Saskatchewan to pursue isotope-producing reactor

REGINA, SASKATCHEWAN - With a global shortage of medical isotopes looming, the Saskatchewan government stepped forward to say it will pursue the construction of an isotope-producing nuclear research reactor.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said work is continuing on a proposal that will be submitted by the end-of-the-month deadline to the federal government as it considers how Canada can secure a long-term supply of isotopes.

The province and the University of Saskatchewan have struck a partnership to pursue the nuclear research reactor.

A small reactor focused on nuclear material science and isotope production could cost somewhere in the range of $500 million, the premier said.

No official timeline was offered for the project.

“We could just be a world leader in this and, again, it has to make sense. There are some longer-term funding issues here.

We think there is a role for the federal government. We’re not rushing into anything, but there is an opportunity for our province to lead, and I think we should at least explore it aggressively,” Wall told reporters.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. announced its problem-plagued Chalk River, Ont., reactor — supplier of a third of the world’s medical isotopes before being shut down in May — will remain closed at least until the end of the year, causing a significant worldwide shortage of the isotopes used for cancer treatment and diagnosis.

Wall has been criticized for his pursuit of a nuclear research reactor before public consultations are completed on the findings of a provincial government-appointed panel, the Uranium Development Partnership.

He said again the government is working against tight federal timelines, but will listen closely if it is found there is strong public opposition to a research reactor.

The Uranium Development Partnership report said a medical isotope reactor by itself did not make economic sense for Saskatchewan but recommended the province pursue a broader research reactor that could produce medical isotopes, the tack the province is taking.

Richard Florizone, a vice-president at the University of Saskatchewan, said the university is developing the concept of an interdisciplinary centre of nuclear excellence and sees a research reactor as a potentially good fit.

There is also a strong potential research tie-in with the Canadian Light Source synchrotron located on campus, he said, noting facilities such as the one in Grenoble, France, have research reactors and synchrotrons located together.

Safety and environmental questions would need to be dealt with, said Florizone. He said reactor would not necessarily be located on campus but would be sited somewhere in the Saskatoon area.

“We’ve had faculty that are interested in this. We have an issue of national importance, We see a reason why the U of S and the province could assist in this national issue. We see how it could help the country. We see how it could build on the university’s research strength,” he said.

There are also possible industrial research applications for a reactor and the university is investigating potential revenue sources.

Wall acknowledged the research reactor could be a money-loser for the province for some time but said he believes there would be a long-run economic benefit for the province.

“Governments should be involved in pure research. I think that’s one of the ways we can diversify our economy away from relying on commodities,” he said.

Saskatoon is already home to a small 20-kilowatt research reactor located at the Saskatchewan Research Council facility at Innovation Place that tests water, soil, vegetation and animal tissue.

The province is embroiled in debate over Saskatchewan’s nuclear future, with the Uranium Development Partnership recommending the development of an electricity-generating nuclear reactor and Ontario-based Bruce Power contemplating a two-reactor power plant.


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