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Canada's Crisis with Medical Isotopes: Are we looking in the wrong place for a solution?

Briony Penn

In 1952, an impressionable young sub-lieutenant in the US military, Jimmy Carter, was called to Canadaıs Chalk River in the Ottawa Valley with other servicemen to help contain what is referred to in the nuclear industry as an "excursion." An excursion is a reactor accident. Chalk River was the site of Canadaıs first National Research Experimental (NRX) reactor, which, after the accident, was replaced that year with the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor. The NRU had a similar excursion six years later but continues to operate today‹more or less. When reactors overheat and melt, high doses of radioactivity (fission products) are released into air, water and anything else the fission products come into contact with. Over 1000 Canadian and US servicemen, in addition to Carter, were called in for the two accidents to douse the fires with buckets of wet sand, pump out the contaminated water and dispose of the fission products by burying them in shallow trenches at the site. Carter, like many, was struck by the primitive response to such a highly sophisticated technology. According to the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, veterans with him suffered cancers from exposure to radioactive particles. This experience shaped the future US president and it was Jimmy Carter who put on a sweater, turned down the thermostat and installed solar panels on the White House. Nuclear reactors, whether they were for research or energy, had their costs. Carter was not the only person to be politicized by the vulnerability of Chalk River.

Ironically, the reactor doused by Carterıs buckets of wet sand was the prototype for the facility that now produces two thirds of the worldıs Technetium-99, a major medical isotope, which is used in diagnosing 80% of the worldıs cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. (Technetium-99 is the atomic daughter and derivative of Molybdenum-99, which is what the NRU produces from enriched uranium.) NRU also produces 85% of the worldıs Cobalt-60 radiation therapies. Fifty-five years later, Chalk River is again in the news. With the recent shutdown of the reactor for safety violations, the supply of medical isotopes has been cut off and has sparked an international debate about the long-term source of isotopes and the role and safety of reactors. It should also be sparking the debate on how we can best protect the health of Canadians‹when the process producing the method of diagnosis, is contributing to our vulnerability to the diseases. Victoriaıs contribution to the debate is coming from Metchosinıs own nuclear chemist, Herbert Moore, who spent most of his career developing the technology for the use of medical isotopes in the US. Having worked in every aspect of the nuclear industry, including an initial stint with the US military in classified nuclear weapon development, he has made no secret of his desire to find safe and secure alternatives to reactors for producing medical isotopes and wants every Canadian to have that information.

Moore identified four issues that Chalk River has triggered and which affect all of us‹especially anyone in Ottawa downstream of the Chalk River facility. First, this crisis has been in the making for a very long time. The 55-year old NRU reactor is simply that‹old‹and although plans from the Atomic Energy Council of Canada Ltd. (AECL) began in earnest in 1993 to replace it, there is no viable substitute in sight. Two new reactors, MAPLE 1 and 2, designed and built at Chalk River to replace the NRU, still arenıt in operation fifteen years later. A troubled private/public partnership with Medical Diagnostic Services (MDS) Nordion and the AECL left Canadians footing the bill for the huge overrun costs of the project and owning what Moore, calls "the two duds." Proving once again that nuclear projects rarely float in the private sector.

In this case, MAPLE 1 and 2 suffer from a problem called the positive coefficient of reactivity which, according to Moore, may be an insurmountable design problem. It describes a feedback system whereby, if the core of the reactor gets warm, it wants to get hotter, faster. Moore, who has operated reactors, including having to shut one down, describes how "things happen very quickly and with a positive coefficient there just isnıt enough time to shut it down." So in short, the NRU is a reactor that has passed its time and solving these short-term problems to prolong its life, will not erase the long-term need for another supplier of isotopes, since the MAPLEs are unlikely to supply the long-term solution. Furthermore, a current proposal to restart an ageing facility brings into play what Moore calls the infant/old age failure profile. Reactors, like humans, are most vulnerable to failures at the start and towards the end of their lives. Furthermore, the odds of failure increase with every shut down and start up, since reactors reconfigure themselves each time in terms of reactivity and temperature. Canada is exposing itself, and as importantly the well-being of its only medical isotope reactor to a risk by legislating an emergency response to restore isotope supply, but even so it is a fix that wonıt solve the long term problem.

And the weak point isnıt just the reactor. Virtually the whole process of making medical isotopes from the start of providing the enriched uranium to the reactor to the final distribution of what are called the Œradiopharmaceuticalsı is hampered by not having the security of redundancy. According to Moore, "it is a linear chain of single entities in series." Not only is there just one reactor in North America (there are no reactors set up for the production of medical isotopes in North America‹all US reactors are designed for energy or weapons) but there is only one supplier of enriched uranium from the United States; and there is only one pre-processing plant at Kanata run by MDS/Nordion which refines the Molybdenum-99 for distribution to the radiopharmaceutical companies that do the final processing. Even amongst this last link in the chain, there arenıt a lot of eggs in the basket. He used to work for one of them, a division of Du Pont, that has now been bought out by the giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. As Moore points out "A problem in any one of these facilities could shut down the process. This constitutes the real problem."

The third issue is one of nuclear waste. Currently, Chalk River places all their medical isotope nuclear waste‹including the Weapon Grade Uranium (WGU)‹in a holding tank outside the preprocessing facility. Probably close to some of the shallow trenches where the wastes from past accidents are buried. According to Moore, at the time he last visited Chalk River over ten years ago, there was already an estimated nine "critical masses" of WGU in storage at the facility. Critical masses are the amount of WGU to make a bomb the equivalent of Hiroshima. Each critical mass is about the size of a softball. Moore says they were placed, as solutions, in a 50-gallon barrel-like underground tank.. Again he questions the long-term solution of this approach to nuclear waste. "Imagine if this fissile material precipitates or congeals into a critical configuration?" Moore points to the historic fact that, "making Moly-99 started as a cottage industry at Chalk River and the disposal of waste was reflective of this cottage industry. They havenıt refined their approach to waste despite becoming an international supplier."

The fourth issue is one of uranium mining itself. With author, Jim Hardingıs visit to Victoria recently on the uranium mining industry, Victorians have been politicized to the far-reaching effects of the uranium industry on the health of remote communities, particularly first nations where most of these mines lie. Mooreıs knowledge of the uranium industry is also from first hand experience. He points to the damage to the land from the mining itself but especially the exposure to uranium tailings. Then when they enrich the uranium, the uranium oxide from Canada is converted to more volatile hexafluoride. As Moore says, "What about the fluorine extraction process and what you do with the fluorides once you convert the uranium back to oxide for fuel? If you do a cradle to grave on this industry, it is a mess. And that is an understatement."

So what is the solution? Moore says there have always been ways to make Molybdenum-99 and Technetium-99m and other medically important isotopes without relying on uranium and reactors that require WGU, generate nuclear waste, and acknowledged or not support, in part, the proliferation of the nuclear weapons industry. There are alternatives which were used successfully in the past and others that have been developed in the meantime. Australia has already gone through the debate of whether to build a new reactor or rely on cyclotrons to generate medical isotopes. The cyclotrons won. There is very little radioactive waste, cyclotrons donıt melt down, you donıt need to mine uranium and you get ten times more Moly-99 from a given effort. "What is stopping us from doing this?" I asked. "The combination of industrial and regulatory inertia that favours tight control of a potentially dangerous process." He believes that it becomes a matter of the public demanding the alternatives. Moore is happy to provide the information on how to do that.