Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) is scrapping development of its two new MAPLE medical-isotope reactors at its Chalk River, Ont., laboratories. Bloomberg wire service reports the decision "is based on a series of reviews that considered, among other things, the costs of further development, as well as the time frame and risks involved with continuing the project," AECL said in a press statement.
The MAPLE reactors, planned to be dedicated to medical isotope production, were intended to be capable of supplying the entire global demand for molybdenum-99, iodine-131, iodine-125 and xenon-133. That hasn't worked and AECL put a brave face on the outcome.
"We are making the right business decision given the circumstances," stated AECL's President and Chief Executive Officer Hugh MacDiarmid.
"This was a difficult choice given the tremendous efforts expended by our people on development of the MAPLE reactors. Nevertheless, our Board of Directors and senior management have concluded that it is no longer feasible to complete the commissioning and start-up of the reactors."
Some real problems drove the decision
Harper government officials apparently were pretty unhappy about the unraveling of the project overall. In fact, they were downright livid. Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn [left] said the federal government "accepts'' the Atomic Energy decision.
Lunn said in an analysis the project had been crippled with both technical and economic problems, which remained unresolved. Among the compounding factors are:
- Regulatory challenges and commercial disputes which so far have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in private and public funds;
- Technical malfunctions that could not be resolved; and
- Reviews conducted by the Auditor General which revealed significant concerns about the costs, the delays, and the technical issues.
"After 12 years, these reactors have never worked and never produced medical isotopes. The Board has concluded that there is no sound reason to continue the MAPLE project.''
Lunn - CANDU still can do
The Harper government also reminded the media that the Maple reactors were not CANDUs. Scrapping the reactors won't hurt AECL's reputation, Lunn said, because MAPLE was different from the CANDU reactors the company sells internationally. Lunn is behind a decision to provide AECL with $300 million this year to finish the design of the ACR 1000, AECL's new reactor designed for export to the global nuclear market.
According to the Bloomberg report, Lunn said "AECL's record on building power reactors has been very, very good. This was a small, dedicated reactor just to produce isotopes. We've never seen a reactor this small.''
Chalk River still operational for isotopes
AECL said the decision to stop the twin reactor isotope project "will not impact the current supply of medical isotopes." Lunn emphasized commercial agreements between MDS Nordion and AECL provide for isotope production to continue through AECL's reactor at Chalk River.
Problems at the Chalk River reactor hurled AECL into of an international controversy late last year that resulted from the shutdown of the facility's research reactor for safety reasons by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
The showdown over shutdown began Nov. 18th when the commission learned that an emergency pump system it ordered be installed at Chalk River still wasn't operational. Without consulting with Ottawa, the CNSC ordered the reactor shutdown which led to an international shortage of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The Canadian Parliament voted to overturn CNSC's order and the reactor was restarted a month later. The director of the CNSC was fired and the CEO of AECL was forced to resign as a result of the shutdown.
AECL currently has an operating site license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) that is valid until October 31, 2011. AECL said it will work closely with CNSC and MDS Nordion on the requirements for continued production beyond that date.
Mr. MacDiarmid added, "We recognize the important role that [Chalk River] plays in the supply and delivery of medical isotopes to patients in North America and around the world. AECL is committed to supplying medical isotopes from NRU in a safe and reliable manner."
Still, things have not quieted down in Ontario. The Canadian government in February said it hired National Bank Financial to review its options for AECL, including a sale of the utility.