Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Minister Clement

I asked Minister Clement the following question on March 12, 2009

Mr. Minister, this question may not be your responsibility, if not, then please advise and I will forward the question to the responsible minister. My concern is why the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario produces half the world’s supply of isotopes used for medical purposes. There have been issues surrounding the Chalk River reactor and when something goes wrong with the Chalk River reactor the blame ultimately falls on the Government of Canada. There are other suppliers of isotopes and a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal identifies this issue. Why must the world depend on Chalk River so heavily? Is it not possible to have Chalk River work with other suppliers of isotopes when they may have to shut down for maintenance or for some other reason?

I respectfully submit these questions without prejudice.

On June 6, 2009 I received the following reply:

Dear Mr. Birkbeck:
On behalf of the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, thank you for your e-mail regarding the Chalk River nuclear reactor. I regret the delay in replying to you.
As the matter you have raised falls under the mandate of the Honourable Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources, I have taken the liberty of forwarding a copy of your correspondence to her office for consideration.
Please accept my best wishes.
Yours sincerely,
Louise Geyer
Director Executive Correspondence and Records

Then on July 24, 2009 I received the following and final response to my March 12, 2009 question:

Dear Mr. Birkbeck:
The Office of the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, has forwarded to the Honourable Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources, a copy of your correspondence of March 12, 2009, regarding the recent shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) Chalk River Laboratories, and the resulting disruption in the medical isotope supply. I am responding on Minister Raitt’s behalf.

I would first like to highlight the differences between the situation of December 2007, when Parliament passed emergency legislation to enable the NRU to be restarted, compared to the current situation. In December 2007, the decision to keep the reactor in a shutdown state was based on reasons not as significant as the recent decision to do so. The current situation is due to a significant technical problem, which must be addressed before the reactor can be started up again. This situation was communicated to the medical community within hours of the Government of Canada being advised of the extended required outage. Also, in 2007, due to the highly-regulated industry and complex supply chain, we were not equipped to take steps to secure alternative supplies. Today, there is a framework for international cooperation in place that allowed the global community to immediately address the serious shortage.

The health and safety of Canadians is a top priority for the Government. On June 2, 2009, Minister Raitt appeared before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources (the Committee). Her statements before the Committee underlined the importance the Government places on the security of long-term supply of medical isotopes for Canadians. We continue to work with the medical community, and Canada’s global partners, to move forward with the five-point plan to protect the health and safety of Canadians over both the short and long term:
– Minister Raitt continues to press AECL to bring the NRU reactor safely back into operation as soon as possible. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has confirmed that the heavy-water leak at the reactor poses no threat to either health or safety.
– Natural Resources Canada is working with Health Canada to mitigate the effect of supply disruptions in the short and medium term through increased information sharing with regard to isotope supply, and through work with provincial and territorial governments, and healthcare professionals, with respect to the management of isotope demand.
– Canada is actively engaging international partners to foster global solutions. At Canada’s request, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, brought together members of the international supply chain at a workshop in January 2009. The workshop resulted in widespread recognition that the security of supply of medical isotopes is an international issue that must be addressed cooperatively by all isotope producing and consuming countries. A number of measures to enhance short-term supply security have been identified through work with the NEA, including better coordination of reactor production schedules, improved information sharing between suppliers and the medical community, and more efficient distribution and use of medical isotopes and alternatives. A high-level group has now been established under the auspices of the NEA to carry forward recommendations of the January 2009 workshop.

Thank you for writing on this important matter.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Wallace Director General Electricity Resources Branch Energy Sector Natural Resources Canada