Time to shake the MAPLE tree

- The first meeting of the federal government’s Expert Review Panel on the Supply of Medical Isotopes in the Medium and Long Term took place July 16. It was appointed by Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt last month in the wake of the latest shutdown of the aging Chalk River isotope-production facility operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) and a growing political storm over the cancellation, at a cost of at least $600-million, of two new isotope-producing reactors.

“It’s another Avro Arrow,” say critics.

The official mandate of the panel, headed by Peter Goodhand, president and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, looks to be narrowly aimed at making sure Canada secures, in the words of Ms. Raitt, “a sufficient and reliable isotopes supply for Canada in the medium to long term.”

What the panel does not have is a mandate to determine whether Canada should become a global supplier of isotopes and a big player in the international isotope business.

Keeping Canada supplied with isotopes is a far cry from Canada supplying the world with isotopes, which has long been the industrial dream of Canadian nuclear buffs.

The panel’s narrow mandate is unfortunate, because the current Canadian isotope business, operated by AECL, is a Grand Canyon of unanswered questions, wildly divergent views and staggering contradictions. Most of the questions and contradictions involve AECL’s sudden decision last year, backed by the Harper government, to immediately terminate all work on two new isotope-producing nuclear reactors, known as the MAPLE project, after 15 years of effort and at least $600-million in public and private investment.

It is hard to imagine, however, that the panel will be able to avoid digging beyond its mandate as it hears more about the MAPLE reactors and the conflicting claims about their readiness, safety and capacity to produce isotopes for the Canadian and international markets. If the MAPLE reactors can produce isotopes for the Canadian market according to the panel’s mandate, why would the panel not be able to recommend in favour of finishing the MAPLE reactors?

The leading claimant in support of the MAPLE reactors is MDS-Nordion, a company that has invested $350-million of its own money in the MAPLE project as AECL’s commercial partner. [MDS-Nordion’s case – also drawn from the Financial Post – is described in our news section by Jill Chitra, the company’s vice-president of strategic technologies.] MDS initially sued AECL for $1.6-billion, a legal battle that is now in arbitration.

MDS-Nordion’s arguments, while perhaps too laden with nationalist economic claims, otherwise seem reasonable enough. The reactors were on the brink of completion, some isotopes had been produced and leading authorities appear to support the company. Last January, a U.S. National Academy of Science Committee suggested that the MAPLE reactors could be completed at minimal cost. “The committee assumes that the worst-case scenario for fixing the Maple reactors involves the replacement of the reactor cores. The cost of such replacements would likely be small (tens of millions of dollars) in comparison to the cost of building a new reactor….”

Harold Smith, a former AECL official who led the development of the MAPLE reactors, says the reactors are safe and ready to go with minimal new work. “The MAPLE reactor operated like a dream and was/is fully capable of meeting all objectives.” Other experts, with varying degrees of inside knowledge, also say the MAPLE could be the answer to Canada’s national isotope needs and a new industrial champion.

Across the Grand Canyon sits AECL with a totally different story. Hugh MacDiarmid, CEO of AECL, testifying before a Commons committee, said that the MAPLE reactor “had technical problems that had defied solution up to that point. When we looked at the possibilities, all of them were highly risky, expensive and lengthy.... We could not develop the requisite confidence level.”

One problem was that the reactors behaved in a way that was contrary to expectations, and there were no explanations for the new behavior, said Mr. MacDiarmid. Safety regulators would balk. AECL disagreed with Mr. Smith and others who believed these expectational issues could be resolved at minimal cost.

At a Senate committee hearing, AECL Chief Financial Officer Michael Robins said the cost of fixing the MAPLE reactors is much higher than MDS suggests:

Senator Catherine Callbeck: “You mentioned MAPLE reactors. They are for the production of isotopes, but they have been cancelled; is that right?”

Mr. Robins: “Correct...”

Senator Callbeck: “Why were they cancelled?”

Mr. Robins: “That decision was a difficult one based on a lot of different factors, economic and technical, which all led towards shutting down that project as the best decision for the taxpayers of Canada.”

Senator Callbeck: “The decision was a financial one?”

Mr. Robins: “Yes.”

Senator Callbeck: “What was the cost to be?”

Mr. Robins: “All in, the cost was in excess of $1 billion.”

Senator Callbeck: “How much?”

Mr. Robins: “I do not recall off the top of my head how much it would have been, but it would have been a significant dollar value.”

Senator Callbeck: “Did you say $1-billion?”

Mr. Robins: “Yes.”

Senator Callbeck: “It was that high?”

Mr. Robins: “If not more.”

The dollar gap in claims on the completion costs of the MAPLE reactors is thus now between “tens of millions” and additional costs of as much as $400-million above the $600-million already spent. If the completion cost is that high, then there are certainly questions to be asked about AECL’s operations.

But if the cost is only in the tens of millions, as MDS seems to believe, there would be little reason to kill the project. Also, if the cost of completing the MAPLE project is so cheap, maybe MDS could offer to buy out the project for $1 and finish it on their own.

There is, clearly, more to the Canadian MAPLE isotope story than Canadians have heard so far. Unfortunately, the four members of the panel, nuclear scientists and medical specialists, appear to be ill-equipped to delve into the complex corporate, financial and technical issues involved in making grand determinations of the economic and commercial feasibility of a Canada isotope industry based on the MAPLE reactors.

But somebody has to do it. Why not this panel?


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