Saskatchewan leads charge for isotope solution

SASKATCHEWAN - Saskatchewan finally showed its hand in the high-stakes pursuit to replace the deteriorating Chalk River medical isotope facility, proposing to build a nuclear reactor in Saskatoon by 2016.

The submission slipped under an August 7 deadline for bids to resolve the federal government's lingering isotope crisis.

The Saskatchewan project, formally called Canadian Neutron Source, comprises the largest component of what would be a wider Western solution to the isotope shortage. The University of British Columbia and the University of Winnipeg submitted complementary proposals, involving particle accelerator technology that would yield fewer medical isotopes than a reactor, but would be available sooner and cheaper.

“The accelerators offer a good solution that could come online faster and for less cost, but they don't have the volume,” said Richard Florizone, a nuclear physicist and vice-president of finance at the University of Saskatchewan, which will partner with the province on the reactor. “Together they would offer a diversified supply, so that if one facility went down, you would have others that could back it up.”

The Saskatchewan bid is already one of the early favourites.

It promises a low-enriched uranium research reactor capable of half the isotope volume of the Chalk River facility for between $500-million and $750-million.

Atomic Energy of Canada's Chalk River reactor, once the source of one-third of the world's medical isotopes, sprung a leak in May and will be offline until late this year. Ongoing problems at the 52-year-old reactor have put a drain on international isotope supplies and the federal treasury, prompting Ottawa to solicit outside solutions. A whopping 21 proposals arrived at Natural Resources Canada by the deadline. An expert panel will now pore over the plans and put forward a recommendation by November 30.

The new reactor would also continue Chalk River's neutron-beam research, responsible for important studies ranging from space-ship welds to bridge-building materials.

“We're pitching a solution to the isotope problem and a valuable contributor to neutron science,” Dr. Florizone said. “There's an important national and global issue here, and we think Saskatchewan has something to offer.”

Premier Brad Wall has long touted ambitions to develop a nuclear industry in the province – source of one-quarter of the world's uranium – but has come up against stiff protest, most recently during a round of province-wide hearings on the issue.

The isotope impetus provides some humanitarian cover for his nuclear goals, but that hasn't softened the political barbs any.

“From a financial perspective, it just doesn't stand on its own,” NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said. “We're wondering why, if the federal government is jumping out of isotopes so quickly, we're jumping in so quickly – and at what cost to provincial taxpayers.”

The proposal suggests the province would pay 25 per cent of the construction costs, with Ottawa picking up the rest.

The federal government would also foot 60 per cent of the annual operating costs – between $45-million and $70-million – with the province and isotope sales paying for the rest. All in all, it's a heavy burden for a federal government that has stated a desire to get out of the isotope business.

“The costs are always an issue with respect to these kinds of things,” provincial Energy Minister Bill Boyd said. “But this presents an opportunity for our province to be a leader in the nuclear area.”

Further submissions came from the MDS Nordion, the company that distributes Chalk River's isotopes; the National Research Council and the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which is urging Ottawa to place another reactor at the Chalk River site.

“As a stimulus package, it makes much more sense to put $1-billion into a reactor than $10-billion into GM,” Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, said.

Diversification has been the rallying cry of governments worldwide, in the wake of the Chalk River shutdown. Five reactors produce roughly 90 per cent of the world's medical isotopes. With the Chalk River facility down, prices have shot up 50 per cent since May, galvanizing numerous governments to begin producing their own domestic supplies.

A blue-ribbon coalition of nuclear medicine groups urged the U.S. government to invest in its own isotope facilities, rather than relying on Europe, South Africa and Canada.

Because of that trend, Saskatchewan's proposal anticipates less demand for isotopes by the time its reactor could come online in 2016 – one reason the CNS plan calls for a facility half the size of Chalk River.

Even at that scale, critics worry about the utility of an isotope reactor that won't be online for another seven years.

“We have no certainty that there will be demand for isotopes seven years from now,” Mr. Wotherspoon said. “When you're putting public dollars on the line like this, you need certainty that your big project won't end up as a big white elephant.”


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