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By Alan J Kuperman
March 1, 2008
When Canada's Parliament overrode the country's top nuclear-safety regulator in December, ordering the restart of a nuclear reactor at Chalk River in the absence of documented safety upgrades to guard against a core meltdown, most Canadians assumed such emergency action was necessary to assure a continued supply of vital medical isotopes.
But this assumption was false – a canard employed to persuade legislators to sidestep the safety officials, thereby protecting the profits of a private Canadian company at the expense of risking a nuclear accident.
The company, MDS Nordion, now admits that prior to the emergency legislation of Dec. 12, it already was receiving backup isotope supplies from a South African producer, NTP.
Two days later, Nordion started receiving isotopes from Europe, another backup that it knew was on the way prior to Parliament's action.
Such facts were not reported at the time, which leaves only two possibilities: The information was withheld by Nordion or by the government.
In light of these revelations, Nordion now insists that all potential backup supplies were inadequate to satisfy customer demand without also restarting the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River.
Says a Nordion spokesperson: "None of the other commercial isotope reactors have the ability to do more than increase their collective production capacity by 10 to 15 per cent in this type of an unplanned event. These producers collectively cannot mitigate this type of a precipitous event."
But this latest Nordion claim also is false, according to a definitive accounting of global isotope production capacity presented at an international conference in 2005 by Belgian scientists from one of the world's largest isotope producers, Institut National des Radioéléments.
The report documents that European and South African reactors typically operate well below capacity, which is why they together produce less than 60 per cent of world demand, while Nordion produces almost as much at a single reactor. But at peak operation, the non-Canadian reactors are capable of producing a collective 160 per cent of world demand.
In other words, these foreign sources can increase production not by a mere 10 to 15 per cent, as Nordion claims, but several-fold, sufficient to fully satisfy global demand even during a temporary Canadian shutdown.
Obviously, Nordion has grossly understated the foreign backup capacity, but it is equally important not to exaggerate it. Overseas facilities undergo planned and unplanned outages, so the peak capacity of non-Canadian reactors at any point in time could be somewhat less than 160 per cent of world demand. Still, under typical circumstances, they are able to satisfy global demand.
Of course, peak capacity cannot be sustained indefinitely. Therefore, a permanent shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, in the absence of new reactors, would adversely affect the global supply of medical isotopes.
But a short-term shutdown, such as the several weeks that were required to connect backup power to the NRU's emergency coolant pumps, could have been compensated for by a surge in operation of the foreign reactors.
Another concern is that overseas production could be constrained not only by availability of reactors but by the capacity of associated facilities that process irradiated uranium to extract the isotopes.
Typically, however, such facilities likewise operate well below peak capacity, so they too can surge in a crisis.
Finally, money affects production capacity. If a customer asks the operator of a reactor or a processing facility to operate overtime or during a scheduled vacation, it may have to pay extra for the privilege.
Nordion insists that it tried and failed to obtain isotopes from Europe during the NRU shutdown, but some European facilities actually were sitting idle. So the real obstacle may have been Nordion's unwillingness to pay a premium, rather than any alleged inadequacy of European capacity.
Last month, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission announced a jointly sponsored investigation of their actions.
Certainly an inquiry is warranted by a series of missteps:
AECL falsely assured regulators two years ago that safety upgrades were complete.
The shutdown of the reactor was not reported for 12 days to the responsible cabinet minister, who waited three more days to start addressing the issue.
The government then intervened heavy-handedly, waiving the requirement for a safety review and firing the official who had demanded it, even though the review would have delayed the restart by only two days, according to AECL's own estimates.
The proposed inquiry, however, hardly qualifies as independent or comprehensive: AECL is deeply implicated in the events; the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has been neutered by the demotion of its courageous president Linda Keen; and Nordion is strangely left out of the equation.
In light of the gravity of the public health, public safety and governance issues implicated by this scandal, a much deeper investigation is warranted by Canada's Parliament and independent watchdogs.
As the facts now appear, Ottawa quashed safety regulators to restart a potentially risky nuclear reactor, imperilling its citizens for the benefit of a private company, despite the availability of backup isotope supplies from abroad.
Canadian citizens have a right to know why.
Copyright 2008 The Toronto Star