For Decades, Canada Has Been a World Leader in the Production of Medical Isotopes. Why is the government dumping the program?
IF YOU’VE EVER had a cardiac perfusion test to see how the blood was flowing in and around your heart or a bone scan to determine whether your cancer had metastasized, then you, like some thirty million people around the globe every year, have been the beneficiary of medical isotopes. What makes these unstable atoms so handy is that they can be injected, swallowed, or inhaled, and once inside the body they emit radiation from predetermined places. From there, their radioactivity can be used to kill off cancer cells or, far more often, to etch a detailed picture of your innards.
Canada is the world’s largest single producer of medical isotopes. In fact, they were practically invented here. Most of the world’s isotopes are made inside nuclear reactors. In Canada, they’re produced in one in particular, at the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear facility, northwest of Ottawa. And when, in November 2007, that reactor was unexpectedly shut down, large parts of the world faced their first real “isotope crisis.” Their entire supply had suddenly been cut off.
This was when isotopes punctured the national consciousness. Doctors offered daily updates like sports scores about the thousands of patients who would be forced to forgo tests and what dire consequences this might have. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said the reactor, which is owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, couldn’t be turned back on until a coolant pump was installed. Then parliamentarians stuck their noses in and voted unanimously to restart the reactor without the pump, overruling the nuclear regulator.
The government carefully framed the crisis as a medical calamity brought on by an overly persnickety regulator. The reactor was restarted in mid-December, and soon the hysteria died down. On the surface, everything went back to normal. But just a few months later,AECL abandoned two new nuclear reactors that had been built exclusively to produce medical isotopes. A year after that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that Canada was getting out of the isotope business altogether. “For whatever reason,” he said, “Atomic Energy was not able to make that project work.”
To many of us who’d been following the saga, that announcement felt like craziness. We were turning our backs on one of the best gigs going. Demand for isotopes is growing, and it’s a niche business: churning them out in mass volume requires a reactor. Perhaps best of all, isotopes seem distinctly Canadian — a feel-good by-product of an unpopular technology, a sort of peacekeeper of the nuclear world.
But in time, what I learned is that our isotope fiasco wasn’t really the result of an overly strict regulator or incompetent engineers. The new reactors were shuttered, and the industry was dispensed with, because it was far from being the lucrative money spinner many presumed it to be, and Harper knew the truth: that isotopes were hemorrhaging millions of dollars from the public coffers every month. It turns out that the lust to privatize federal assets some quarter century ago drove us to make a deal so bad that it put Canada’s future producing isotopes in jeopardy. A deal so bad that it made better economic sense to forfeit the whole industry than to pony up and fix it.