Thursday, March 04, 2010

Now the government has told us: the future is not nuclear

For those interested, and since I seem to have become hopelessly committed to this topic, the government is signalling in the budget that it's moving away from a traditional nuclear solution to the isotope problem to more experimental choices. This choice comes despite the government's own expert panel having recommended a multi-use nuclear reactor producing isotopes and acting as a research facility. It was the most assured choice, in their view, given the assured product and spin off research benefits:
The lowest-risk path to new Mo-99/Tc-99m production capacity is to build a new multi-purpose research reactor. The research reactor also promises the most associated benefits to Canadians based on its multiple purposes.
Of all the technology options, this one has the highest potential for concomitant benefit to Canadians based on the promise of the broad- based research that would be undertaken, and its associated potential for generating intellectual property, job creation and training.
The Harper government is rejecting their advice.

So what is their choice? They're pursuing cyclotron and accelerator technology by funding TRIUMF. Accelerator technology is different from reactor technology, which is what we've relied upon through Chalk River to date. This is a more experimental choice. Dr. Jean Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Nuclear Medicine Association, has previously commented that this technology is not viable. The government's own panel pointed out some shortcomings to this type of technology as well, such as the need for those using the product of cyclotrons to be geographically close to the cyclotron.

Here's the budget on TRIUMF:
The TRIUMF facility in British Columbia is Canada’s premier national laboratory for nuclear and particle physics research and is home to the world’s largest cyclotron. In addition to fundamental research in subatomic physics, TRIUMF has gained an international reputation as a leader in advanced medical imaging, nuclear medicine, and research in the environmental and material sciences. TRIUMF collaborates with industry partners to commercialize its scientific breakthroughs, including its successful relationship with MDS Nordion in the production of radioisotopes and radiation-related technologies used to diagnose, prevent and treat disease.

Budget 2010 provides $126 million over five years to strengthen the world-leading research taking place at TRIUMF. In combination with $96 million to be provided from existing resources of the National Research Council Canada, federal support for TRIUMF’s core operations will total $222 million over the next five years.
There's also this:
Provinces and Canadian health researchers are exploring new avenues for the production and use of medical isotopes. The Government of Canada is taking action to help support these efforts. Budget 2010 provides $35 million over two years to Natural Resources Canada to support research and development of new technologies for the production of isotopes.

An additional $10 million over two years will be provided to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for a clinical trials network to help move research on isotopes and imaging technologies into clinical practice, and $3 million over two years will be provided to Health Canada to work with stakeholders to optimize the use of medical isotopes in the health system.
As you can glean from the wording above, "new technologies," "clinical trials," the choice of the government is experimental technology requiring significant R&D. The nuclear medicine community is not likely to be heartened by this news. Nor is the nuclear community at large where there have been concerns about a nuclear brain drain depending on the government's choices. Here was some criticism of TRIUMF's proposal in the summer:
The accelerator proposal put forth by TRIUMF, a subatomic physics lab at the University of British Columbia, uses an electron accelerator to fire a photon beam at uranium, producing moly-99. But it's an untested process creating an unfamiliar product and a whole lot of questions.

For instance, reactor-based tech-99 is "milked" from moly-99 using a device called a generator, or moly cow. But the accelerator-based moly-99 may differ from reactor-based moly-99 just enough that an entirely new model of cow would have to be manufactured, adding considerably to the startup costs.

"It's a real long shot," Dr. Ryan said. "These accelerator ideas have been floating around for years. I don't know exactly what's stalled them, but I'm guessing that the economics just don't work out."
And here were the concerns about moving toward accelerator technology and away from reactor:
A decision by the panel in favour of accelerators, however, could signal an end to Canada's leadership in worldwide atomic research at a time when many industry observers are predicting a nuclear reactor renaissance.

"They could very well decide to go solely with an accelerator approach," Mr. Lockyear said. "That's a big decision for the country, though."

Chalk River has been a front-runner in atomic research for decades. It is where Atomic Energy of Canada developed its CANDU reactors and where stress-testing has been conducted on everything from the welds used aboard the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle to steel used in building construction.
The government has now made their choice.

In addition, there's $300 million for AECL where it's full steam ahead for "restructuring," aka privatization.
Budget 2010 provides $300 million on a cash basis for AECL’s operations in 2010–11 to cover anticipated commercial losses and support the corporation’s operations, including the continued development of the Advanced CANDU Reactor, ensuring a secure supply of medical isotopes and maintaining safe and reliable operations at the Chalk River Laboratories.

The Government has initiated a restructuring process with respect to AECL to attract new investment and expertise, position the corporation for success in a changing global marketplace and create new opportunities for Canada’s nuclear industry. Investors were invited to submit proposals for AECL’s commercial reactor division in December 2009.

The Minister of Natural Resources will be reviewing these proposals, and assess how the corporation could best be restructured to meet the Government’s objectives. (emphasis added)
Ironic that they're trying to create new opportunities for Canada's nuclear industry...but they're not making that choice. Not in the traditional, reactor sense, anyway. Doing it under the guise of "Strengthening Canada's nuclear advantage" too.

Shorter Budget 2010: they really don't like nuclear, get the picture?

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