OTTAWA The nuclear watchdog fired by the Tories last year over a previous shutdown of the aging reactor at Chalk River says it is inevitable that a unit so old will run into problems.
"It's like watching a train wreck that's going to happen sooner rather than later," Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday. "... An oligopoly [the Atomic Energy Corporation of Canada Ltd.], an old reactor, not many other reactors around the world, no plan for a new one, no plan for a new one anywhere else."
Chalk River's NRU reactor, which produces 40 per cent of the world's medical isotopes, is out of commission for at least a month while technicians try to fix a leak. The supply of the material is expected to run out at the end of the week, and procedures such as cancer diagnoses and heart-stress tests will have to be postponed or cancelled.
Ms. Keen - who was fired after Prime Minister Stephen Harper branded her a Liberal partisan because the previous government hired her - was at loggerheads with the federal cabinet just 18 months ago over the reactor's safety.
Ms. Keen refused to allow it to operate without mandated upgrades. Mr. Harper and his ministers wanted the reactor back in service to keep the isotopes flowing.
Parliament ordered the reactor restarted in December, 2007, and Ms. Keen was removed from her job a month later. But Chalk River has had other problems since, including a leak last December.
Last week, a leak of heavy water was detected at the 50-year-old unit. An AECL official said the spill is being contained - although some of the water is evaporating into the atmosphere.
"They don't seem to know where the leaks are, and are they related to December," said Ms. Keen, who is also concerned at the news of the evaporation.
A project to build two isotope-producing reactors called the Maples to replace the aging NRU was cancelled a year ago when AECL could not solve a design flaw in the cores of the proposed reactors that would make them more prone to a meltdown. At that time, the infrastructure to house the cores had already been built. Ms. Keen said she was told the Maples had problems in 2001, when she arrived at the CNSC.
"One of my staff who has since retired said, 'You know, we are going to be bringing out the cement machines to fill that in,' " she said.
"The fact that it took seven years to decide [to scrap it] and many millions of dollars is because the AECL engineers tried their hardest to make it work. But the CNSC had really great physicists - and still has, I believe - and the CNSC said, 'No, it is an inherently flawed design.' "
Lisa Raitt, the federal natural resources minister, said yesterday that the project had irresolvable technical impediments.
"We haven't ruled out the possibility of additional research reactors or alternative isotope-producing facilities being constructed in Canada," Ms. Raitt said through her spokeswoman.
But nuclear-medicine specialists are questioning why AECL and the government walked away from the project without a contingency plan.
Robert Atcher, the New Mexico-based president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, said doctors are asking "Well, they've built the infrastructure, why don't they consider using some other reactor design?"
A committee struck by the U.S. National Research Council to examine ways of producing medical isotopes without highly enriched uranium - which the Americans fear could be used to build bombs - suggested in a recent report using a different kind of core for the Maples.
Thomas Ruth, a senior research scientist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency and TRIUMF - Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics - was also a member of that committee. He said the decision to walk away from the Maples was probably tied to political and business issues.
"To the non-expert, it looks like a solution," Dr. Ruth said yesterday of the committee's recommendation to use different cores.
"They have the processing facility, they have the control room, the infrastructure is all there. What is involved with changing out the core? ... But government is supporting [AECL] in that decision. It's not like government is saying, 'Hey, guys, get in there, fix it, find a solution.' They're not doing that."