Friday, August 14, 2009

Reaction begins to news of Chalk River extended shutdown

A remarkable front page at the Globe website today, with this report, "How Canada let the world down," leading the day. It gives a sense of some international reaction, by the nuclear medicine community in particular, to the news of the prolonged shutdown of Chalk River. In essence, Canada is being seen as having broken the trust that's been placed in us for years while we've been a leader in providing a good portion of the world's medical isotope needs ("...Canada has been the leader in this field for 50 years.") That's a troubling piece of this whole story, how the news that Canada would be getting out of the isotope business was sprung on the world by the Prime Minister in early June without any apparent sense of Canada's historic role, of an obligation or duty to the international community relying upon us.

There's a second worthwhile read on this topic today, "Memo to Ottawa: Rethink isotope plans," yet another compelling call for the Harper government to stop wasting time with an expert panel and get to work on fixing the Maples reactors. It is cast in a similar way to the above Globe report, appealing for Canada to do the right thing, to live up to its moral obligation to the world which will be facing years of shortages otherwise, pointing out the costs Canada is already facing, citing again the facts and experts that indicate these Maples reactors could be the solution to this shortage. Will Mr. Harper go back on his decision to mothball them, though, that is the question. Maybe we will have a different Prime Minister who might decide otherwise, shortly, who knows.

Back to that Globe report, conveying how this crisis is viewed by the world:
Canada, relied upon as a leader in isotope production, is seen as having reneged on its responsibility to the medical world.

The isotope-producing NRU reactor at Chalk River, Ont. will stay shut down until the spring of 2010, at least – marking the third time Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. has pushed back its estimated restart date since the aging reactor was taken offline in late May when a heavy water leak was discovered.

The news was met with frustration yesterday, and a growing sense among the international medical community that Canada has bungled its nuclear file.

The federal government has convened an expert panel, appointed a special adviser on isotopes and has invested $6-million toward research into alternatives to Chalk River.

But by failing to plan for or respond quickly to the failure of a reactor at the end of its lifespan, Canada is going back on its “implied contract” to provide scarce and much-needed medical isotopes, said Robert Atcher, president of the international Society of Nuclear Medicine.
A dozen years ago, the United States shelved plans to build an isotope reactor of its own because Canada said it had its own new reactors under way. But Ottawa cancelled plans to bring Maple 1 and Maple 2 online last May – leaving other countries in the lurch, Dr. Atcher said.

“It's an implied contract and now we're basically being victimized because we did put our trust in the fact that there was going to be this capability,” he said.

Dr. Atcher, Dr. Urbain and their counterparts in other nuclear-medicine associations have called on Ottawa to get an independent panel to take a second look at the mothballed Maples. So far Ottawa has refused.
Even if patient access to treatment is maintained, Canada's once-respected place in the international nuclear-medicine community is likely gone, Dr. Urbain said.

Canada was always looked at as the mecca of nuclear technology,” he said. “With the events which have unfolded over the past 20 months, I think Canada has lost a lot of its lustre.” (emphasis added)
As the world watches this unfold, the Prime Minister was trying yesterday to spin away from any notion of responsibility. Remarkably characterizing he and his government as "disappointed" bystanders in this whole matter. Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. is a crown corporation, his Minister of Natural Resources has oversight responsibility for it and her Deputy Minister sits on the board of AECL. And this is, after all, the Prime Minister who has given us the slogan: "Stephen Harper: Leadership." That vaunted leadership has been nowhere to be seen on this file.

Elsewhere, Minister Lisa Raitt continued her "disappointment in AECL" tour, echoing the Prime Minister. But here's something, mentioned in that same Star report today, that warrants genuine, non-spun disappointment. That the Harper government did nothing to act on this:
McMaster University expressed regret at how long the government waited to look at longer-term solutions to the supply of medical isotopes. The university approached the government about an isotope plan in January 2008 but has since had to reformat and resubmit its proposal to be considered by the expert advisory panel.
The lack of government action on McMaster? The continued stubborn refusal to listen to the many experts appealing for a turn to the Maples reactors? Now those would be some major disappointments.

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