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REFLECTIONS ON THE 2007 ISOTOPE CRISIS

a presentation to the Committee on Natural Resources
by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
(Le Regroupement pour la surveillance du nucléaire)

My name is Gordon Edwards. My background is in Mathematics and Physics. I have acted as a consultant on nuclear matters for over thirty years. I have been qualified as an expert on nuclear safety matters by federal courts, Royal Commissions and tribunals in both Canada and the United States. I am a co-founder and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

I am pleased that the Parliamentarians on this Committee are looking into nuclear issues that ultimately affect all Canadians. I believe that Parliamentary accountability of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited should be regularized. Once a year, I believe that AECL should be required to appear before a Parliamentary committee to update its members on accomplishments and unresolved problems.

Had this been the practice, Parliamentarians would have had a meaningful context by which to judge recent events. They would have known that AECL was many years behind schedule in bringing the two MAPLE reactors on line. These brand new isotope production reactors were intended to replace the NRU some years ago, and it was the intention of AECL to retire the NRU reactor permanently by 2005 at the latest.

Although the MAPLE reactors were started up half-a-dozen years ago, serious defects in construction and design have prevented them from performing their intended function: the production of isotopes. These defects are related to the malfunctioning of the control rods and the shut-off rods, as well as the positive power coefficient of reactivity which makes the MAPLE reactors unstable.

Parliamentarians would have also known that AECL had had over two years to perform all the safety upgrades on the 50-year old NRU reactor, including the task of connecting an emergency power supply to the reactor pumps. AECL had still not done this by December 2007, although the CNSC had been told a year and a half earlier that all safety upgrades were completed. In fact, AECL had not even acquired the necessary equipment to carry out the job with a minimum of delay at the earliest opportunity – i.e. the next maintenance shut-down.

Meanwhile, the private company MDS-Nordion did little or nothing to alert the medical community or the other suppliers of isotopes that Canada’s isotope supply could suffer an interruption. They should have done so. The MAPLE reactors were way behind schedule and way over budget, and Canada’s entire supply of medical isotopes depended on one geriatric reactor past its retirement date that was not operating according to modern standards of reactor safety. Yet no heads-up was given to the other players.

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday charged that the isotope crisis could have been avoided if MDS-Nordion had simply cooperated with Europe’s two large-scale isotope suppliers – Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group in the Netherlands and the Institut National des Radioélements in Belgium.

It seems that this private company, MDS-Nordion, the only agency that is making a profit from Canada’s isotope business, manages to escape responsibility for the crisis in the eyes of government. It is a good example of “lemon socialism”, whereby private industry makes the profits and the public is left with the lemons.

I believe that the firing of Linda Keen was unjustified and unwise. In my view, it was a classic example of shooting the messenger instead of listening to the message. The message is that AECL is not functioning properly and something should be done about that. The message is also that MDS-Nordion is not doing its job of ensuring an uninterrupted supply of isotopes for the medical community.

CCNR has always held that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should not be reporting to Parliament through the Minister for Natural Resources, but through another Minister. That way there would be two voices at the cabinet table instead of just one when a conflict develops between the nuclear regulator and AECL. The Minister of Natural Resources, who is responsible for AECL, inevitably finds himself in a conflict of interest, forced to choose between the developer or the regulator. Unless this situation is rectified by having CNSC report to a different minister, I see little prospect for Canada to have a truly effective independent nuclear regulatory agency.

It seems clear that the isotope crisis was caused by actions and omissions of AECL and MDS-Nordion rather than by the CNSC, which merely blew the whistle. Firing Linda Keen will not prevent future shortages of isotopes, The MAPLE reactors may never operate as planned, despite the fact that their cost has soared beyond all expectations.

There is another dark cloud on the horizon – one which all Parliamentarians should be concerned about. AECL is using highly-enriched uranium target elements in order to produce molybdenum-99 for sale by MDS-Nordion. HEU is an immediately weapons-usable material. Any criminal or terrorist organization obtaining a few kilograms of HEU could make a powerful nuclear explosive device. The presence of such strategic nuclear material at Chalk River explains why the bus carrying journalists to tour the NRU reactor after it restarted also held several guards armed with machine guns.

With a change of administration in the US following the upcoming elections, it is entirely possible that the shipments of this strategic nuclear material from the United States to Canada will be stopped. Thus we may be facing a new isotope crisis in just a few years time.

There is a US federal law called the Schumer amendment which seeks to eliminate all traffic in weapons-usable nuclear materials. Some years ago the Nuclear Control Institute launched a law suit in US federal court to prevent any further shipments of HEU to Chalk River, which already has enough HEU for two or three atomic bombs.

One of the outcomes of that lawsuit is that AECL and MDS-Nordion have both promised US authorities that they will work to eliminate the use of HEU as a target material to produce isotopes, converting to non-weapons usable grades of uranium instead. This is entirely feasible; for example, Argentina produces all of its Molybdenum-99 using low-enriched uranium.

But AECL and MDS-Nordion have made little progress in this direction. The processing facility that was built in conjunction with the MAPLE reactors is not large enough to accommodate an easy conversion to low-enriched targets.

I believe that the Parliament of Canada should be directly involved in questions of weapons-usable materials as a matter of national security and as it may affect international non-proliferation efforts. In this particular case, it could also adversely affect the supply of medical isotopes.

I believe that Parliament should also be concerned about dangerously misleading information being promulgated by AECL officials concerning the usability of reactor-produced plutonium in nuclear explosive devices.

These are issues of the highest importance and deserve much greater attention than they are currently receiving.

To conclude, I believe that the CNSC should be reporting to a minister other than the minister of Natural Resources; I believe that AECL should be accountable to Parliament on a regular basis; I believe that Parliament should become involved in the question of weapons-usable nuclear materials which are being used at present at Chalk River or which may be used in the foreseeable future at commercial nuclear power plants.

I also believe that Parliament should initiate an investigation to document the status of the Chalk River site, which is heavily contaminated with radioactive materials of many different kinds from many different sources and which presently constitutes an important undocumented portion of Canada’s national debt.