Medical Isotope Crisis
|Medical Isotope Crisis
A collection of information on the medical isotope crisis caused by Maple reactor licensing problems and NRU operational problems. But what is the root cause of these technical problems?
- How Canada became to be a major medical isotope supplier
- Post WWII, AECL was created as a Crown Corporation with the mandate to promote the nuclear enterprise [ref: Hart]
- National Research Universal (NRU) Reactor
- AECL Commercial Products is formed to commercialize some AECL non-reactor product lines. In 1991, Nordion is formed [ref: wikipedia entry for AECL] with government backing and AECL is to take care of the back end. Result: government supported commercial production that has an artificially low cost, thereby making it difficult for independent producers worldwide to compete.
- NRU shuts down in 1975 for an extended period and the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR) helps fill the gap in isotope production. So we know it can be done, albeit at a higher cost and with more waste. [ref: Canadian nuclear list discussion (exhibiting my personal bias - sorry)]
- This raises some questions:
- Why did the government elect to support isotope production in this manner? For the common good? For narrow political reasons? To ensure proper national control over waste? Other reasons?
- Such government backing seriously distorts the free market. Socialism vs. capitalism preferences aside, who should be held accountable for what and how?
- Is the government obligated to maintain adequate funding to ensure safe operation of the reactors?
- What are Nordion's obligations?
- To what extent, if any, was AECL underfunded and how does that affect its accountability?
- Who should decide who and how medical isotopes are produced? Is this different than other societal needs such as education, infrastructure and general health care?
- The MAPLE story
- NRX shuts down after long service in 1992 [ref: CNA], leaving NRU as sole source of a large percentage of world supply. NRU performs above and beyond the call of duty for over 50 years, but alas, the day eventually must come ...
- The world realizes its vulnerability to a 'single source'. In 1996 AECL commits to two MAPLE special purpose reactors for isotope production [ref Mosey].
- AECL designed Korean MAPLE (Hanaro) successfully operates from 1995 onwards. But Canadian MAPLEs exhibit commissioning problems such as sticking control rods and a slightly positive power coefficient of reactivity (PCR) under certain conditions whereas a slightly negative coefficient was predicted [ref]. In mid 2008, AECL decides to not pursue project completion [ref Mosey].
- This raises some questions:
- Why were there quality control issues with the Canadian MAPLEs?
- Was AECL chronically or sporadically underfunded?
- Who is to be held accountable? AECL for failing to deliver operating reactors that meet the regulations? CNSC for inappropriate application of the regulations (overzealous, phobic about PCR, failing to seek alternate resolution routes)? The government for not assuring adequate funding (if indeed that was the case)? The government for not assuring better overall governance?
- Is positive PCR a bad thing?
- The 2007 crisis: AECL and the CNSC face off over NRU safety upgrade issues. The government steps in...
- NRU receives periodic safety upgrades over the years. Nothing surprising there but in November 2007, the reactor was shut down by the regulator (CNSC) over a disputed non-compliance with regulations. Medical isotope supply is considered vital enough that the government over-rides the regulator, removing the CNSC President from her position (a government appointed) in the process, and NRU is restarted. See the Ottawa Citizen newspaper report. AECL claims to have been operating in compliance. The CNSC claims to be merely enforcing the regulations as required by its mandate. The government appears to have acted in the best interest of the public. Crisis averted for now. But oh, the politics!
- This raises serious and far-reaching questions such as:
- Why did the world let itself get into this vulnerable situation?
- Who decides the regulations? Surely not the regulator (the police do not set the law). Surely not the operator. Who resolves disputes? Who polices the police?
- The government stepped in and removed the CNSC President from her government appointed position so their action was legal. But should any body have the power to influence and affect the regulator?
- If medical isotopes are 'vital', why were there no contingency plans in place? Whose responsibility was it to provides such plans?
- Who provides the societal balance between genuine needs and safety? How is the balance of the few (in this case, those who need medical isotopes) and the many (those who shoulder the risk)?
- Just how big was the actual risk anyway compared to the benefits?
- What role does the international community have to play in national affairs?
- The 2009 crisis: NRU springs a leak
- On May 14, 2009, the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor shut down automatically due to a power outage and a leak of heavy water was subsequently discovered. The reactor is on extended shutdown until the problem can be fixed.
- AECL's Returning NRU to service web site - On May 14, 2009, the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) Chalk River Laboratories was safely shut down due to a loss of electrical power that occurred in parts of eastern Ontario and western Quebec. During routine monitoring in the early morning hours of May 15, a small leak of heavy water was detected within the NRU reactor facility. An initial investigation confirmed the location of the heavy water leak at the base of the reactor vessel. As a result, NRU will remain out of service until repairs are complete. Return to service is projected to be the end of July 2010 (as of May 26, 2010).
- CNSC NRU web site - focusing on status reports and announcements.
- How big is the problem really?
- After NRU, what then?
The government quickly forms and enacts a process to deal with the isotope situation
- Natural Resources Canada web site - focused on the Expert Panel Review of November 2009
- Backgrounder on Government actions
- Report of the Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope Production,
Presented to the Minister of Natural Resources Canada,
30 November 2009 (pdf 1.3Mb). The panel recommended, among other things, that a replacement for the multipurpose NRU reactor be built since such a reactor is needed for power reactor research anyway and can be used for medical isotope production. It is considered the lowest risk option but is expensive and is not a short term solution.
- Government of Canada Response to the
Report of the Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope Production. Local mirror capture PDF (485 Kb, 14 pages). Herein, the NRU replacement option is rejected in favour of accelerator based production.
- The Medical Isotope Shortage: Cause, Effects and Options, Mohamed Zakzouk, Industry, Infrastructure and Resources Division, Government of Canada, Revised 1 September 2009. Local mirror capture PDF (412 Kb, 14 pages). This report provides good background information on global supply and demand.
- Book flyer: Canada’s Isotope Crisis, WHAT NEXT? (pdf 667kb), edited by Jatin Nathwani and Donald Wallace. Addressing the question: Should Canada get back into the radioactive isotope business? Available in paperback June 4, 2010.
- Who will take the lead?
- The government declared on June 10, 2009 that it is 'getting out of the isotope business' [ref Mosey]. Presumably supply of medical isotopes is still as vital as it was in 2007 but won't be the government's 'problem' once it gets out of the business.
- Complicating matters, in May 2009 the government decided to split AECL and sell off the CANDU division [ref National Post].
- This raises some questions:
- What responsibility and accountability should the government have to ensure that a proper hand-off is performed?
- Hand-off to whom? Who decides and how should the hand-off be done?
- Rights and Responsibilities
- It is one thing to lay blame on those entrusted with a responsibility who have failed to live up to that responsibility. But response-ability implies the ability to respond. This raises some central questions:
- Who was and is responsible for what? Do they have the means to carry out that responsibility (authority and resources)?
- How are these responsibilities set?
- How do we avoid 'silo' thinking?
- The cost of fear
- A large proportion of the cost of designing, building and operating devices containing radiation is due to safety considerations. Risk assessments have been and are currently based on the linear no threshold (LNT) model . Regulators and operators are required to act so as to minimize these calculated risks. Governments ostensibly act to respond to public demands. The public assessment of their risk depends on expert opinion to a fair extent. Anti-nuclear groups play up the fear caused by there being 'no safe level' of radiation (the LNT model). So if indeed the cost and acceptability of nuclear devices is significantly dependant on our mental model of radiation risk, then the decisions we make about isotope production are affected by this mental model.
Investigating LNT is a job onto itself. Herein we only address how its use might affect the current discussion.
- How large an influence on the nuclear enterprise is LNT?
- Is using LNT to estimate risk somewhat like using speed limits for estimating accident rates and therefore grossly misleading?
- More info on nuclear risk.
- More info on radiation, LNT and hormesis.
- Related links
- Health Canada's Medical Isotopes - Frequently Asked Questions - general public information.
- A Political Meltdown -
By Alison Motluk for the Walrus Magazine, April 2011. For decades, Canada has been a world leader in the production of medical isotopes. So why did the government announce that it was dumping the entire program? Read the story behind the isotope crisis. Well worth the read. [local archive copy (pdf 1.5Mb)]