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Chalk River reactors may never work

St. Catharines Standard: GREG WESTON - February 1, 2008

Already eight years late and 400 per cent over budget, the federal government's new $600-million nuclear reactors don't work and will likely never be in service, highly placed sources told Sun Media.

The reactors were built specifically to supply all the radioactive medical materials - called isotopes - used to diagnose and treat more than 30,000 cancer and heart patients across Canada every week.

Without the new reactors in service, critically ill Canadians will continue to be at the mercy of an antique 1957 reactor that the federal nuclear watchdog shut down last month for safety reasons.

The one-month shut-down of the Chalk River relic caused the cancellation of an estimated 65 per cent of all nuclear treatments and diagnostic tests at hospitals across the country last December.

The Conservative government ultimately got an emergency bill through Parliament in mid-December, overruling the federal nuclear safety commission, and forcing the reactor to be restarted.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn subsequently fired the head of the commission, Linda Keen, touching off a political firestorm.

Lunn told a Commons committee that without government action to get the reactor back in service, patients "would have died."

The problem is the Chalk River facility produces about 60 per cent of the world's supply of the most common medical isotopes, and is one of only a half- dozen reactors used for that purpose.

The isotopes only have a shelf-life of a few days, so supplies cannot be stockpiled.

When Chalk River goes into shut-down, the medical world goes into panic.

Other international isotope suppliers contacted this week said the industry is operating close to capacity, and could not cover more than a fraction of the shortage created when Chalk River is shut down.

They says that is why the medical world has been so eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two new Canadian reactors dedicated to isotope production.

Each one is designed to produce enough medical isotope product to meet the entire world demand, leaving the other reactor as a back-up.

Without them in service, the same medical crisis that gripped the Canadian health care system in December could happen again at any time.

The old Chalk River reactor has been patched and repaired since it was first tagged for the scrap-heap almost two decades ago - after a serious accident in 1991 when a broken weld spilled 18,000 litres of contaminated heavy water into the reactor building.

The reactor was formally scheduled to be taken out of service the minute the new Maple reactors were in service which, 17 years later, still has not happened.

The federal agency that owns and operates all three reactors, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), still claims the first of the new atomic marvels will be ready for service by the end of this year.

But government sources told Sun Media both of the new reactors - called Maple 1 and 2 - have a serious design flaw, and would cost taxpayers a fortune.

A source close to the issue says flatly: "You can bet you will never see those in service. Ever."

The growing consensus that the new reactors are duds is the latest chapter in what may be one of the longest-running government boondoggles in history.

In 1996, MDS Nordion, a Canadian company that markets medical isotopes, agreed to pay Atomic Energy $140 million to build two Maple reactors that were to be in commercial service no later than 2000. MDS would own the reactors, and Atomic Energy would get a share of the proceeds from the sale of medical isotopes across Canada and around the world.

But by 2005, costs had spiralled out of control, and still the Maple reactors were plagued with technical and other problems.

In 2006, after a lengthy legal fight with Atomic Energy, MDS Nordion did something that should have sounded alarm bells about the reactors.

The company simply wrote off the staggering $345 million it had invested in the Maple reactors, and handed Atomic Energy the keys - and all future financial responsibility for the project.

In return, MDS got a guaranteed 40-year supply of isotopes.

MDS Nordion's share price went up on the announcement.

At that time, Canadian taxpayers had at least $150 million in the Maple project, bringing the total project cost to just over $500 million.

In 2007, officials at the federal agency predicted it would cost the public purse another $130 million to get the new reactors in service.

But senior government sources say the figure is closer to another $400 million, bringing the total cost to around $900 million - an overrun of about 650 per cent from the original contract price.

"There is no way those (reactors) make any economic sense for commercial isotope production," says one federal official close to the situation. "Taxpayers would be subsidizing them forever."

Sources also warn that even investing $400 million more would not guarantee the reactors would actually work.

The biggest technical problem, in simple terms, causes the nuclear reaction to speed up as the reactor speeds up, creating a cycle of ever increasing power that may not have a happy ending.

Atomic Energy officials argue that the problem is only slight, and can be rectified.

But one federal official points out the world has already seen the phenomenon in action once, albeit on a far larger scale than anything that could occur at Chalk River.

"It was called Chernobyl."

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