Sunday, December 16, 2007

Isotope maker restarts after controversy

CEO resigns following a global medical meltdown

Hat tip to Ruth Sponsler at We Support Lee

[Updates 12/19/07, 01/08/08 below]

Users of nuclear isotopes worldwide can breathe easier this week following action by the Canadian parliament to re-start AECL's 50-year old Chalk River, Ontario, reactor. It is the source of more than half of the medical isotopes used in North America.

The plant had been shut down by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The regulatory agency objected to continued operations after new backup emergency pumps and electrical systems were found to be incomplete more than a year after the work was ordered to be done.

The isotope crisis began on Nov 18 when a scheduled shutdown of the AECL owned-and- operated reactor was continued past the original restart date of Nov 23. Difficulties arose Dec 6 when CNSC found that the two safety upgrades claimed by AECL to be done were in fact still incomplete. The first upgrade is two new backup cooling pump motors needed to ensure the continued forced circulation of cooling water if the normal pumps failed for any reason. The second upgrade is a back-up diesel generators to start the back-up pumps.

Once the reactor was shut down Dec 6, it cut off global supplies of widely used medical isotopes including molybdenum-99 and technetium-99 which then put lives at risk. A medical meltdown of international scope and impact took place. The reactor provides medical isotopes for 25 million diagnostic and treatment procedures annually, which is estimated to be more than one-half of the global supply of these isotopes.

The Ontario Medical Association released a statement that the delay would cause medical complications for 50,000 Canadians and 160,000 Americans. Japan reportedly gets 20% of its medical isotopes from the reactor.

Dr. Alexander McEwanm, President of the Society for Nuclear Medicine, said in a statement the Chalk River delays raise the question of why the U.S. doesn't have its own reactor to produce medical isotopes. He told Reuters the U.S. is too dependent on foreign sources.

MDS Nordian, the closely held Ottawa-based supplier of radioactive isotopes, told Bloomberg Dec 5 delayed sales would cost it more than US$9 million.

AECL appealed to the CNSC for permission to restart early without completing the mandated upgrades, which it said would take an additional 16 weeks. Work was done on only one pump and the upgrade to the emergency electrical system was still incomplete.

CNSC said the failure to finish these safety improvements put the reactor in violation of its operating license. It disagreed with AECL’s claim that enough work was complete to authorize re-start of the reactor and resume production of isotopes. The regulatory agency refusal to grant permission for early restart transformed the issue from one of technical compliance into a major political headache for Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper.

At this point the Canadian parliament took action at Harper's request overruling the CNSC and ordering the early restart of the reactor while needed upgrades were being installed. Harper, quoted in the Canadian press, said, "It is in the public interest to get this reactor back online and get these medical isotopes produced. There is no threat to nuclear safety. There is threat to human life."

Harter told parliament the government had independent advice there was no threat to public safety from the reactor. CNSC's oversight of the reactor will be suspended for 120 days.

Harper made it clear in his comments he'd lost confidence in Linda Keen, head of the CNSC, but she retained her position. Not so for AECL's chairman Michael C. Burns, who resigned on Dec 15. He'd been appointed by Harper in 2006. Political observers said the resignation occurred because Harper believed he'd been "blindsided" by incompetent management of the affair by AECL. Burns will be replaced by Glenda Carr, an Ontario electric utility executive. The province has been considering buying two new reactors from AECL and this appointment may favor the deal.

On Dec 13 AECL said it had begun work to restart the reactor and promised full operations making needed isotopes by Dec 16th. Deliveries are planned to reach customers two-to-three days later.

Update 12/19/07

In a wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Globe & Mail, Michael Burns, the former head of AECL who resigned during the isotope crisis, said the "dysfunctional relationship" between AECL and the nuclear regulator was "an accident waiting to happen." Despite his poor choice of words, hardly the right syntax to reassure a rattle public, he insisted that at no time was there a risk to public safety requiring the reactor to shut down for a prolonged period.

He also criticized Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Regulatory Commission for being "too rigid for the good of the whole system. A regulator plays an important part in the system but there is some give and take. And rigid positions on either side usually cause trouble."

Burns said that the AECL and the regulator were "at each other's throats" over safety issues for months. Theirs was "a dysfunctional relationship that had to be fixed," he said.

"I gave the government a plan and I predicted that it could possibly cause fatal damage to AECL if it wasn't fixed. I don't like to say I told you so, but it was an accident waiting to happen. The two teams just came to an impasse, a compromise wasn't reached and a major problem arose. There was no safety issue here. This was a battle of wills."

Well there you have it. Hundreds of thousands of medical patients made uncomfortable, tens of millions of dollars in costs, and losses, and what it comes down to is a battle of egos heedless to any sense of accountability to the public. Ms. Keen is faulted for failing to consult outside her narrow regulatory world view when facing a global medical emergency. Mr. Burns gets low marks for management and an apparent inability to see this freight train coming down the track in broad daylight.

Update 01/08/08

Canada government will fire nuclear watchdog

Reuters reports the Canadian government plans to fire the country's top nuclear regulatory official after she insisted on shutting down a crucial reactor that makes radioisotopes for cancer tests and treatment. The reactor makes more than two-thirds of the global supply of medical isotopes

In November Parliament ordered the Chalk River reactor be restarted for 120 days. The law overruled the decision of Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. She said the closure was needed because work was still incomplete on needed backup cooling pumps and their emergency electrical systems.

A commission spokesman confirmed a news report which said Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, the top Canadian government official in charge of nuclear energy, had written to Keen in December. Accordng to the report, Lunn told Keen in the letter he planned to fire her. It inluded this quote reportedly from the letter.

"These events cast doubt on whether you possess the fundamental good judgment required by the incumbent of the office of president. These doubts have led me to question whether you should continue to serve as president of the commission.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who strongly criticized Keen for her conduct, said after the reactor was started up that he would address the root causes of the problems. AECL head Michael Burns subsequently quit his post after being criticized by Harper for "poor management" in handling the isotope crisis. It now appears that Keen's head is the next to roll. It may be the last since Keen and Burns were reportedly completely at loggerheads over the issues involved in the crisis. For her part Keen failed to consult with Lunn before shutting the reactor down precipitating a world wide crisis due to the immediately shortage of short-lived radioisotopes produced by the reactor.

1 comment:

JimBobby said...

This has been billed in the Canadian press as a battle between "incompetence" and "intransigence." The Prime Minister rose in Parliament to take the side of the incompetents and to discredit the intransigent.

A written plan for the procurement of alternate supplies was created in 1996. The plan was used in 1997-8 during a labour dispute that shut down Chalk River. In this instance, European suppliers were aware of the shortage and were ready to step up production (as they had done before) to supply the isotopes.

MDS Nordion failed to procure the isotopes, thereby putting 1000's at risk. The crisis was real but it was engineered and avoidable. Part of the head games and marketplace manipulation underlying the sale of AECL.

JB