Saturday, August 22, 2009

Playing a waiting game?

A big headline greets us in the Globe today: "Maples reactors no solution to isotope shortage." So said the president of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. at yesterday's Commons committee meeting. But we pretty much knew AECL's position on the Maples before yesterday. It was set out publicly in an op-ed in the National Post on July 28th. And we also know that the no-can-do AECL view is challenged by many experts. Joining those experts this past week was the Canadian Medical Association who weighed in quite publicly and forcefully in asking for "an independent panel to look at putting the Maples online."

Perhaps as a result, Lisa Raitt acknowledged in an interview with the Globe published yesterday that the Maples will in fact be looked at again as an option by the expert panel she's appointed. This on its face seems to be an admission from the Harper government that maybe they've gotten it wrong here. They decided to shut them down in May of 2008. Now in the wake of public pressure they seem to be bowing to it and ceding that a second look by the panel will occur. At least, that's the way it appears. This could just be momentary damage control from Raitt, a minister in the most politically driven government in recent times, coming out to speak publicly on the specific point of the Maples reactors in the wake of the CMA's quite politically damaging resolutions seeking answers from the government. People tend to trust the doctors, funny thing, and the Harper p.r. people probably know that. So whether this will at the end of the day be a genuine look at the option or just a public nod to temporarily quiet critics, we'll see. (As set out below, events may be overtaking us.)

Raitt's former deputy minister, Serge Dupont seemed to back up Raitt at the committee meeting yesterday on the point, stating that if the panel comes back and says the Maples are worth another look, the Minister will consider that. He pointed out that one proposal received by the expert panel as a long term solution is the offer from MDS Nordion to in some manner, it seems, run the Maples if the government returns them to service (which MDS believes is quite possible). Raitt also mentioned the MDS proposal as a rationale for reconsidering the Maples option. You could be endlessly suspicious here and surmise that maybe they will find fault somehow in that proposal as a basis for rejecting the option. But they likely know there has been enough awareness created now about the much-discussed Maples option that they ignore at their own risk. It's an option that enough credible experts have pointed to, their expert panel review of the option better have utmost credibility. MP Alan Tonks yesterday wondered about the independence of that panel given the PM, Raitt and AECL in particular (see Globe article above) all seeming to be quite set against the Maples option. There might be something to that.

Because looming in the background of all of this speculation is the situation with the American market and the steps they are taking as we sit and wait for this vaunted expert panel to weigh in. The Americans are seeking to make their own long term solutions, having been made painfully aware of Canada's shrinking back this summer. As Dr. Robert Atcher, the past-president of the International Society of Nuclear Medicine testified yesterday, in a survey of their members recently, 80% of their members have been impacted by the shutdown and 53% have no alternative sources of isotopes. So the Americans are about to act:
The U.S. government is expected to decide in the next week on an alternate supply of isotopes, possibly from U.S. reactors.

The White House's Office for Science and Technology Policy is “close to making some decisions about how to deal with the issue in the short term,” said spokesman Rick Weiss. “There's a longer process ahead to deal with the long-term solution, which essentially, at its core, has to involve increasing domestic production so this doesn't become an issue in the future.”
That announcement will come before this expert panel weighs in (end of November). If the U.S. decides to become self-sufficient, how significant will Canada's efforts then be? Would we invest in pursuing the Maples reactors? Do you see the situation that's developed out of the Harper government's inaction?

The prospect of the Americans stepping up as we step back seems to be a very welcome one to the Conservatives, as traces of eagerness at discussions of American involvement popped up at the committee meeting yesterday. Why isn't anyone else producing isotopes, wondered Cheryl Gallant, i.e., the Americans. How does it work, "irradiating targets" in the U.S. and then transporting them to Chalk River for processing asked another Conservative. Serge Dupont, the Raitt adviser and Harper Privy Councillor, also expressed agreement about the Americans needing to have capacity to produce isotopes.

The Americans would be fools not to go ahead now based on what's occurred this summer. So Canada will likely be left in a position of only needing diminished capacity, the huge American market in this $4 billion industry will effectively be gone for Canada. So there are many questions to be answered. When we've been a leader in this industry world-wide, we'll effectively be moving this industry very much backwards. Is this what we should be doing? How many nuclear scientists will be heading south? Is shrinking industries part of national leadership? How is this good for Canada?

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