Is the current isotope business sustainable?

For the last few days I’ve been putting down top soil and mulch in our garden and in addition to cursing the scientific illiterates responsible for the Ontario pesticide ban, I’ve been thinking more about the latest isotope supply crisis at NRU.


I’ve already written a couple of pieces in this blog about NRU and its problems but I’d like to come back to a theme that I first introduced in my January 2 post. Namely, that the current level of medical isotope use is not sustainable.


Do we really need to produce and use medical isotopes at the current level? It seems nobody has stepped back to consider this key question in a serious way. Instead all sorts of expedients to maintain the current production level are under consideration.


The first but least likely solution is to fix NRU. If it is possible to repair it in a reasonable time (doubtful), it’s only a short-term fix. There’s a reported rumour that some “nuclear engineers” want to restart the MAPLE project.  After the laughter died down, I have to concede there is something in the idea at least in terms of regulation. Given the present climate in government, CNSC would only pretend to regulate a MAPLE redux probably by making appropriate noises of no substantive content. The likely consequence would be that these apocryphal engineers would be enabled to do some “light dusting” of the existing MAPLEs all the time waving the banner of isotope production and then start them up. I suppose that if there was a good containment structure around the MAPLEs, the consequences of an accident (the MAPLES were infamous for control rods that wouldn’t engage reliably) would not be so severe.  But is there anything left to dust? Can the project be revived at this stage or are they too far down the decommissioning road?


There is also an innovative scheme to make some isotopes by photo-neutron methods at TRIUMF in Vancouver but it is only in the conceptual stage. I read that the University of Missouri wants to get into isotope production in a big way about five years from now. If that means they plan to irradiate enriched uranium targets (requiring heavy security) and store the highly radioactive fission product liquid waste, it’s a totally inappropriate activity for a university campus in my opinion. A criticality accident in the fission product storage tanks would result in many casualties in a densely populated area like a campus. Large scale isotope production should only be undertaken at an isolated nuclear reservation such as Chalk River or one of the US national labs such as Oak Ridge.


The few isotope production reactors in other countries are also old and in bad shape. It’s a good time to seriously consider whether society can or indeed needs to continue the present system of isotope supply. The current and future shortage mostly concerns technicium-99 which is extensively used in diagnostic tests. Do we really need so much technicium-99? The supply of the main therapeutic isotope, cobalt-60, is assured from power reactors and many other diagnostic and therapeutic isotopes with longer half lives are not so seriously affected.  


Before we go running off to implement desperate measures such as reviving the MAPLEs or embarking on intensive isotope production on university campuses, we should have an authoritative and objective assessment by an independent internationally respected institution (e.g. the Harvard School of Public Health) that spells out what technecium-99 tests are essential in the sense that there are no other tests that can be reasonably substituted. This would tell us what production level is really needed as distinct from what is desired by the specialists in the field and would form the basis for a sustainable plan for isotope production.


It’s clear that the old days of abundant supplies of cheap isotopes are over and the former altruistic attitude that the Canadian taxpayer should subsidize the world isotope supply (or more accurately the middlemen in the value chain) is hopefully long gone. Rather we must insist on a realistic price for isotopes that reflects their real cost, doing so will also serve to regulate demand.

The Western Nuclear Reports III: The Chernobyl Finesse

One area where the nuclear industry has been very successful in setting and dominating the agenda is the effects of radiation. They don’t have to worry about questions from the audience about two-headed fish.


There is a large body of authoritative scientific research on the effects of ionizing radiation. The overwhelming evidence is that low levels of radiation are not harmful and on the contrary could be good for humans and other organizations. Of course, high radiation exposures are harmful and can be fatal.  Industry spokespersons on radiation issues are very well informed and articulate.


A prime example in both reports is the treatment of the Chernobyl disaster which has become standard in the nuclear industry. The big push for this approach came from anti-nuclear idiots who attributed absurdly large numbers of casualties to this accident playing on mysterious but unscientific radiation effects. In response the IAEA and WHO jointly did a study that concluded that only 56 persons died of radiation sickness as a result of the accident and 4,000 of the 600,000 people evacuated may have life shortening radiation-induced illnesses in the years to come. That’s certainly a bad enough accident (or “incident” as they like to call it in the Saskatchewan report) but nothing like as serious as nuclear critics would imply.


Basically what I call the “Chernobyl finesse” is to imply that the only consequence of a nuclear accident is radiation sickness. By acknowledging the radiation deaths and injuries up front, the industry can ignore all the other consequences and by doing so even appear to be open.  There is no recognition of the immense societal and economic damage caused to the 100,000’s of people evacuated because of Chernobyl, people who lost their homes, jobs, schools, friends, and so on? How many cases of mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, marital breakdown, unemployment and other forms of human misery resulted? I have no data but I suspect the number of those deaths was much higher than 56 and more than 4,000 lives were shortened. The spin the nuclear industry gives to this issue is embodied in the old but tasteless joke:


Doctor: I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is what you’ve got is fatal. The good news is that it’s not cancer.

Patient: Thank God!


Even the Three Mile Island accident where the radiation emitted was negligible frightened some of the local people so much as to cause post traumatic stress disorders. I feel that travelling with the critics along the radiation-only-route is not only misleading but also unjustly puts an inhuman and uncaring face on the nuclear industry.


No, it’s not going to be the two-headed fish guy that the industry has to fear at public meetings rather it’s the gimlet-eyed money man who can talk fluently and convincingly about marginal costs, discount rates, value propositions, cost overruns and so on backed up by numbers from the nuclear industry’s record in terms of economic indices, costs and prices. Bad estimating and planning, poor cost control, chronic schedule slippage, and overall incompetent project management are the charges made against the industry. That’s the real killing ground in the nuclear argument and when the discussion moves there the radiation experts can only do their best “deer in the headlights” imitation.