New $1.2-billion reactor needed for isotopes, Ottawa told

Friday, December 4, 2009 – Globe and Mail

Canada has been told to act swiftly and aggressively by building a new billion-dollar multipurpose reactor to secure its isotope supply for the next several decades and to prevent another global isotope shortage.

An expert-panel report commissioned by the federal Department of Natural Resources also recommended adopting supplementary production methods. The panel convened in June in the midst of a global shortage of the radioactive material and as Ottawa was musing about getting out of the isotope-producing business.

The panel’s report, released yesterday, urges Canada to keep pumping out its own isotopes, with a multipurpose reactor that could cost as much as $1.2-billion. It also recommends research into alternative methods – cyclotron technology, for example, that would allow small-scale, on-site isotope production – investment in new gamma camera technology and PET scans for health-care facilities that would use radioactive materials more efficiently.

The National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, Ont., which had been producing a third of the world’s medical isotopes for vital diagnostic procedures, was taken offline in May because of a heavy water leak.

The shutdown, extended numerous times, had health-care providers around the world scrambling to secure enough from four remaining reactors. So far it has cost more than $70-million dollars. The reactor is expected to remain offline until next spring.

The resulting isotope shortage should force Canada to act to ensure “that we don’t go through this again,” said Peter Goodhand, Canadian Cancer Society president and head of the panel. “The sooner the decisions can be made … the less vulnerable we will be.”

For its own medical security, Canada should produce isotopes in-house, Mr. Goodhand said. But the government should also realize that its decision doesn’t affect Canada alone.

“This is a global issue.”

Canadian nuclear physicians and researchers expressed cautious optimism about recommendations, which they hope will help ensure a future for Canadian nuclear innovation as well as its isotope supply.

“We’re very encouraged,” said Ontario Nuclear Medicine Association president Christopher O’Brien. “[The report] sends a signal to the international community that Canada may get it right this time.”

But Robert Atacher, outgoing president of the international Society of Nuclear Medicine, said that even if Canada follows through on the ambitious, expensive recommendations, it won’t help remove the black eye the country received after leaving a precarious global isotope supply in the lurch.

Two years after the Conservative government shelved the twin Maple reactors meant to replace the aging NRU, it’s unlikely other countries will be eager to take Canada at its word, said Mr. Atcher said.

“Having been burned by the Maples, there’s probably less likelihood that we’re just going to say, “Okay, the Canadians are going to take care of it.’ “

The panel’s report was released yesterday after being given to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt Monday. Ms. Raitt declined comment, but a statement released by her office said she’s “studying the report.”

The 52-year-old Chalk River reactor is nearing the end of its functional lifespan, and although the government has said it intends to renew its operating licence until 2016, it’s not clear how much longer it could keep going after that.

Designing and building a multipurpose research reactor would take six years, if not 10.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is preparing to pass a bill that would provide more than $160-million (U.S.) to explore ways of producing enough isotopes for at least half of U.S. need.

Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which does its research at Chalk River, said the recommendations would not only help solve Canada’s isotope-supply issues but would also keep the country’s nuclear innovation alive and prevent the brain drain that could occur if the country’s isotope-producing reactor went dark for good.

“We’re going to train students, we’re going to train scientists and engineers, we can support our existing infrastructure. … You’ve got benefits across the country – across many fields,” he said.

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