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Break the isotope monopoly;

Canada and the U.S. should work together to prevent the next crisis in nuclear medicine production at Chalk River

The Ottawa Citizen: Edwin S. Lyman - February 12, 2009

There is an emerging debate over whether Canada should maintain its near-monopoly over the production of medical isotopes. Hospitals worldwide are dependent on the 50-plus-year-old National Research Universal (NRU) nuclear reactor at Chalk River in Ontario for about 70 per cent of the medical isotopes they need to perform diagnostic procedures for cancer, heart disease and other ailments. But Canada's domination of the medical isotope market is now more a burden than a blessing.

There are legitimate concerns that the NRU cannot adequately meet demand because of safety problems. The reactor is showing signs of age and has recently experienced unplanned shutdowns and radioactive leaks. The NRU also is a security risk. Its isotope production process uses highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used to make nuclear weapons, providing opportunities for terrorists to acquire this material.

The United States currently has no capability to manufacture molybdenum-99 and relies on Chalk River for most of its supply. Given the questionable status of the NRU reactor, there is a growing awareness in the United States that its isotope supply is vulnerable and it needs to develop its own production facility -- one that is safer, more secure and more reliable than the NRU. Such a facility would be also in Canada's interest because it could help relieve Chalk River's production burden. Even so, neither Canada nor the United States is acting with the urgency needed to avert a potential isotope supply crisis.

The NRU reactor was supposed to shut down in 2000 and two new "Maple" reactors were going to replace it. But Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the owner of the Maple reactors, had to delay startup because of safety problems, and the Canadian government granted the NRU reactor a licence extension until 2011. Then last year the Maple project was suddenly cancelled, leaving Canada with no options besides abandoning the isotope production business or extending the NRU reactor licence again two years from now.

Until recently Chalk River produced a little more than half of the world's supply of the isotope molybdenum-99, but now it is working nearly double-duty to compensate for the loss of the second-largest supplier, the aging Petten reactor in the Netherlands, which shut down last August for emergency repairs and may not restart until May. This is unlikely to be an isolated occurrence. The other major production reactors also are past their primes and will require more frequent maintenance.

The global reliance on the NRU puts Canada in the awkward position of having to choose between operating a reactor under potentially unsafe, insecure conditions and jeopardizing the supply of an isotope used in millions of medical procedures annually. And there are cases in which the Canadian government has chosen production over safety. In December 2007, for example, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission ordered the reactor to shut down to install safety upgrades. Parliament fired the commission's chair and ordered the reactor to restart. The upgrades were finally completed only this month.

Neither Canada nor the United States should continue to rely on a reactor that is under tremendous pressure to keep operating at all costs, and that uses HEU to produce isotopes.

The two countries should collaborate to build new isotope production facilities that utilize low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used in nuclear weapons. However, some isotope producers are standing in the way, and governments are providing neither clear direction nor financial support.

A January report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that there are no technical barriers to producing adequate supplies of medical isotopes with LEU. A case in point is a recent proposal by the University of Missouri to produce isotopes with LEU at its large research reactor. Proponents say the project could potentially begin production as soon as 2012, but it will most likely need some government assistance to build a processing facility. The Virginia-based company Babcock & Wilcox has a rival proposal that it says will not need government support, but its proposal is based on a novel technology and would take longer to implement.

Canada also has options. The NAS report concluded fixing the Maple reactors would be far less expensive than starting from scratch. It suggested that AECL could contract with another organization to fix the reactors and reconfigure the processing facility for LEU rather than HEU. If work began next year, it could be completed by 2016. However, NAS also noted that prospects for this project are poor "absent a strong push from the U.S. or Canadian governments." Other proposals for Canada, such as using particle accelerators instead of reactors, look promising but are further away from commercial application.

The most efficient course of action at this point would be for the Canadian and U.S. governments to work together to ensure the development of a safe, secure and reliable LEU-based isotope supply. The required capital investment would be nearly undetectable relative to the hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus spending that the United States, Canada and other countries are currently contemplating. And the benefits would be considerable. It would protect public health around the world -- and minimize the risk of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons materials. Who could argue with that?

Edwin S. Lyman, a physicist, is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program in Washington, D.C.

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