Thursday, April 01, 2010

Harper nukes a replacement reactor for Chalk River

Say bye bye to the Chalk River multi-purpose research reactor facility after 2016. There will be nothing to replace it. That was the upshot of yesterday's long awaited government response to their expert panel who had in fact recommended a new research reactor be built: "Government of Canada Response to the Report of the Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope Production." It's a huge roll of the dice instead from Harper on a significant health care need. He's going with experimental technologies like particle accelerators and cyclotron technology, as the March 4 budget indicated. So, no new nuclear research reactor to replace Chalk River. Somewhere out there, Cheryl Gallant is now very nervous.

The medical community is not reacting favourably to the news:
The federal government’s solution to the medical isotopes shortage will only result in more advanced cases of cancer and heart disease, Canada’s leading nuclear doctors say.

The doctors were responding to the federal government’s decision, announced in a new report, not to build a medical isotope-producing reactor to replace the Chalk River facility that’s been offline for almost a year.

“It’s concerning they’re backing away from a multi-purpose reactor,” said Dr. Christopher O’Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine. “It’s also concerning they’re putting all their hopes and resources into an untested and unproven technology.

“If this fails to work we’re back at square one with no real domestic capabilities for isotope production.”
“Overall it’s very disappointing,” said Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine. “The cyclotron and accelerator options are purely research, there’s nothing proven.

“We are going to see an explosion of advanced cancers, advanced cardiovascular diseases because we don’t have the isotopes necessary to make the diagnoses,” he said.
Nor are the nuclear engineers:
Michael Ivanco, vice-president of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, said it appears the government will leave the isotope business in 2016, when the licence on the Chalk River reactor is expected to expire.

"Beyond 2016, if it lasts that long, what is there?" said Ivanco, who works as a scientist at AECL.
Good question. We will likely be hearing much more about what this decision to abandon this nuclear research facility will mean in terms of attracting and keeping researchers here in Canada.

Other thoughts:

*The Dutch decided, in total contrast to the Harper government, to build a new reactor to replace their Petten reactor. Petten is the other major world isotope supplier that complements Chalk River's production. Apparently Harper has decided that Canada, in a position of world leadership in isotope production for years, has done its share and will now shrink back to supply its own market. It's the new me-first-Canada approach. What if the Dutch had done the same? Maybe Harper waited until the Dutch decided in early October to build a new reactor (and the Americans decided to get into production) before making his decision to bail.

We'll likely be buying from the Dutch in years to come, as will the world, because as noted above, the route we're taking is experimental and reactor produced isotopes will be needed as supplements, especially in locations in Canada that are not urban centers. The expert review report noted that continued need (link above, pg. ix):
The cyclotron option is not a complete solution; because the half-life of Tc-99m is short, only hospitals and radiopharmacies close to a cyclotron would be served. More remote locations would continue to be served by Tc-99m generators, likely through existing supply chains.
*The cost of a new reactor is pegged at between $500 million and $1.2 billion. Harper has decided to fund the experimental technologies to the tune of about $270 million (budget 2010, TRIUMF $222 million, plus $48 million in other research & clinical trials). If these technologies require more and more R&D, we may see the costs rise to about the price of a new reactor.

*There's nothing wrong with trying to diversify the isotope supply, that's a point the government's response was heavy on and they seemed to latch on to the mention of it in the expert review panel report. But the expert panel really suggested R&D into the new technologies as a supplement to their main recommendation, which was a new reactor. Harper has decided to eliminate the main pillar of their recommendations and lean heavily on their supplemental choice.

*We're going with both cyclotron and particle accelerator technology. Will these distinct technologies be used interchangeably everywhere? What are the adjustment costs going to be?

*It looks like it's fire sale time for the MAPLES reactors, the isotope facilities that were built to replace Chalk River's isotope production and at great cost to Canadians. The ones that many say can work. Even last week, there were calls for them to be re-examined given the situation we're in:
Dr. Lamoureux said it is time for an independent international commission to examine whether two mothballed reactors that were built as replacements for the NRU could be salvaged.
Yet Harper's selling them off to the private sector:
...the Government will remain open to considering private sector proposals that would cover full costs, liabilities and risks without further public investment.
*The nuclear picture is really rounding out now. AECL is being privatized (except for Chalk River) and may be sold off to a foreign entity. We're not replacing Chalk River. What's going to happen to Canada's nuclear industry now in the long run? Harper is fundamentally changing it, with these decisions, moving it fully into the private sector. There has been no public debate about this.

Lots of implications. The health care concerns are the most pressing and there's uncertainty that comes with the government's response. Here again is one of Canada's experts in the field with the bottom line:
"The government, by moving to an experimental, untested situation, is taking a very big risk for Canadian patients," said Dr. Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.
Should a Prime Minister be making such a risky decision? Ignoring medical experts and his own expert panel? Does Canada share the same risk appetite on this health care question as the Prime Minister?

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