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Elizabeth May Asks Tough Questions on AECL, NRU, Maples, Chalk River

Green Party leader Elizabeth May posted a blog item yesterday dealing with the recent announcement that Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) is scrapping the development of the Maple 1 and Maple 2 reactors. The reactors were intended to replace the 50 year old NRU at Chalk River. The NRU was at the centre of last December’s “Isotope Crisis” and reportedly supplies 40% of the world’s supply of medical isotopes used in cancer tests.

Ms. May is asking some tough questions.

For any enterprising journalists who want to build on this mess with some content-rich investigations, here are a few questions that beg for response:

  1. Why was CNSC President Linda Keen fired from her role and yet no one at AECL is apparently facing repercussions for this waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars?
  2. Urgent question to the Government of New Brunswick. Are you sure you want to buy a reactor from AECL that so far is only at the design stage? That’s what the MAPLE reactors were. Reactors on paper. Why would anyone have confidence in AECL? Why go with a nuclear reactor when New Brunswick has so many other options?
  3. What are the contingency plans for the next NRU malfunction/shut-down? A malfunction or shut down is not a hypothetical. It is a certainty. Where will the medical community get its diagnostic radio-nuclides? Chalk River’s NRU reactor makes about 40% of the world’s supply of Molybdenum 99. Isn’t it time to start alerting the producers of the other 60% that they would be well advised to boost production, just in case? Or is government more concerned with the commercial reputation of MDS Nordion and AECL than with the security of supply of Molybdenum 99?

The Chalk River nuclear situation has been mis-handled for decades, but to Gary Lunn and the Harper government go the unique distinction of shooting (and firing) the messenger while rewarding the agency which has so blithely failed to serve the public interest.

The rest of Elizabeth’s blog post is a good read, too. In 2006, the Government of Canada entered into a 40 year contract under which we are obligated to supply medical isotopes to MDS Nordion, a for-profit corporation that markets isotopes to healthcare providers. The NRU is limping along and is 10 years past its “best before” date. The Maples were to have replaced NRU in 2000.

How are we going to honour that 40 year contract with NRU?

Commenter Erich Jacoby-Hawkins adds two interesting points. He notes that it is not only New Brunswick that should be skeptical of AECL but also Ontario, which has earmarked $40 billion for nuclear development. Erich also points out that the NRU needs Highly Enriched Uranium to manufacture its isotopes. This is bomb-grade uranium which must currently be imported from the US under a special export permit.