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PM wants out on isotopes - but who wants in?

VANCOUVER - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has confirmed that the federal government has no plans for maintaining medical isotope supply beyond 2016. But less certain is who will step up as an alternative.

During a press conference with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe -- primarily focused on the issue of free trade between Canada and Colombia -- the discussion shifted to the shortage of medical isotopes, and Canada’s involvement in long-term supply.

“We anticipate Canada will be out of the business” of producing isotopes, Harper is quoted as saying.

A Canwest News Service story further details Harper’s comments:

“It was a difficult decision but we can’t spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and never produce an isotope,” Harper said [referring to the cancelled MAPLE reactors].

“I’m not even going to blame the previous Liberal government for it. It happened under their watch but, for whatever reason, Atomic Energy was not able to make that project work and there was no prospect that it would work.”

The Canadian Press continues the quote:

"What we've decided to do instead was to invest money to repair the [Chalk River] reactor to keep it online for a longer period of time while other sources around the world come online.

"But obviously we will continue to have difficulties with a reactor that is very old, and whose operation is not always dependable and predictable ... That's just the tough reality of the situation."

The NRU reactor at Chalk River, owned by federal Crown Corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is currently licensed to operate until 2011. When AECL and the federal government cancelled the replacement MAPLE project last May, they promised to work to extend the NRU’s licence until 2016.

Now Harper is making clear that 2016 will be it.

In some ways, it makes complete sense. The Government of Canada is not in the business of producing drugs, or food, or any of a number of other essential products. Why do we make medical isotopes?

Primarily, it’s because these isotopes are made in multi-purpose nuclear reactors built for research purposes, and research reactors are expensive infrastructure. Commercial organizations have not been keen on investing in them.

All the reactors currently producing the main medical isotope are owned by government agencies (some university-owned reactors and other facilities produce different isotopes).

Even the two reactors built this decade -- OPAL, recently finished in Australia, and the Jules Horowitz reactor under construction in France -- are government-sponsored.

But this isn’t the first time Canada has tried to shift from government to commercial isotope production.

The MAPLE reactors were supposed to be the first privately owned isotope-producing reactors. However, the private company -- MDS Nordion -- hired AECL to make and operate the reactors for them.

When AECL was not able to do that anywhere near on time or on budget, the Crown corporation eventually bought back the reactors for much less than had been spent on them (and later cancelled the project).

That is not an encouraging precedent for any company hoping to get into the reactor business.

Finally, just because Harper says the federal government will be “getting out of the business,” don’t think that the Canadian taxpayer won’t be investing money in new sources of isotopes.

The most likely candidates for a privately-owned research reactor are research institutions or universities.

Universities don’t generally build huge research facilities without public funding. Research agencies such as the Vancouver-based TRIUMF laboratories -- which wants to develop a new isotope-producing technology and then licence it for commercial use -- are also supported by government money.

But government funding is not the same as government responsibility. By switching from the role of owner to that of funder, the federal government would be farther removed from commercial and technological decisions.

Of course, the Harper government’s focus on getting out of the nuclear business is not limited to isotopes. The government is also in the midst of a review on the future of AECL as a whole.

Interestingly, an assessment of the options for privatizing or partially privatizing AECL, produced for the government by National Bank Financial, found little interest in a sale of AECL’s Chalk River operations:

... there was little private sector interest in an ownership position in the Research and Technology Division – this is not surprising as one would not expect a private sector company to be interested in funding public policy driven activities or sharing liabilities with the government.

It should be noted that AECL's research division does much more than produce medical isotopes. But any replacement research reactor at Chalk River (such as the planned Canadian Neutron Centre) would also be a potential source of isotopes.

The National Bank review recommended that private companies be hired to manage operations at AECL's Chalk River labs, but the federal government should maintain ownership (and liability for projects that cost more than expected).

This summer, experts convened by Natural Resources Canada are supposed to be reviewing options for long-term isotope supply. It may be valuable to expand their mandate to consider ownership and funding issues as well as on technology.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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