not have been licensed and they would not have been allowed to operate."
Two unnamed nuclear engineers:
But two sources, both of them nuclear engineers who have worked on the NRU and the MAPLEs, say the MAPLEs are perfectly capable of safely producing isotopes and that Raitt ought to "persuade" the CNSC to take another look the project.

"I think there's a way out of this but the way out is that CNSC would have to relent on the safety requirements and that's a tall order," said a former Chalk River engineer who is now a risk management expert for the federal government and asked not to be identified. "But maybe we'll have to get that in order to avert a major crisis."

An engineer at the facility told Canwest News Service that the MAPLEs are in "hot/cold standby" and could be activated and producing isotopes within months - if they received regulator approval.
More advocacy:

Tom Campbell, former Ontario deputy minister of health and chair of Ontario Hydro:
The federal government appears to be casting about for other sources of isotopes rather than examining the issue of restarting the MAPLE project, which could solve the problem.

Ottawa should immediately convene a team of experts familiar with our nuclear industry. It should allow them to do what is necessary to get the reactors started before we shortchange medical patients around the world, lose a valuable high-tech industry and damage our international reputation.
Then there are those who say the Maples can't work:

Atomic Energy Canada Limited:
Contrary to reports that the MAPLE reactors are the short-term answer to today's global medical isotope shortage, I can confirm there are significant technical and regulatory hurdles that require, in the best-case scenario, at least five to six years of intensive research and analysis before we can even consider bringing the MAPLE reactors on-line.
Lisa Raitt:
"To revisit it... there was a lot of study done," she said. "Even if in 2008 it was determined that it could be fixed, the timeline would still be 5 to 10 years."
Stephen Harper:
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated that defence of the government's decision, saying, "after hundreds of millions of dollars and years and years of investment, not a single isotope had been created and the expert assessment we received was that there was no realistic reason to believe there would be any isotope production for years and years to come, if ever. So it was not a viable project."
We present the opinions, you decide...

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