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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To The Ottawa Citizen regarding the medical radioisotope shortage caused by the Nov-Dec 2007 shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River Laboratories:

(published in the 2007 Dec 21 edition)

Reactor outage was issue of compliance, not safety

To the Editor,

Now that the fog of panic has lifted on the NRU reactor at Chalk River Laboratories, and before the facility slips back into its 50-year invisible role of saving lives, let's briefly take stock of what we know.

Most Canadians now appreciate how absolutely vital the Canadian nuclear program is to the health of thousands of people daily around the world. That few other countries make medical radioisotopes is not the fault of Canada, but an important responsibility nonetheless.

Hopefully, Canadians know that we basically invented nuclear medicine and radiation cancer therapy, starting in the late 1940s, when brilliant physicists, engineers, and doctors devised ways to turn the unprecedented power of the atom into a tool for health and prosperity.

Canadians should realize that the NRU reactor was not, and is not, operating without backup power supplies for its cooling systems. Numerous backup diesel generators and DC battery banks exist for such purpose, and the hoopla of recent weeks concerned an additional backup power system that is qualified to withstand major hazards like a 1,000-year earthquake.

Notwithstanding the undeniable value of this extra backup system, the NRU operated safely for 50 years without such a system, as confirmed repeatedly by the federal regulator with each licence renewal and safety audit. With several upgrades installed prior to its 2006 operating licence, the NRU reactor is more safe now than it ever was.

It was unfortunate, but necessary, that Parliament had to step in to free the logjam. It took this unprecedented action after full review of the safety case in consultation with independent expert witnesses. The safety case allows operation for 120 days, during which one of the hazards-qualified power systems is now fully connected (one being sufficient to cool the reactor in an emergency), and the second system, a backup to this backup, will be installed.

The issue at the heart of the NRU reactor's recent outage was compliance, not safety. Important sub-issues were effective oversight, communication, and the regulatory weighting of operational safety risk within the overall health and safety risk to Canadians. As underscored by the actions of Parliament, the latter clearly includes access to life-saving medical radioisotopes.


Jeremy Whitlock

Deep River
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
Past President,
Canadian Nuclear Society

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