Monday, December 17, 2007

The istope emergency: MDS Nordion lost profits.

This is from the Harper Index.
The opposition seems to have missed the boat but the media did well for Nordion by publishing stories about isotope shortages. Why the government does not itself produce and sell the isotopes is beyond me. Oh I know the government is to get taxpayers to subsidize, using our tax money, production of infrastructure (proper climate) for those ingenious entrepreneurs to make money. After the article from Harper Index I include Thomas Walkom's article.

Failed privatization of isotope production triggered "crisis"

Nuclear regulator overruled to help corporate beneficiary of subsidies to AECL.

Canada's medical isotopes crisis may have been politically manipulated to satisfy the needs of private corporate health care giant MDS Nordion and to boost the asset value of AECL, Canada's nuclear crown corporation.

AECL and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) were in the process of sorting out the problem they had - that AECL had not installed backup systems as ordered for its 50-year old NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ontario. It could have been done without Parliamentary intervention, says Dr. Ole Hendrickson, a Chalk River area resident and researcher with Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County.

"In effect, this was a manufactured crisis," says Hendrickson. "The Harper government depicted the CNSC as being negligent by delaying critical medical diagnostic procedures for patients. This diverted attention away from AECL's negligence in failing to complete essential safety upgrades."

He says the Harper government was responding to pressure from corporate health care giant MDS Nordion, and that the shortage of isotopes was an isolated problem that could have been managed. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom agrees. "Indeed, the main casualty of the interruption was MDS Nordion, which saw its fourth quarter profits slashed by two-thirds," he wrote on December 16, 2007.

The Harper government "does not want the public to know that tax money is being diverted into corporate profits," says Hendrickson. "Costs of medical isotopes and medical diagnostic procedures for consumers around the world are paid by Canada's taxpayers," he says, through heavy subsidies.

"AECL - a heavily subsidized federal crown corporation - does the dirty business of isotope production. MDS Nordion does the clean business of sales and distribution."

AECL runs the NRU reactor full-time for isotope production, Hendrickson writes. "It extracts molybdenum-99 from uranium-235 targets obtained from the US nuclear weapons program. AECL is saddled with managing the wastes, which remain weapons-grade and must be kept under high-security control according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) procedures. AECL maintains the Fissile Solution Storage Tank (FISST) where the U-235 targets are dissolved in nitric acid. This is a key step in the isotope manufacturing process. The CNSC has raised concerns that U-235 in the FISST could accumulate to sufficient levels to cause a criticality incident - a nuclear explosion. There are risks throughout this process: continuous operation of an aging reactor, management of the tank, and control of U-235 wastes."

Hendrickson wonders why taxpayers should subsidize a private corporation and keep the costs of medical diagnostic procedures - mostly done outside Canada - much lower than if production were done in the private sector. He speculates that by diverting attention from AECL's other problems, this emergency legislation helps the federal government maintain AECL's asset value for future privatization.

Another cause of the recent crisis, real or not, was AECL's incompetence in the design of the MAPLE reactors, says Hendrickson. "Under the Mulroney privatization deal, AECL was to build two new reactors. These would be owned by MDS Nordion and would replace the NRU for isotope production. MDS Nordion was to be guaranteed a supply of medical isotopes in perpetuity.

"But the MAPLE reactors never worked. Control rods and shut-off rods stuck during commissioning tests. More problematically, the MAPLE reactors have a "positive void coefficient". If void space in the reactors increases due to boiling of water or loss of coolant, energy levels also increase. If control systems do not respond quickly enough, a positive feedback loop can quickly boil away the remaining reactor coolant - as happened at Chernobyl."

He says neither AECL nor the CNSC are being forthcoming about the weaknesses of the MAPLEs. "It's time to admit that the MAPLEs are inherently unsafe and will never be brought into service."

MDS Nordion, he writes, took legal action over the problems and the federal government settled by giving the company $10 million and forcing AECL to take over control of the reactors.

"There is no alternative to the 50-year-old NRU for isotope production," writes Hendrickson. "Canada's taxpayers own two worthless reactors. The stage is set for future emergencies."

Walkom's Article:

Convenience trumped nuke safety

Dec 16, 2007 04:30 AM
Thomas Walkom

What's the point of a nuclear regulator that can be bypassed when it proves inconvenient? Federal MPs unanimously voted to overrule Canada's nuclear watchdog last week. They said it was to protect the public. The real reason seems to be that they couldn't bear to break up their six-week Christmas holidays.

At issue is the federal Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s Chalk River nuclear reactor. It uses weapons-grade uranium to produce medical isotopes. It's also 50 years old.

Only five plants in the world produce isotopes. Atomic Energy of Canada, or AECL, sells its output to MDS Nordion, a private company with a lock on the North American market.

So when AECL announced last month that it was shutting down its Chalk River reactor for safety reasons, there was some consternation in both the corporate and medical worlds.

The dispute between AECL and its regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, turns on the issue of backup power. The reactor is cooled by heavy water. The pumps circulating that water are run by electricity. As Brian McGee, AECL's chief nuclear officer, told MPs last week, if the pumps were to fail, the reactor could release radioactivity into the surroundings.

Last year, the regulator told AECL to connect backup power systems that could resist bombs or earthquakes. AECL agreed but didn't do it. When the regulatory commission found out, the jig was up.

Enter the politicians.

While isotope shortages are not a good thing, it has never been clear that the country faced a full-blown health crisis. There were scattered shortages. But as Health Minister Tony Clement conceded, they were not serious enough to cause the government to redirect the isotopes MDS Nordion was exporting abroad.

Indeed, the main casualty of the interruption was MDS Nordion, which saw its fourth quarter profits slashed by two-thirds.

Still, no politician wants to be implicated in a Yuletide health scandal.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper blamed the regulatory commission, which he suggested was a nest of Liberal hacks. (In fact the president of the commission, Linda Keen, is a career civil servant).

Meanwhile, AECL quietly fixed one of the reactor's two pumps. As McGee told MPs, it should take no more than 16 days of additional down time to fix the other.

And Keen said her commission would let AECL operate the reactor with just one pump connected, if the Crown corporation produced a plan to show it would be safe.

That process, she figured, would take about a week.

In short: no immediate health crisis; no need to rush. At most, it would have taken just over two weeks for AECL to meet the regulator's safety standards.

So why did MPs panic and pass a law letting AECL operate for 120 days without meeting safety standards?

I understand Harper's Conservatives. They suspect all regulators are Communists.

What I didn't understand, at first, were the opposition MPs. Why did they fall in line with Harper?

Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies finally provided the answer. The Commons could wait a week and see if AECL managed to satisfy the regulator, she noted. But by then, MPs would be on holidays. If a real crisis did emerge, they'd have to come back to Ottawa.

Faced with that grisly option, all agreed that it was best to override safety. Anyway, what's the problem? As AECL's McGee noted, even if the reactor does rupture, workers and local residents will at worst be irradiated "within recognized guidelines."

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