On May 15, the NRU reactor at Chalk River was shut down because of a heavy water leak. The problem turned out to be worse than initially expected and AECL now says the reactor will be down for at least three months. The real problem is that this reactor was not producing electricity, but rather a third of the world’s medical radioisotopes. There are about a half-dozen reactors in the world producing these materials, and for some reason, half of them were off-line for maintenance when NRU was shut down. As a result, procedures and treatments requiring medical radioisotopes are affected worldwide.
A recording of Lisa Raitt, the natural resources minister, has surfaced, and in the recording she calls the isotope problem ‘sexy’ and says that she’ll solve the problem and get credit for it. The opposition parties are having a field day with this, as you’d expect. According to the CBC, the prime minister said,
Raitt and the government have been “working around the clock” to improve the “very delicate” worldwide isotopes supply since 2007.
“That’s what the minister is doing, that’s what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics,” the prime minister told the House.
That sounds nice and it’s easy to say, but I have two issues with it. First, you don’t call a crisis ‘sexy’ when cancer patients can’t get the treatment they need. Do we really have to get into why this is not a good idea? Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief spokesman, also seems not to understand. He said, “an unfortunate choice of wording in a recording — that is one word in 5½ hours of tape recording.” It doesn’t really matter how many words are around the one by which you reveal yourself as a political opportunist.
More importantly, what exactly has she been doing for the last two years to improve the isotope supply? These materials come from nuclear reactors built to produce them. You can’t pick up a few boxes of the stuff at the local Kwik-E-Mart. The real kicker is that the NRU reactor had been working since 1957. These things don’t last forever. Two replacement reactors were in the works for over a decade and finally completed in 2000. They were plagued with cost overruns and problems. The situation was so bad that last year AECL announced that it was “no longer feasible to complete the commissioning and start-up of the reactors.” They applied to extend the operating licence for NRU and it was presumably granted. So what’s the plan for the future? Your guess is as good as mine.
It’s not as if the potential for an isotope shortage is a secret on Parliament Hill. The recording of Lisa Raitt was made in January, when the NRU reactor was still running.
NRU is 52 years old and has increasingly frequent problems. The only plan to replace it has failed and the $300 million spent is gone with no isotopes to show for it.
So I ask again, what has the natural resources minister been doing for two years to increase the supply of medical isotopes?