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.

15 Responses to “My advice to Canada’s isotope panel”

  1. Don Jones Says:

    Note that in the CNSC’s Record of Proceedings for the hearing on 2009 July 8 on “Proposed Environmental Assessment Scoping Information Document for the National Research Universal Reactor (NRU) Long-Term Management Project at Chalk River Laboratories” it was mentioned that AECL is doing work with the aim of extending NRU operation until 2021.

    This NRU outage has given AECL the opportunity to do an Integrated Safety Review so they will have enough information to know if a life extension is feasible. However if extending life to 2021 will involve extending the outage to do the fixes this may not please the Health Minister who will want isotope production back asap. The 2021 date, if it happens, will give government enough time to decide if it is serious about staying in nuclear research and furthering CANDU development, and build a “new NRU”. Maybe some good will come out of this outage after all.

  2. Randal Leavitt Says:

    It seems to me that the first step toward improving this situation would be the elimination of the CNSC. They set criteria for reactors that are impossible to meet, resulting in us having fewer reactors and more deaths and illnesses as a result, and then they smugly sit there collecting their pay, feeling like heroes. Their decisions are killing people, yet they are charged with making Canada safer. Its called “doublethink” and those who practice it should be dismissed.

    The Maple reactors are fine, certainly safer than the cars that people use to drive to CNSC meetings, and should be put into service as soon as possible.

    And can we please stay away from the “subsidy” illusion. If anyone wants to complain about tax dollars being invested in isotope technology, they should add up the benefits and the costs, and then make recommendations about how to increase the benefit-cost difference. Panicked shouting about subsidies that make it sound as if there are no benefits is emotional manipulation, not debate.

    I have personally been subjected to all the tests typically performed with isotopes. In my opinion the medical advantage to me from all this testing has been zero. One spends days getting ready for these tests, which generate a report that a doctor glances at. In my humble opinion we could be doing much simpler things to improve our cancer survival statistics, such as not slathering sunscreen on our kids and making sure that we all have high daily doses of Vitamin D. The isotope testing business is not a magic bullet and we should have the clear eyed courage to discuss and face that.

    Becoming a member of a research consortium sounds like a very good idea, obvious even. Isnt research improved by collaboration and information exchange? I am surprised (disappointed) that we have not done this already.

    Does anyone have any idea about why the CNSC is refusing to allow us to gain all the benefits that would accrue from finishing and operating the Maple Reactors? I bet you would get a different ruling from a committee made up of doctors and patients who stand to benefit from their use.

  3. crf Says:

    The CNSC does no more or less than it is legislatively mandated to do.

    I think it is ridiculous to say that it was the CNSC that “killed people” when it refused a few years ago to allow chalk river to re-start, initiating the first isotope crisis. Personally I think both the CNSC and parliament made the right call in restarting the reactor, but the government disgraced itself by scapegoating Linda Keen, and needlessly harmed AECL, the public service, and public acceptance of nuclear “everything” in the process.

    The CNSC should not have to make the call between risking an accident and saving lives. The government can make such a call (and did), because it has the resources and the authority to do so. The CNSC is not equiped with staff or expertise or authority to weigh questions about whether it should enforce its desire to shut a reactor for safety violations, or allow the reactor to restart because, even with the risks, the benefits provided by that reactor are very strong. To do this is would have to understand in-depth the role of nuclear medicine, as well as be appraised of the provincial health systems’ use of, and plans for acquiring, isotopes . Clearly it has been too difficult even for the federal government and the provincial health ministers, and the worldwide producers and marketers of isotopes, like AECL, to come up with such a plan: so how could the CNSC come up with such an understanding all on its own?

    The government, not the CNSC, makes the call if they wish their crown corp to run on or over the knife’s edge of compliance with regulations. If chalk-river was properly run, and had not falsely told the CNSC that they had done safety upgrades ordered by the CNSC, when in fact, they had not been done, then the first isotope crisis would not have occured. Chalk-river’s management knew what was going on with the dispute with the CNSC about this work not being done, and yet the government claims they hid that fact from NRCAN and the jovial carpenter running it. If the isotope producers and health systems had, in fact, a plan to supply isotopes that wasn’t so reliant on a single reactor operated by a company that manifestly couldn’t properly run it (perhaps, forced to run it improperly by an uncaring or incapable of understanding government), then we wouldn’t need to find specious reasons to scapegoat the CNSC for everything.

    Finally, the CNSC is not the party responsible for not finishing the MAPLES in working order: that’s AECL, again.

  4. Randal Leavitt Says:

    Hi crf –

    I agree with your comments about the CNSC, AECL, and our self-destructive federal government.. My comments are meant to be read within the context established by your comments. In my humble opinion Canada has allowed itself to drift into a process for regulating reactor development that is not achieving the real goal – ie making Canada safer. We need more reactors to make Canada safer and the vigorous enforcement of every detail by the CNSC is not allowing this to happen. The process is broken and I am jumping up and down here trying to get some attention on that fact. We should put the Maple Reactors into service as soon as possible – they are good enough for now. Why doesnt the CNSC point this out? I will leave that puzzle as an exercise for the student reader.

    Is there a business model that indicates that the production and and selling of isotopes is worth while? Apparently not. It seems that the federal government can withdraw from the nuclear business and no protests happen, no inquiries are called, no committees write reports that slam the decision. Yet when the government tries to improve Canadian living standards by building new reactors all heck breaks loose. The agenda is being set by people with other motives (selling gas for example) and we are suffering as a result. A lot more selling and a lot less arguing about technical minutia is needed from the nuclear business. Getting the Maple Reactors going would be a good beginning for this enhanced salesmanship initiative. (Important point, I mean getting the Maples running as is, not chasing the impossible specifications of the CNSC for ever.)

  5. crf Says:

    The reason AECL is not running the reactors now is because they do not fully understand how they work. Any responsible company and regulator, in any jurisdiction, would not likely on their own, or even jointly, allow a reactor to operate when it isn’t fully understood how it works, even if the risks could be proven to be contained to some satisfying degree by other operating mechanisms, without an order from the highest levels of government telling them to do start it anyway.

    With the Maples, it isn’t the case the AECL wanted to start the reactors and was held up by CNSC nit-picking. AECL was never going to want to start these reactors if they couldn’t fully explain their operation. And they’d cancelled this project long ago now.

    It is another question though whether the severity of the isotope crisis warrants now running the MAPLE reactors on some basis to produce isotopes. just until the crisis eases. This is both a capability question (has AECL retained the ability to restart the project, now fairly long after its cancellation?) and, again, a cost/benefit issue, mainly involving the medical cost of having no isotopes, or very expensive, limited isotopes, versus being able to get the Maples up and running quickly and fairly safely. Answering that question is again not totally within the expertise of both AECL and CNSC. I think it is one of the reasons why nuclear medicine specialists are insisting that the government should get all the players together to answer these questions publicly.

    However, the government has said it isn’t going to start them. So has AECL (not that they could say anything different from the government if they wanted to, except under oath). So backing down and starting them would present a giant political conflict for the Conservative party. I think this is another case of the government backing itself into political corners when it did not have to. It could very well be that not starting them is the right thing to do, but the process at arriving at this decision is of utmost importance.

    For example, it could have agreed the AECL was right not to want to restart the project just based on pressure from doctors, when AECL has justifiable concerns about the MAPLES. It could have acknowledged the concerns of nuclear medicine doctors. Then it could point to transparent process to weigh the concerns of all parties, and base its final decision on that. Instead it’s giving every signal that its made up its mind and that the issue is totally closed.

  6. sami Says:

    I tend to agree with Randy; This Maple story smells political stinks all over it. How does AECL and CNSC cast of this drama expect us to believe that with all their technical resources including the assistance of US national Labs, are not capable of solving basic reactor kinetics question like why the PVC, and what mitigating options available to deal with it, Why they stopped the final testing? Did they include testing the heavy water reflector evaporation impact on the power coefficient; did they verify material properties entered in the calculation (including the Fuel)? If all this makes sense to them, how on earth they expect to have the public confidence of their capabilities building the new Build units (ACR 1000) for Ontario??!!. The exaggerated way the problem is described doesn’t make technical sense and it open doors for another drama seekers from Greenpeace cast.

  7. Harbles Says:

    Mr Reactors for Canada,

    I’d like to point out that in regards to comparing computer controlling a reactor with a positive temperature coefficient to flying an aeroplane with an unstable wing to be moot. Most modern high performance military fighter aircraft do have unstable wings, required to get advanced performance that are controlled by fly-by-wire computer systems with very high reliability and redundancy where necessary.
    As to whether this the correct approach to Maples is unfortunately another matter for some study. (new cores imho)
    It is a shame that AECL did not have the foresight to dust off the plans for a backup reactor (McMaster) that were used during the reactor vessel replacement of ’74 as soon as the Maples were abandoned.

  8. Dr Singh Says:

    Hi crf,

    I completely agree with everything you said about CNSC just fulfilling their mandate, AECL responsible for repairs and MAPLE, and government that backed itself into the corner.

    Taxpayers spent tens of millions to investigate Mulroney. I expect no less for this isotope crisis. I demand accountability. MDS sunk $350 million, and the taxpayers several unknown hundreds of millions with nothing in return.

    All recent events are all too suspicious:
    – Was NRU core never checked? Leaks due to corrosion dont occur spontaneously.

    – Government over-rules on NRU, but takes opposite stance with MAPLE cancellation. Isotope imaging was so “vital” to saving lives in 2007, that government rushed to save days. Nowadays months drift by..

    – It is claimed all worldwide experts could not determine reactors unexpected behavior. Yet, all the tests were not finished. And aren’t these same worldwide experts proposing a cheap core replacement? Are we to believe that after building 30+ reactors, AECL has successfully created a puzzle that nobody in the world can figure out?

    – There is a huge abyss in opinion on viability of MAPLE reactors. Outside scientist councils and MDS claim project is virtually finished and should proceed. AECL and government claim many years and further hundreds of millions would be required. Both cant be true.

    This is ironic since AECL is literally admitting that they are so incompetent and their design is so hopelessly “wrong” that it would take longer and more money to “fix” than the initial construction.

    I just want to see accountability.

  9. Randal Leavitt Says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong. With improving analysis techniques and simulation software we are gaining a much better understanding of how reactors work. During the MAPLES testing, using this improved analysis knowledge, we discovered that these reactors have a slightly larger “positive void coefficient of reactivity” than we originally thought. The CNSC got all excited about this and refused to allow AECL to operate the reactors. Given that this is not really a safety degradation (all our CANDUs have been running like this for decades with no problems) the CNSC should have allowed the MAPLES to go into use and all would have been fine. But no, they have to enforce their specifications to the most extreme limits since they believe that Canada would be better off without reactors. All this childish techno-arguing reaches the Prime Minister’s office. In a fit of exasperation the PM announces that we are getting out of the nuclear world. Fed up with the CNSC and the penny pinching, micromanaging government, AECL announces that the MAPLE project is dead (ie the MAPLE reactors are junk) If AECL and the PM are right then every CANDU reactor in the world should be turned off immediately – they all have a similar PVCR problem. AECL and the PM hope to avoid all discussion of this consequence and everyone goes silent.

    So I think we are left with this conundrum – use the MAPLES or turn off all the CANDUs.

  10. Sami Says:

    I think AECL and CNSC nuclear scientists are taking the technical rap for putting the positive void coefficient as the root cause of not licensing the MAPLEs without giving technical explanation (why it is maintaining being positive!!) while casually mentioning the issue of HEU as an added problem. If one put some effort searching the topic back to the late nineties (even before 9/11), he/she will notice that NRC wasn’t comfortable with the idea of transferring HEU to Canada as the target for the Mo-99 production and the security level it needs to ensure Nuclear non-proliferation measures are met. In fact they said to the isotope production facilities to consider HEU as a temporary measure and to switch to LEU within few years(?). It would have been an easy and logical argument to support the decision of not licensing the MAPLE if it wasn’t publicised in its early days as the solution the world is looking for to remedy the medical isotope production mess. For politicians and national security experts to take that decision, it takes a lot of courage and skill to explain to the public the mess the medical isotope production industry is swimming through.

  11. Randal Leavitt Says:

    Based on the absence of objections to my previous comment I am concluding that if we want to be logically consistent we should immediately turn off all CANDU reactors if we refuse to start up the MAPLE reactors since both types of reactor have the same problem, namely a positive coefficient of void reactivity. Or if we continue to operate CANDU reactors then logic would dictate that it is reasonable to start up the MAPLE reactors.

  12. Sami Says:

    Randal; if the positive void coefficient is the claimed to be root cause behind putting the Maples to coma, your are almost right about your view re other existing CANDU (‘almost’- because those CANDU units are much larger geometry). But, as I mentioned above the HEU is the hidden cause, particularly, if the processing facilities is at MDS-NORDION , since the left over , after milking Mo-99, contains fission products and uranium activation products (actinides) in liquid form, and those are major security headeach. If however, AECL processessed the target and kept the waste on site (as the regulator (US&Canadians) desire) it represents a major cost componenent. The MAPLEs were thought of and put into construction under much simpler time (early nineties). My views, explained here, give me some comfort in explaining why AECL doesn’t seem eager to revisit the MAPLEs story, while it feels comfortable bidding for building two new ACRs for Ontario!!!.

  13. crf Says:

    Candus are MEANT to have a positive void coefficient, according to their design, and their operation is well-enough understood. [Read this].

    The Maples were designed to have a negative void coefficient. But when started, it was realised that they operated with a positive void coefficient. This was against the expectations of the engineers who designed it. They couldn’t explain it. So they do not have a clear understanding of how this reactor is behaving (even though many people think they could still be operated safely-enough: that the known-unknown can be constrained).

  14. Dr Singh Says:

    As a recent new grad, I’m far from an expert… but the history docs at canteach website are insightful.

    True enough, decades after Pickering/Bruce, new simulations and testing revealed slightly positive PCR, which CNSC grudgingly exempted (or else would have never built Darlington or sold to China, Romania and South Korea).

    My recollection is that safety case was made based on varied independent shutdown systems and heat buffering provided by large coolant and moderator reservoirs. However, canteach also has startling report which chronologically progresses through catastrophic multi failure that leads to evaporation, dry Calandria tubes buckling under weight, and eventual pooling of fuel at bottom.

    Around 2000, new CANFLEX fuel bundles using slightly enriched U and with Dysprosium were developed to lower PCR in CANDU. They were used by Bruce (not sure if still). If CNSC decides to increase requirements, all non-Pickering CANDU’s can switch to more expensive CANFLEX.

    But, MAPLE is completely different design, with completely different problem. Its hypothesized that ~1mm bowing of fuel is causing the problem -that is why MAPLE-like predecesor, South Korean HANARO uses different rigid fuel design. (which I am astonished nobody at AECL tried since 2003 when PCR investigation began)…

    However, this has never been an “engineering” issue. From the start, Conservatives were against it. CNSC unwilling to compromise at every turn. Pressure from scientists to keep NRU alive (MAPLE cant be used for their tests) AECL sale news impact on morale. AECL management… the list goes on. MAPLE was doomed to crash in a fiery blaze…

  15. Cas Says:

    There is a way to produce isotopes other then with a reactor. An electron beam accelerator has the capabilities to produce isotopes on a large scale with almost no nuclear waste. There is also no danger of a nuclear accident as it is not a reactor. An accelerator also does not use highly enriched uranium as a target. There are three accelerators which have been in operation now with a combined 20,000 with no problems at all.
    It is a proven reliable technology. Why are these not looked at?

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