My advice to Canada’s isotope panel

I’ve always laughed at the classic circus act which features an impossibly large number of clowns packing themselves into a tiny car. That’s what the twenty odd submissions to the Canada’s Expert Review Panel on isotope production remind me of but as for funny, not so much.


Firstly, I should state my opinion that although composed of very accomplished individuals selected from this country’s great and good, I don’t believe the panel has the appropriate mix of knowledge and expertise. For example, it seems to me the membership is heavily tilted to the demand side (“unlimited low cost isotopes”) with no restraining supply side balance to better reflect technical and economic realities. I’m sorry to say that personally I don’t have much confidence in the panel. 


Nevertheless, with no expectation that they’ll pay any attention whatever, the following is my advice to the panel.


  • Don’t attempt to bring the Maples back from the dead.

This is the favoured simple-minded solution touted to solve the isotope problem but in my opinion it’s not only unlikely to succeed but also possibly dangerous. To my mind operating the Maples without understanding their characteristics would be like flying an aircraft whose control surfaces are unpredictable. The Maples are dead for very good reasons, leave them that way.  


  • Don’t process and store fission products anywhere other than at a nuclear installation.

Many schemes for isotope production, including the one used now, involve fissioning enriched uranium targets which are then dissolved in order to extract the one fission product of most interest (molybdenum-99). However, you are then struck with safely handling and storing all the other highly radioactive fission products in liquid form in specially designed tanks for a very long time. This is not only expensive but can be dangerous because of the possibility of criticality accidents where the material stored in the tanks starts fissioning on its own – a real disaster in a built up area. It’s probably feasible to irradiate the targets for example in a reactor or accelerator on a university campus but in my opinion totally irresponsible to process them there.     


  • Don’t ignore the economics of the isotope business.

I believe (see other posts on this topic) that a fundamental problem is that the economics of the isotope business are badly off kilter. It doesn’t make sense for some of the players. My impression is that Canadian taxpayers heavily subsidize present production both for domestic and international use. If Canada is being altruistic then let’s hear the numbers. I may well be wrong about this but I’d like to know the truth.


  • Do ask who type questions.

Whatever plan is proposed will require skilled people to do it. For instance, it’s no use for the committee to recommend building an isotope production reactor in Saskatchewan if there is no one capable of building one. Maybe they would simply contract with the same Argentine group that Australia employed to build their Opal reactor.  Whatever they plan we would have to be convinced that there were the personnel to do it. As another example, I believe there are people capable of refurbishing NRU following the original design but I’m fairly sure from recent experience that there is no capability to get the Maples operating safely. It’s much easier to recommend schemes than it is to execute them. Therefore, we need to know who is going to do the work.


  • Do ensure a nuclear research capability for Canada.

Granted this is related to much more contentious issues surrounding the future of the nuclear industry in Canada. However, there were reasons for operating NRU other than just isotope production. I’d like to see a solution that keeps the same capabilities. To me the ideal solution would be to spend the money and take the time to replace the NRU vessel and do other refurbishment to extend the life of that reactor for decades to come. However, if it is decided to go an isotope only route, there is also the possibility of becoming a member of a research consortium such as the Jules Horowitz reactor in France, a state of the art materials reactor with the participation of Europe, Japan and India. That I think that would suit Canada very well if we didn’t have our own research reactor.


Now I guess it’s time for me to sit back and watch the circus.