Thursday, June 11, 2009

Isotope Crisis: Right Hand Hanging Left Hand Out to Dry

Whooee! Well, friends an' foes, seems like these here Conservative ministers is their own worst enemies. Instead of throwin' a lifeline to their flounderin' colleagues, they sit on their hands and watch 'em splash an' drown. Instead of pullin' out the rabbit they got in their hat, they play dumb... or, are they actually just as uninformed as they let on?

While Ministers Raitt and Aglukkaq continue to demonstrate their incompetence, real progress is being made in the field of isotope production. While Prime Minister Harper tells us Canada is throwing in the towel on future isotope manufacture and supply, Canadian research and technology is moving forward achieving just what Harper says is not feasible.

One wonders why Raitt, Aglukkaq and Harper seem unable to even attempt to fend off opposition questions with real answers that would put their government in a much better light. Although it seems improbable, it appears that none of the politicians are up to speed on what is happening under their very noses.

Back in November 2008, TRIUMF : Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, the University of British Columbia and Advanced Applied Physics Solutions, Inc. (AAPS) released a report “proposing a uniquely Canadian method for producing select medical isotopes which avoids using weapons-grade uranium and nuclear reactors.”

More recently, MDS Nordion, the same company that purchases and distributes all of the Chalk River isotopes, entered into a commercial agreement with TRIUMF “to study the feasibility of producing a viable and reliable supply of photo-fission-produced molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) used globally for diagnostic medical imaging.”

While Harper and his crew of liquidators are intent on selling the farm at bargain basement prices and abandoning Canada’s formerly respected role in the field of nuclear medicine, Canadian researchers and business interests are working outside the AECL framework to deliver much-needed isotopes using a safer, cheaper technology. While Harper and his nuclear grease monkeys are applying duct tape and Bondo to Chalk River’s 52 year old clunker, forward thinking scientists are developing an alternative source of Molybdenum-99.

While Harper and his inexperienced cabinet ministers sputter about securing isotopes from international sources, UBC, TRIUMF and MDS Nordion are forging ahead on a highly promising plan that, incredibly, was the subject of an announcement by Ministers Raitt and Aglukkaq less than two weeks ago.

Federal Gov't Takes Forward Steps on Medical Isotopes

29 May 2009

Yesterday, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt and Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq announced the Government's plan to establish an Expert Review Panel for Long-Term Isotope Supply Solutions. TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, supports these steps and looks forward to contributing to the process.

Why, one wonders, did neither Raitt nor Aglukkaq point to this development when they faced tough questioning in the House? Is it possible that the announcement, though seemingly made jointly by their own offices, was unknown to the ministers?

Now, let’s move along to part two of the ministers not knowing what’s happening under their noses. This time, we have former Health Minister and current Industry Minister Tony Clement remaining silent in the House while his hapless colleagues Raitt and Aglukkaq squirm under questioning about what they are doing to ease the shortage of isotopes.

Odd, since it was just about a week earlier, on June 1, that Clement announced $22 million in new funding to upgrade McMaster University’s research reactor, part of which was designated “to expand Canada's isotope research and production capacity.” Although $22 million is a piddly amount by nuclear standards, Clement could have come to the aid of his fellow cabinet members with at least one concrete example of what Canada is doing to increase domestic isotope production. Additionally, unlike Chalk River’s NRU, the Mac reactor is currently operational and presumably could be producing some of the needed isotopes while the repairs to the NRU are being carried out.

When PM Harper told us yesterday that Canada is getting out of the isotope business, did he not know that his industry minister, just 10 short days ago, had doled out $22 million to expand Canada's isotope production capacity.

Don't these ministers talk to one another? Don't they even read their own press releases?



Scott in Montreal said...

Excellent analysis, JB, and I have to say it does all seem curious. Maybe this is a set-up with a fairy-tale ending being manufactured by the parties you cited here? But these are all relatively long-term solutions, aren't they? How quickly could McMaster U. seriously be counted on to gear up such production of such a high-maintenance product?

Meanwhile, there is a current and severe shortage of isotopes that reports in the french media here are placing primary importance on. The real problem is that patients here in Quebec currently cannot be scheduled for the normal tests beyond tomorrow! They're saying they don't know if they'll have isotopes for Saturday procedures yet or not. That falls smack into the Natural Resources minister's lap, especially now that we know back in January she was so gung ho to be the hero on this. So where is the short-term solution? To what end the hundreds of millions of dollars already poured into Chalk River - money she gallantly threw at the sexy problem (to use her own words). Bottom line is: she has failed to do her job, failed to provide for Canadians, and even failed her late family members' memories by needlessly adding to the misery, worry and overall suffering of cancer patients everywhere.

I bet she's getting desperate. Maybe she can get bitten by a radioactive rodent or something, and defecate us some isotopes herself? Oh now I'm in the gutter. Better stop there.

JimBobby said...

Right you are, Scott. Lisa is about to get tossed under the bus and scapegoated (probably justly so) for the current crisis. There is no short term solution but in the absence of a solution, a scapegoat is always a good thing to have. Watch how Harper tries to keep any of the blame from sticking to him.

WRT the non-reactor (TRIUMF) production method, as I understand it, accelerators are much quicker and cheaper to build than reactors. While the individual accelerators would not have the capacity as a reactor, several could be built for the price of one reactor and they could be strategically located around the continent to be in close proximity to the end users. Shelf life being as short as it is for these things, closeness of manufacture to point of use would result in less waste due to expiry.

Re the Mac reactor, I am not sure how long it would take to get it producing medical isotopes or how much capacity it would have. The mere facts that it is of the small scale, research reactor type needed and that it is actually functional would seem to indicate that it could be filling some of the need long before Chalk River's NRU is up and running again. From what I gather from media reports, they haven't yet come up with a fully realized plan on the actual repair job at NRU and the planning alone may take 3 months.

Going back a few years, they discovered the big problems with the Maples in 2001 but continued to pour money into what would ultimately and predictably turn out to be a white elephant. Whether to blame AECL or their Liberal masters of the day is pretty much a moot point now. I'm inclined to blame AECL, hough. Nuclear scientists are pretty good at bamboozling politicians. One of McMaster's top nuke guys is on leave so's he can lobby for Bruce Power.


Toronto Condos said...

Since we provide 30% of the world's medical isotope you'd think that in times like these they would wan tot encourage that business and fund it a bit more so we are the largest supplier in the world. But nope, lets shut it sad. By the way, great article.

Take care, Elli

blaffergassted said...

So that's why they call it the "Is-A-Dope Crisis".

Youngfox said...

Leaked Harper re-election theme music!