The Globe and Mail reports that our prime minister, Stephen Harper, says Canada is getting out of medical isotope production. The government plans to spin off Crown-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s (AECL) nuclear reactor business as part of a restructuring that will mean private-sector management for the company’s research facility in Chalk River, Ontario.
The Chalk River reactor makes about a third of the world supply of medical isotopes. A Dutch reactor produces another third and South Africa supplies about 13 per cent. Lesser amounts come from reactors in France and Belgium. There are also reports that an Australian reactor will start making isotopes sooner than expected.
Within Canada, among the alternatives to Chalk River are:
- Upgrade McMaster University’s 50-year-old nuclear reactor, the only one outside of Chalk River capable of producing the isotopes.
- Working with the TRIUMF laboratory and the University of British Columbia to produce alternative isotopes.
According to the Globe and Mail, Government officials say the plan is to extend Chalk River's mandate until 2016, by which time other countries and research facilities along with new technologies, and/or private industry are expected to help meet the global demand.
It is disappointing that, at a time when the world has come to depend on us for one third of its supply of a product as important to human health as medical isotopes, we are letting it down and now have to admit failure. Others will be left to make up the worldwide shortage caused by Canadian governments’ ineptitude and their misplaced priorities. And to think that we consider ourselves worthy of a seat at Group of Eight conferences.
This dismal situation—an international embarrassment—did not develop overnight. It has been there for several governments in succession to see. But how many votes would fixing it have won? Not many perhaps, but I’ll guarantee that not fixing it will cost some politicians their jobs come election day.
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© 2009 Russell G. Campbell
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