Thursday, March 04, 2010

Things our government won't tell us: isotope solution and AECL's future

The isotope problem is still out there, hanging unresolved, something to keep in mind as the budget is unfurled today and there is word that there will be some money injected into the nuclear file (below):
What's unacceptable, at least from the Canadian perspective, is the federal government's seeming lethargy on the file.
...Canada has no new source for making the most common medical isotope of all, technetium-99. The United States doesn't make this material. Universities and hospitals are scrambling to produce other isotopes -- radioactive forms of substances like thallium and sodium fluoride -- but these aren't capable of making up entirely for the loss of a technetium source that once supplied many countries.

That's why the silence of the feds is so baffling, and so wrong. Do we, or don't we, intend to make medical isotopes on a major scale? Are we prepared to substitute many small sources of separate isotopes for the centralized production of technetium?

The government is not saying.
Doctors, patients, and future patients need to know how Canada -- not just individual hospitals -- plans to overcome the continuing isotope shortages.
We'll see if there's anything in the budget to indicate what the government intends to do. What we are hearing is that $400 million will be pumped into Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. but it does not appear to be for resolution of the isotope issue (which could require $500 million + if they were to decide on a replacement reactor for Chalk River). Instead, the government seems to be, strangely, propping up AECL to make it more attractive to buyers.
The Canadian Press has learned that $400 million will go to Atomic Energy of Canada in an effort to reposition the troubled nuclear energy firm to sell its Candu reactors division.

The government said in Wednesday's throne speech that it would invest in clean energy technologies, adding:

"And it will position Canada's nuclear industry to capitalize on the opportunities of the global nuclear renaissance -- beginning with the restructuring of (AECL)."
If this is the case, a few questions come to mind. As in, they're putting $400 million into an entity they're about to privatize? Isn't that investment going to accrue to the new owner and not the Canadian taxpayer then? And if they have to put money into AECL in order to sell it, isn't that a signal they shouldn't be selling? If this is true, it says something about their priorities. There's no more detail in the CP report, so we'll have to see if the budget provides any more and whether these funds are solely connected to the restructuring. They've indicated they're prepared to sell 100% of AECL's reactor division, so it's possible such an investment could be lost. But again, I suppose we need to await the totally explanatory details coming our way.

And about that renaissance, these guys suggest there are unresolved questions about it. Yet this renaissance is the basis of the government's move to privatize. The argument might be made that such moneys might be better spent hanging on to AECL and resolving the isotope reactor situation instead.

Unfortunately, the government has been less than forthcoming on their handling of the nuclear file, from isotopes to the privatization and there's been little to no debate in Parliament about the future of this industry. It's a big employer and the jobs are high tech. Seems like kind of an important discussion to have before any moves are made with AECL.

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