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The federal government will not build a medical-isotope reactor to replace the Chalk River, Ont., facility that has been shut down since last spring.


In a report released in December, an expert panel appointed by the government recommended that Ottawa move "expeditiously" to build a "multiuse research reactor" to replace the aging facility.


The panel said a new reactor represented the best way of creating a sustainable supply of the medical isotope used globally to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other conditions. The isotope has been in short supply since the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor.


However, in a response to the report released Wednesday, the government notes a new reactor would be costly and take years to build.


"The government finds that the very high costs and very long lead times make this a less attractive option than others. Based on the experience of other countries, it would likely take a decade or more to bring a new research reactor on stream," states the response.


"Also, the significant fixed costs and production capacity would be disproportionate to Canada's isotope needs and could not be recouped from the market. Waste liabilities associated with long-term reactor-based isotope production would be significant and again difficult to fully recover."


In its report, the expert panel estimated the cost of building a new reactor at $500 million to $1.2 billion, depending on its features. Operating the reactor would cost $35 million to $70 million annually.


The government response notes that a new reactor would not solve the problem of a "linear" global supply chain that is vulnerable to "single-point failures," while at the same time discouraging investment in alternative supply sources.


Instead, the government will invest in research and development in isotope technologies with commercial potential, support more effective management of supplies by the health-care system, and continue to work with the international community to co-ordinate production, the response states.


The goal is to put Canadian isotope production "on a sound commercial footing without government support."


The decision will likely create more uncertainty around the future of the labs operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, about 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. The government has confirmed its intention to sell AECL's CANDU reactor business, but has yet to clarify what it will do with the Chalk River operations.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last summer that the government planned to eventually exit the isotope business. At the time, he said Ottawa would keep the Chalk River reactor running long enough for isotope producers in other countries to pick up the slack.


(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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