Thursday, December 31, 2009

The year in isotopes: not so good

OK, a bit of a year end summation on the state of affairs on the medical isotope file.

For anyone watching the progress in Chalk River's NRU reactor repair, which has been shut down since May, AECL has been providing updates: the latest indicating that the reactor repair is at 24% completion. The previous update on December 23rd had it at 11% repaired. The target date for return to service continues to be the end of March. That will make it almost a year that it will have been out of service.

An editorial in the Toronto Star earlier this month, "Canada's isotope fiasco," highlighted some of the outstanding issues that need to be resolved, going forward, on this file:
How long must Canadians wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to settle on a remedy for the shortage of medical isotopes? The issue has been on Harper's desk ever since Linda Keen, who then headed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, first raised "serious concerns" in 2007 about the Chalk River research reactor and tried to shut it down. She was overruled, but the reactor was finally shut down last spring anyway.

That put the world's major producer of isotopes for diagnosing cancer, cardiac and other diseases out of service.

Harper, who was quick to fire Keen for what he saw as a lack of judgment, has been slower to solve the isotope problem. The shortage has damaged Canada's reputation as a supplier and caused the Americans and others to think about alternative sources. It has also left physicians relying on erratic supplies, and it has worried patients.

Beyond that, Harper has put a question mark over the very future of Canada's medical isotope production by musing about getting out of the business and buying what we need from foreign suppliers.

But if Harper decides to maintain production here, he will have to replace Chalk River's leaky 52-year-old National Research Universal reactor, which is nearing the end of its life cycle. Right now, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. just hopes to get it running again next year.

Last week, an expert panel urged Ottawa to build a new $1.2 billion reactor and to adopt other measures to ensure a stable domestic supply. Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt is studying the advice.
While Harper and Raitt sit on their hands, the Netherlands, in virtually the identical situation to us, have acted, and are poised to step into a leadership role in the world in 2016, exactly when Canada's NRU unit is supposed to be winding down:
The Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG), which operates the High Flux Reactor (HFR) in Petten, The Netherlands, announced in October developments in its plans to build a new reactor to produce medical isotopes.
Juliette van der Laan, the NRG spokesperson, told media sources that ‘‘The most important characteristic of Pallas will be its operational flexibility, which will make it possible to respond immediately to the fluctuating demands for isotopes. Operational power for Pallas will be adjustable and in a range of 30–80 MW power. Pallas has the capacity to be the world’s largest producer of medical isotopes.’’ (emphasis added)
(Reference, see News Briefs, pg 4).

Under the Harper government, we have totally abandoned our leadership role in the world on medical isotopes to other nations, the above mentioned Netherlands, and to the U.S. who are now creating their own supply. We have supplied about 60% of the world's isotopes. Now, we are likely to become dependent on foreign suppliers, down the road, as the Harper government is giving no indication of taking steps to ensure a domestic source will be built to replace the NRU, despite their expert panel's recommendation to that effect. Jim Flaherty's budget axe is going to fall, there's not likely to be any room for a new reactor, health care need that it is. The ironic thing, dependence on foreign suppliers will probably be more costly in the long run, in terms of health care costs and the brain drain that will occur as well. How this evolving situation will be of benefit to Canada and its nuclear medicine industry is unclear, to put it charitably. The government has seemed indifferent.

Finally, not to be forgotten this year, the patients and hospitals that have been struggling to deal with the uncertainty of isotope supply for their health care needs. They saw a government that avoided the issue like the plague.

All in all, one of the major failings of the Harper government in 2009.

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