Thursday, December 03, 2009

Isotope expert panel weighs in with a challenge for the Harper government

Lisa Raitt's expert panel with their long term solutions to the isotope shortage issue has finally weighed in. Finally, as in, it's been since June that this panel has been conducting its consideration of what Canada should do for the long run. A convenient dodge it's been, but in the meantime, critical shortages in isotopes have been challenging nuclear medicine practitioners ever since the Chalk River facility shutdown in the spring. That fact was brought to Raitt's attention in the panel's cover letter, where they took the opportunity to let her know that while they were given a mandate to review long term solutions, many of the concerns expressed to them by stakeholder groups were of a pressing short term nature.
"We wanted to draw your attention to the need for government to continue addressing short-term issues related to providing Canadians access to high-quality nuclear medicine services."
As you can tell by the headline here, "Expert panel urges Ottawa to build new reactor to replace downed Chalk River unit," and having read through some aspects of the report (pdf) quickly, the key recommendation is a big one. Replace the NRU with a new research reactor. In the panel's view, this is the best option in terms of proven technology (p 49 of pdf) and it's the most expensive option as well, i.e., greater than $500 million (p 57 of pdf).

So now Harper and Raitt are faced with a big recommendation based on the science and various risk factors that seem to be reasonably balanced here by the panel (at a glance). Given Harper's comment this summer that Canada is getting out of the isotope business in the long run, will he consider this report's recommendation anew? Given the massive deficit we're facing, where not for profits are getting cut and we're being warned of tough choices, you have to wonder about what direction they'll now take. Somehow though, as we support "RINC" programs, where recreational facilities are being renovated and built anew across the country, and infrastructure has been a key part of the stimulus effort, you'd like to think that this pressing health care need might be prioritized as well.

Medical isotopes are a health care necessity, the solutions the Harper government will now offer will be instructive to watch. Will Stephen Harper, the anti-government politician who has already expressed that governments shouldn't be in this business, build a new research reactor? A major long term government project? Will be interesting to watch the government's reaction and other industry players in the days to come.