Saturday, May 30, 2009

Where the Isotope Story Began: A Tall Tale or Tail Between Their Legs

It's pretty clear that the Conservatives have no idea what they're doing when it comes to nuclear energy. That certainly doesn't help me to sleep at night and their latest debacle actually has me walking the floor.

On January 15, 2008, Conservative MP Gary Lunn, on the advice of Stephen Harper, fired Linda Keen, the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; for refusing to reopen the Chalk River nuclear facility; because of major safety concerns.

Then in February 2009, it was learned the government had hidden the news that there was a leak in the reactor, for two months, prompting allegations of a cover-up and suggestions that the public had been put at risk. Should we be concerned that nuclear waste is leaking into our waterways? Hmmm.

In fact, they have told us that the reason they pushed for Chalk River to remain open despite the fact that it had leaked 7,000 litres of potentially carcinogenic waste into a major Canadian waterway and the former head of CNSC, Linda Keen, said that it was an accident waiting to happen; was because we needed crucial isotopes.

Now we learn that chalk river will be closed for months. What's changed? Were they lying to us then or now and do they have a clue? Apparently not.
Toronto Star
May 30, 2009

When the Chalk River nuclear research reactor was down for just three weeks in late 2007, it was considered such a crisis that emergency legislation was required to reopen it.
Had we not acted, people invariably would have died, since medical isotopes for serious cancer procedures were not available, and we could not let that happen," said Gary Lunn,
then minister of natural resources, at the time. "We had to act, and we did."

Now, with the half-century-old reactor down for at least three months (some say much longer), there's no problem, according to the government's spokespersons.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt assured Parliament this week that the government is taking "great action" on the isotope file, "is seeking to ensure global supply" and "is working to manage the shortage."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq also downplayed the seriousness of the looming shortage of medical isotopes sparked by the shutdown at Chalk River. "It's not a crisis," she told the Star yesterday.

How can that be? The Chalk River reactor produces half the North American supply of medical isotopes, which are used in a variety of diagnostic tests for cancer and heart ailments. Hospitals have already had to delay tests and switch to alternative methods in the face of this shortage.

The health minister can talk to hospitals about prioritizing tests, but that is no comfort to a patient with heart disease or a woman waiting to find out if her breast cancer has spread.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government is either dramatically underplaying the current medical isotope crisis or wildly overplayed the last one.

And this week's flurry of announcements, including the appointment of an expert review panel "to consider proposals for alternate sources of medical isotopes," has not reinforced our confidence that the government has a handle on the situation.

After the 2007 crisis, the government also appointed a panel of health specialists to study the matter and recommend ways to avoid a reoccurrence. The so-called "lessons learned" panel advised the government a year ago that it should "diversify generator supply sources, preferably within Canada." Specifically, it said that research reactors on university campuses across the country could be adapted to produce medical isotopes.

No apparent action was taken on that recommendation until yesterday, when the government announced funding for McMaster University to upgrade its research reactor to produce medical isotopes.

Bewilderingly, Industry Minister Tony Clement said the funding had nothing to do with Chalk River but was part of the government's "short-term stimulus" package.

The government has some explaining to do. Specifically, why did it take a second crisis to prompt the government to find a backup supplier of medical isotopes? That should have been a government priority long before now.
More of the story:
Radioactive Water; Reactor produces half of world's medical isotopes
David Akin,
Canwest News Service
May 28, 2009

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) said yesterday it has found the source of the leak of radioactive water at the Chalk River nuclear reactor that produces nearly half of the world's medical isotopes and that it will force the reactor to stay shut down "for at least three months."

Since the reactor was shut down on May 15, the Crown corporation had stuck to its original estimate of down time of "at least a month."

Canwest News Service reported last week that current and former engineers at the Chalk River facility believe that, in the best-case scenario, the 52-year-old reactor will be offline for at least eight months, if it comes back online at all.

AECL said it had been working around the clock to identify the source of the leak of radioactive water from the giant 15-metre-tall aluminum vessel that houses the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor's core. Though the reactor was commissioned in 1957, the vessel was replaced in 1972.

Engineering sources told Canwest News Service that the manufacturer of that vessel recommended it be replaced every 15 years.

AECL said yesterday it found the leak at the base of the 37-year-old tank in a location where there is corrosion on the outside wall of the vessel. AECL said it also found additional corrosion points on the outer wall of the vessel that require more examination.

AECL has not yet proposed a remedy for the leaks. Instead, it must prepare more specialized test equipment to inspect the interior of the vessel, which is filled with a complex array of tubes and pipes.

"Sophisticated diagnostic procedures are required to determine the exact nature and extent of the repairs before returning the NRU reactor safely to service," said Bill Pilkington, AECL's chief nuclear officer.

The NRU is the source of medical isotopes used to treat and diagnose cancer and other diseases for 20 million patients in 80 countries each year.

"Until all investigations are completed, it is premature at this point to set a definitive timeline for the return to service of the NRU reactor," said AECL chief executive Hugh McDiarmid. "We want to reassure Canadians that every effort is being taken by our team of experts to address the situation as quickly as possible while adhering to all prescribed safety procedures."

AECL said that the water initially was leaking at a rate of about 120 kilograms each day. It now says that, because it has lowered the water level in the tank, it has reduced the leak rate to about 25 kilograms of water each day.

Some of that leaked radioactive water is evaporating and being vented. AECL said there are no threats to human safety or to the environment with the release of the vapour.

The rest of the water is being stored in specially designed drums until it can be processed and, where possible, reused at the facility.

Tracking the Isotope Story:

1. Note to Leona Aglukkaq. Stephen Harper Will Not Save you Now

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