More on the fate of Chalk River labs

If it wasn’t already in trouble enough, the media reported a “near miss” at the Chalk River Laboratory (CRL). It seems an operator at the NRU reactor erroneously shut off a cooling system but the error was immediately corrected by a manager who happened to be in the control room at the time. The only consequences were the doubts that this incident created about operator training and the overall safety culture at CRL.

The resulting negative media coverage comes at a very bad time. The government is looking for a commercial company to operate CRL. I suggested in a post here almost a year ago that a good solution would be to return the labs to the National Research Council (NRC), their original owner in the 1940’s. However, it turned out that I was wrong being much too optimistic about NRC’s ability to navigate in the troubled waters of the current government’s attitudes towards science, and basic research in particular. I read that NRC has been ordered to be “open for business” and it should serve the needs of industry. This is a depressing mantra of knuckle draggers of all political stripes in response to the issue of basic research. I won’t expiate on this theme any further other to say that right now NRC isn’t a feasible refuge for CRL.

It seems inevitable that we will see a commercial company running CRL. I can’t help being reminded of the recent “sale” of the reactor operation of AECL in Mississauga by SNC-Lavalin. Is there anyone out there that thinks in retrospect that this was a good idea? I’ll just confine myself to this question since there are legal strictures that prevent my commenting on the various accusations made against SNC-Lavalin executives for alleged unlawful activities. These unfortunate developments also make off shore sales of CANDU even more unlikely that they were before.

My understanding is that a company is being sought to operate CRL rather than to buy it. I’m sure there is an ideological component in this decision. The political right, now in power in Canada, believes that only private enterprise can operate businesses correctly whereas the left, of course, believes that only governments can. It’s like assuming that more accountants can ensure accountability but they can only document how much is spent foolishly rather than preventing dumb expenditures.

This model of government ownership with commercial operation has been used at US national laboratories for decades. Most of the R&D funding for them still comes from US federal government departments and agencies. In Canada this should be even more the case than in the US. The source of CRL’s funds will overwhelmingly remain the government of Canada and it’s mainly the magnitude of the annual budget that’s in question. To a large extent (80% or more?) the CRL budget must be labour costs. I hope I’m wrong but the main task of the commercial company would likely be drastic staff reductions. The advantages of doing it this way would be that the government could claim that the reductions were done by arm’s length “experienced” business people rather than by the government itself.

Let’s face it, there’s not much R&D of primary importance going on at CRL through no fault of the employees. There will be even less in the future without a new research reactor after NRU closes for good. CRL is very vulnerable to personnel cuts. One thing that could be done is to find new tenants for some of the lab. Is there any other nuclear-related group that could be located at CRL?

Yes. How about moving a large part of the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) operation to CRL? They are now mainly located in Ottawa office buildings and I can see no particular objection to them being at CRL. It might even give them more exposure to nuclear than they now have (couldn’t resist the pun).

There are good reasons for doing this. Governments in the past have decentralized federal activities by moving them out of Ottawa for example Revenue Canada to PEI and NRCan’s CANMET labs to Hamilton. Certainly there would be whining about inconvenience and more travel effort on the part of CNSC staff. On the other hand housing would be much cheaper and they wouldn’t be that far from Ottawa. Commission staff is located at Pickering, Bruce, Darlington and Pt Lepreau with as the CNSC claims no “regulatory capture” and they could even arrange to have a small independent group devoted to regulating CRL. With so many “cops” buzzing around the hive it might also improve the safety culture at CRL.

I don’t really see any serious objection to moving most of the 900 CNSC people to CRL. Some wouldn’t want to move and buying some of them out would be an added benefit in reducing the personnel bloat at the Commission.

Think about the CNSC idea and if you like it, contact Cheryl Gallant, the CRL area MP. If Hamilton MP David Sweet could swing the politics of moving CANMET to Hamilton then she would have a good chance of giving a badly needed boost to her constituency by moving the CNSC to Renfrew County. The two MPs should compare notes and I suspect the CNSC move to CRL could be done fairly easily if approved by the PMO.

It’s easy to forecast the response of bureaucrats to the idea. They will try hard to stall any CNSC move to CRL on the grounds that studies of the lab’s future are underway, nothing can be done for years and besides they didn’t come up with the idea. Personally, I doubt that they will come up with any better idea if they continue to deny the need for a new research reactor. The advantage politicians have is they can tell the bureaucrats what the results of the study should be and when it should be concluded. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

A Strike at Chalk River – Really?

I can’t believe what I’m reading about a strike by CRL’s scientists and engineers. It seems that they can go on strike July 17 but I find it hard to credit that they would actually be dumb enough to do it.

I’m sure they must have thought about the consequences but it’s hard to see what they hope to gain. The federal government is determined to cut Public Service costs and has a generally negative attitude toward AECL and all things nuclear. It’s no exaggeration to say the government has little sympathy for unions in general as shown by their rapid back-to-work actions in many recent strikes. To complete this grim picture I also have the impression that the Canadian public is becoming increasingly disillusioned with trade unions especially those in the public sector.

According to the union the contract offer from management might lead to salary decreases in a few years. Simply based on my interpretation of the government’s current policies I’m afraid CRL is in for significant job cuts in the near future. Justifying the size and scope of CRL’s current programs is already difficult in Ottawa. Taking future salary hits might go some way to prevent R&D programs closing down with consequent job losses.  In the medium term CRL employees need to keep their heads down and hope for a change of government.

What leverage would the strikers have? As I understand it isotope production (while it lasts) is classified as an essential service that wouldn’t be affected.  Some nuclear waste services could be a problem but management personnel could direct the trucks to some interim storage area. On the other hand I don’t see Ottawa bureaucrats wringing their hands over a slowdown in the pace of nuclear R&D. SNC’s operations would not suffer much nor would OPG sympathize since both have their own layoffs underway. Unfortunately, nobody with any clout is going to care much about how long a strike lasts. The picket lines would be there for a long time.

A strike would be a disastrous misread of today’s realities and the next news I want to read is that the threat of a strike is over.

Korea to the Rescue?

Let’s play join the dots. 

The Ontario government announced last week a deal negotiated in secret with Samsung and KEPCO (Korean Electric Power Company) to build wind turbines and solar panels in Ontario. Some will be installed to generate power in the province buoyed by the available green energy subsidies and others will be manufactured for export.

KEPCO has just sold four of its APR-1400 reactors to the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for about $20 billion US   under a mostly fixed price contract. Around $5 billion a copy is a real bargain price for a Generation III+ reactor.  This sale is the first shot in an ambitious campaign announced by the Korean government to capture 20% of the world reactor market. Incidentally, losing this sale was a real blow to AREVA who were outcompeted by the Koreans and one can guess that the days of the no longer formidable Anne Lauvergeon as AREVA CEO are numbered.

The APR-1400 is an advanced light water reactor based on a design by Combustion Engineering called the System 80. The Koreans have used System 80 as the basis for a domestic Generation III reactor, the OPR-1000, of which six are operation and four under construction. The APR-1400 is essentially a System 80+ design. Two are now under construction in Korea with six more planned.   

As our readers will recall, Korea operates four AECL built CANDU 6 reactors at its Wolsung power station. The first of them, on stream in 1983, is now being refurbished in part by AECL.  Canada and Korea have a continuing close and productive collaboration in the nuclear area arising from the Wolsung projects.

Another recent development was the positive outlook for the sale of a HANARO research reactor from Korea to Jordan. Sales of research reactors are also part of Korea’s aggressive marketing plan. The essential technology for HANARO was transferred to Korea by AECL during the negotiations for the sale of the last three Wolsung CANDUs. Although as I understand it, HANARO doesn’t mean “Maple that works” in Korean that’s exactly what it is.

I see a real constellation of possibilities offered by the above.

  • Is the APR-1400 a feasible power reactor choice for Ontario?
  • Would a HANARO reactor be a feasible research and isotope production platform for Canada?
  • Is KEPCO an aggressive and successful player that could take over AECL and run with it?  

I believe that the answers are, if not a straight “yes”, at least a “let’s seriously look at it”. Given the penchant for secrecy, perhaps unknown to us these ideas are already being considered by governments. In any case, Korea would make an excellent nuclear partner for Canada.

Isotope panel gets it right!

I was very pleased to see that the isotope panel’s report came up with the right answers and that I was wrong in my misgivings about its members.


 Yes. We do need a new multi-purpose research reactor if Canada is going to stay in the nuclear game. That’s their main conclusion and I agree completely.  I would have liked to have seen an additional statement that the new reactor should be at Chalk River. That would have finally killed the dangerous and naïve idea of locating an isotope processing facility with associated fission product storage on a university campus as has been suggested for Saskatchewan.


It’s great the panel also rejected the “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” attitude of the Maple resurrectionists. Macho doesn’t cut it when it comes to nuclear technology especially when the justification is simply commercial expediency. Speaking of money there was a clear statement that the Canadian taxpayer had long been subsidizing nuclear medicine in many countries around the world and by implication that it should stop. These subsidies end up in the hands of a long chain of middlemen and greedy medical specialists. They don’t do patients any good.  


Hopefully we’ve seen the last of the loopy accelerator ideas and I certainly would like to think more about the cyclotron concept. I was a bit surprised they didn’t list all the submissions in an appendix of some kind but that doesn’t really matter all that much.


Now it all boils down to whether the government will ante up the cash for a new reactor and who could build one. There’s the Opal in Australia built by Argentina, the new research reactor just sold by Korea to Jordan and my favorite the Jules Horowitz reactor in France. Maybe we could clone one of them.


The key point is Canada must have access to a high flux multi-purpose research reactor, either our own or as a member of an international partnership.

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.

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.  

NRU Leaks

Old reactors like old people often become incontinent.


This is certainly the case with NRU.  It had some minor leaks in early December 2008 which just made the headlines last week. At the outset I should commend the operators of NRU for doing a wonderful job of keeping that old and leaky reactor running.  It was widely recognized twenty years ago that it needed to be replaced and but for the failure of the MAPLE project would have long since been retired.


If the politicians want NRU to continue producing isotopes then they will have to accept that there will be continuing problems of this type until it is finally shut down. To express outrage at not being informed each time it piddles a little bit is simply playing to the gallery. Similarly for the media to trumpet every incident as apocalyptic is a waste of public adrenaline. As for the nuclear medicine docs whose primary concern is for the welfare of their patients and certainly not for their wallets, they should know that knocking NRU is not going to help keep it operating.


Nothing significant happened at NRU in December but the incident was totally blown out of all proportion. This is a great example of my previous post on the corrosive effects of secrecy on the nuclear industry. In my opinion the solution for AECL is to issue a press release every time anything happens at NRU. This would go a long way to re-establishing the transparency and honesty that the nuclear industry so badly needs. As I see it, letting the media find out by reading reports to the regulator (CNSC) is dumb because it’s just asking for accusations of secrecy. Swamp the media with information and with their short attention spans they’ll soon get bored and move on to the next titillating episode in the life of Brittany Spears, Jessica Simpson or someone of that ilk.


In this vein, here’s an anecdote about the current head of a famous nuclear company. When protestors in a small town accused her of concealing leaks that endangered public health at a nearby nuclear facility she managed, she offered to give them any radiation monitoring equipment they wanted to take away to do their own measurements. All they had to do is to return it to the city hall when they were done. They took her up on the offer and the protests stopped. We could use that kind of imagination and the indications are looking more and more like that we might even get it, albeit indirectly, from the lady herself.

Canada’s Isotope Mess

In early December there was another round of isotope woes with NRU closing down for repairs but only for a relatively short period this time. Every time there’s a problem with creaky old NRU, AECL is criticised for its failure to replace NRU with the ill-fated MAPLE reactors. When NRU finally goes down for good there is no plan for future isotope production. As long as there are isotope supply problems, nobody is going to forget the MAPLE fiasco – it will keep on damaging AECL’s reputation in terms of building new reactors.

In my opinion, trying to extend the working lifetime of NRU past 2011 is not a good option assuming it continues to run until then. Patchwork repairs are not going to cut it and I suspect dismantling NRU in any serious way would reveal an increasing number of problems to be fixed. My feeling is that NRU needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up to be safe in the future. This must involve replacing the vessel which would mean at least a year, but probably more like two to three years of downtime. If NRU were down for the years needed to refurbish it in a serious way, other arrangements for supplying fresh isotopes would need to be in place. (Since the isotopes have a very limited lifetime (short half-life) you can’t put aside a surplus supply for future use.)  However, if such alternate arrangements for isotopes were indeed possible that begs the question why refurbish NRU in the first place? I think a realistic guess at the cost would be in the $1 billion range.

The economics of isotope production used to be very poor for producers. For example, some years ago it was said that nuclear medicine tests had a mark up of a factor of 100 i.e. the material for one test was supplied at $3 and patients were charged $300.  It seems that for many years AECL (i.e. the Canadian taxpayer) subsidized medical radioisotopes for much of the world. Recently, it was reported that a US company is the distributor for Canadian isotopes in both the US and Canada and apparently gives no preference to Canadian patients.  If true, that’s a real shame because I suspect there is still a Canadian subsidy of some kind.

A big problem for isotope producers is that the technetium is produced from a molybdenum fission product that comes from the irradiation of enriched uranium targets in a reactor (NRU in this case). This leads to a very messy waste problem. Once the molybdenum has been extracted all the other highly radioactive fission products in solution must be safely stored in large high-quality double-walled tanks. Safe means that care has to be taken that unwanted fission reactions don’t occur in these tanks. Every so often a new tank has to be built at a cost of many millions of dollars. All of this is technically possible and indeed has been done without serious incident for many years. The problem is that the wastes from isotope production have to be looked after for a very long time in a rather expensive manner.

An additional costly overhead is the security needed to safeguard the enriched uranium targets. This was going to be a double whammy with MAPLE which used (or was going to use) enriched fuel. (I read a report a few months ago that this fuel hadn’t been returned to the US in a timely manner; I hope this has now been done.) What company or university could afford to build a fortress-like complex and mount a round-the-clock security force to protect potential weapons materials? The answer, of course, is there are no takers.

Most of the cobalt-60 for cancer therapy and sterilization of medical supplies is or could be produced in power reactors and is not involved in the NRU issue.  The problem concerns mainly the diagnostic tests based on technetium. 

At the moment no one questions the assumption that large amounts of diagnostic medical isotopes will continue to be needed in future.   Perhaps, the nuclear medicine doctors should moderate their consumption of isotopes and use them only when there is no other test available. I’ve heard it whispered by other physicians that there are indeed non-nuclear alternate diagnostic tests that are just as effective as some of the nuclear tests. If true, the number of nuclear procedures in the “nice to have” category could be reduced drastically.  I can’t assess the truth of these assertions but they would be worth looking at by a non-biased (non-nuclear) group of doctors. This might go some way to solving the problem.

Many groups have probably tried to make business cases for isotope production. The fact that no other organization either US or Canadian has stepped forward to produce isotopes is a good indicator that there just isn’t a plausible business case. Furthermore, as a producer if your isotope supply system goes down you get pilloried by the nuclear medicine community, pressured by politicians, vilified by the press and generally accused of lack of humanity. It’s a Public Relations nightmare no sane company would want to get itself into however “attractive” they might consider the economics. That’s why there’s no ‘white knight’ on the isotope horizon with an easy solution.