Thursday, October 08, 2009

A government that gets it on isotopes

The Dutch appear to be moving in an opposite direction to what the Harper government is doing on medical isotopes. Harper announced this summer that we were getting out of the business of production by 2016. Yet the Dutch are building a brand new facility to keep producing and view it as important to do so:
The cabinets wants to demolish the existing nuclear research facility at Petten on the North Sea coast and replace it with a new 'state of the art' plant to produce medical isotopes, news agency ANP reports on Thursday.

The Petten reactor is 48 years old and has been closed several times in recent years because of problems. This summer the plant was closed for several months, contributing to the threat of a global shortage of medical isotopes for cancer patients. Petten produces 30% of the global supply.

ANP says the government believes the production of medical isotopes is so important that the Netherlands must retain its leading position.

According to the Telegraaf, dismantling Petten and building a new reactor will cost at least €300m and create 500 jobs.
Additional confirmation here. Why would they think it's so important? Demand for medical isotopes around the world is only predicted to increase in coming years:
The global demand for Mo-99/Tc-99m is approximately 40 million doses per year, 30% to 40% of which is normally supplied by the NRU reactor.(19) According to AECL, NRU’s isotope supplies help more than 76,000 people daily, in over 80 countries.(20) However, even with the NRU reactor in operation, the production of medical isotopes needs to increase to satisfy projected future demands. Tc-99m is in rising demand worldwide due to the aging populations of Europe and North America, and the growing use of the isotope in emerging countries. Furthermore, as Jean Koclas, Nuclear Engineering Professor at the École polytechnique Montréal, explains: “Technetium 99 has the immense advantage of being a non-invasive technique … [with] an ever-increasing number of applications” – which further augments the global demand for the isotope.(21) (emphasis added)
The Dutch are moving to satisfy future demand and are moving to retain their leadership in production. The Americans have recognized the need for supply and have now joined in as well.

Canada, as we know from following the issue, has been a world leader in production, matching what the Dutch do and more, producing about a third of the world's demand. And we have a fifty year history of leadership in this field. Yet the Harper government has, to date, decided to bail on it all. They've mothballed the Maples reactors and have not put any resources into new production despite two shutdowns of Chalk River having occurred on their watch. They sit and await the report from their panel of experts, due at the end of November but it's difficult to foresee that this government, with its ideological blinders about the role of government in such industries, will adopt a big solution. To do so, they would have to contradict Harper's public edict this summer.

Here is an issue where the Liberals and Conservatives diverge, Ignatieff has already spoken of committing to an expanded facility at McMaster and a government role in assuring production of isotopes. It is viewed as a key public health element for Liberals. For Conservatives, we'll see what they do when that expert report rolls in. But it seems that they're content to move us toward the role of importer of the rest of the world's isotopes, likely making us dependent on the Americans and at a higher cost. In addition, there's the fact that these isotopes have a limited shelf life, they can only be used within a 67 hour time frame, not exactly the ideal item to be importing.

This news of the Dutch development is a reminder of how what kind of government we have in office can affect important public health decisions. Ours is still sitting on its hands while the world is moving on. They just don't seem to get it that governments have a role to play here.