Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nuclear regulator goes public with radioactive leaks

I was just thinking that now is probably a good time to call for a serious safety upgrade to Canada's medical isotope production facility in Chalk River when this story started seeping out.

Binder testified that he didn’t think the public needed to know about small leaks

Remember, Canada's nuclear regulator, formerly the Atomic Energy Control Board, has been re-branded as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Back on January 17, 2008 the president and CEO, Linda Keen, was fired before she had a chance to speak about her agency's decision to close the ageing medical isotope reactor in Chalk River.

"Inspectors had found that a backup system for controlling the reactor's temperature after a natural disaster was not installed despite assurances to the contrary from its operator two years earlier" (International Herald Tribune Jan 17 08).

The CNSC's new president and CEO is Michael Binder. Monday he told the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources that the 52-year old reactor has had three small leaks since December. Binder testified that he didn’t think the public needed to know about small leaks because they pose no threat to health or the drinking water supply in Ottawa which is downstream from the reactor.

"The Canadian government owns, and heavily subsidizes, Atomic Energy. It recently asked the National Bank of Canada, a private bank, to propose an escape plan for taxpayers. That study remains secret. But The Globe and Mail, citing unnamed sources, reported on Wednesday that the study recommends that the government sell at least 51 percent of company to the private sector" (IHT Jan 17 09).

"The United States must abandon the "unreliable and unsafe" supply of medical isotopes from Canada and other nations and start producing its own, says a leading expert on non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism prevention.

Meanwhile, Edwin S. Lyman, (Lyman BullAtomS Dec 18 08), a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington renewed the call to create a domestic American supply of medical isotoopes. He challenges the incoming U.S. administration to end Canada's dominance in the multi-billion-dollar isotope industry while increasing global security" (Ottawa Citizen Jan 9 09).

According to Lyman,
"...the reliance on old reactors causes more than just supply problems; it also poses safety and security dangers. Small-sized medical isotope reactors aren't required to have the same extensive safety and security features (i.e., robust containments and armed guards against terror attacks) that larger nuclear power plants have, leaving them vulnerable to accidents or sabotage that could endanger nearby communities by releasing significant quantities of radioactive iodine and other hazardous radionuclides into the environment.

"Worse yet, the largest medical isotope suppliers continue to employ a production process that irradiates targets made from nuclear weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU), while refusing to consider using more secure low-enriched uranium (LEU)." (See "Nuclear Medicine's Double Hazard." PDF)

Thomas Ruth, a research scientist at TRIUMF and a senior scientist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency, both in Vancouver, Canada, says The global problem of a safe and reliable supply of radioactive isotopes for use in critical hospital procedures can be solved with accelerators, not nuclear reactors. (Nature magazine Jan 29 09).

The CNSC is governed by the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA).

Webcasts of recent proceedings of the Commission are available at their website.

In theory the meeting of the Parliamentary Committee can be heard at ParlVu. I had trouble making it work.

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