Friday, August 27, 2010

montreal gazette on abandonment in Canada of all things nuclear

Appeared August 25 2010

Medical isotopes are a $4-billion-a-year market worldwide. Until the spring of 2009 Canada produced enough of these radioactive materials to meet 30 per cent of global demand; some 27 million people a year were diagnosed or treated with the help of technetium-99 and other products from the reactor at Chalk River, Ont.

But then, 15 months ago, the Chalk River reactor had to be shut down for repairs. News last week that it's back in operation was welcome, except that the facility is an antique and is slated to stop production forever in 2016. Unfortunately, the whole nuclear industry in Canada seems to be going the same way, or at best stagnating under Ottawa's disdain.

In the time Chalk River was closed the number of diagnostic tests performed in this country fell by 26 per cent, according to the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine. No doubt some of those tests would have been unnecessary, but the decline might also lead to more and worse cases of cancer and cardiovascular disease, since the isotopes are vital to certain forms of detection and treatment.

Last December the expert panel that Ottawa had set up to study the future of the medical-isotopes industry in this country reported that a new multi-use reactor would be the best way to assure a sustainable supply of medical isotopes. But in the spring Ottawa rejected that as too costly; at least $500 million to build, plus maybe $50 million a year to run. It was an ignominious retreat from exactly the kind of hi-tech industry everyone always says Canada needs.

Adding insult to injury, the federal government put up $35 million in seed money to encourage private-sector development of new cyclotron technology, in theory a way of producing isotopes without a reactor. We'll admit that science-fiction concepts do sometimes come true, but we can't see this as a sound basis for policy.

What's happening on isotopes reflects the moribund state of the whole nuclear-power industry. The 1950s reactor-industry daydream of "power too cheap to meter" has given way to soaring costs and great public anxiety. This industry certainly has plenty of problems. But power reactors will plainly have to be part of the solution to the greenhouse-gas emission problem. Reactor design is improving steadily. This industry is, we believe, in the first phase of a global rebirth.

However, entry costs are enormous, which is why government must play a role. But the federal government, which through Atomic Energy Limited of Canada has long set the pace in this industry in this country, is backing away, not only on isotopes but on the future of AECL and its CANDU reactors as well. Ottawa is trying to sell part of AECL, a move which has caused damaging uncertainty: Hydro-Quebec has deferred some refurbishment work at Gentilly-2. Uncertainty about AECL's future led Ontario to delay plans for a new reactor project. Ottawa has refused to help pay refurbishment-cost overruns at New Brunswick's Point Lepreau plant. You get the picture.

Ottawa's evident determination to back away from all things nuclear is a sadly shortsighted approach.

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