Premier wants isotope reactor in Saskatchewan

SASKATCHEWAN - Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is moving to build a nuclear reactor and transform his province into a producer of medical isotopes – and a player in atomic research – to step into the gap left by the failure of the Chalk River reactor.

Mr. Wall ran on a platform that included a pledge to build up a full-fledged nuclear industry in Saskatchewan, which already produces nearly a quarter of the world's uranium, but does little beyond extract the ore.

The shutdown of Atomic Energy of Canada's Chalk River reactor creates an intersection of Canada's need and Saskatchewan's nuclear ambitions. Mr. Wall said he discussed the medical-isotopes issue at the Western Premiers Conference, and that his fellow premiers agreed that the West could take action – with Saskatchewan taking the lead.

“Maybe the West can provide a solution,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Wall said he wants to launch a full-speed effort to build a research reactor within two to three years, likely at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Such a project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said. Saskatchewan would pick up part of that tab, Mr. Wall said, but he also hopes the reactor can be built through a partnership of the federal government, the province and the private sector.

He said he has discussed the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but that the federal government has not yet made any commitments. Mr. Wall said he expects that any funding from Ottawa would be contingent on Saskatchewan being willing to spend money. Private-sector financing would be relatively straightforward, he said, noting that there is a commercial market for medical isotopes.

Mr. Wall is also hoping for expedited federal regulatory approval, so that construction could commence quickly and the reactor could be up and running in three years. That would not help with the immediate shortfall in isotopes, he conceded, but it would mean Canada could still be a participant in the medical-isotopes market in the longer term.

The reactor would be on a smaller scale than Ontario's Chalk River facility, in line with a push to diversify the production of medical isotopes and so minimize the impact of the failure of any one reactor.

Small-scale reactor technology could be useful elsewhere in Western Canada for distributing power to remote areas, Mr. Wall said. There have been sporadic discussions in Alberta about how to harness nuclear power to create the energy and steam needed for oil-sands projects.

Mr. Wall is looking to act quickly on a research reactor: A final decision will come as soon as August, after consultation with the public. He stressed that public reaction will be key to how he proceeds. But he said he believes there is more support for nuclear power in Saskatchewan than in other jurisdictions, in part because uranium mining has created some familiarity with the nuclear industry.

Ultimately, Mr. Wall said, a research reactor producing medical isotopes would help transform the province's nuclear sector from mining into a knowledge industry. And production of medical isotopes in Saskatchewan would be in a sense a return to the past, he said – the province was the first to use cobalt-60 in medicine, with the 1949 treatment of a female patient suffering from cervical cancer.

“We have the history, and the uranium,” he said, “so it makes a lot of sense.”


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