Chalk River, Isotopes & AECL

Chalk River is the example for why the nuclear powers that be are not to be trusted, ever. In trying to understand this issue, I called upon professionals who work in the field and have studied the issue. Excerpts from their email messages are below. Some of the language is scientific and medical, so it’s a bit to digest, but it’s worth it to know. All I can say is, this is a nice try by the nuke industry and the Harperites.

It is important to realize that isotopes were being used for diagnosis and therapy long before the discovery of nuclear fission, and that even after the discovery of fission cyclotrons and other types of particle accelerators were widely used to produce isotopes for medical and scientific research purposes.

See for example

But AECL has deliberately worked over the years to create a market for specialized isotopes that are produced in nuclear reactors, chiefly cobalt-60 and molybdenum-99. Cobalt-60 is a “hard” gamma emitter and is used outside the body to irradiate tumours and to sterilize medical instruments, for example. It has a half-life of 5.3 years and so loses about 13% of its inventory in one year through radioactive decay.

Molybdenum-99 has a half-life of 66 hours, and it decays into a metastable (short half-life) isotope called technetium-99m (the “m” has to be included) which has a half-life of only 6 hours. The technetium-99m is used internally for many many diagnostic purposes. Tc-99m can easily be attached to various molecules which can then be injected into patients. The gamma rays given off by Tc-99m are a lot “softer” than those from cobalt-60 so they give a good “picture” without giving too high a dose to the patient. Because of its 6-hour half-life, Tc-99m does not pose a long-term radioactive waste problem. The Mo-99 is used as a “cow” which can be “milked” to give Tc-99m over a period of many days. Just a few micrograms of Mo-99 is enough to produce enough Tc-99m to be used to diagnose
10,000 patients. However, the supply of Mo-99 has to be uninterrupted or they will run out of Tc-99m in a short time.

The downside to this is that Mo-99 (called “moly” for short) is only produced, now, in a very high-intensity neutron field, which means a nuclear reactor that uses weapons-grade uranium (over 95% enriched!!). AECL’s Maple-1 and Maple-2 reactors were designed specifically to produce Mo-99 using weapons-grade uranium as fuel. NGO’s in the US went to court to stop the shipment of HEU (highly enriched uranium) to Chalk River because there is a US law which is supposed to halt all shipments of weapons-grade materials to other countries. AECL has been told by US authorities that they must develop technologies to produce Mo-99 that do not use HEU; but MDS-Nordion (a private company that markets the Mo-99 that is produced by AECL) shows little sign of taking this seriously. See:

“Mr. Malkoske said Nordion never agreed to convert to low-enriched uranium at any cost.

“‘It is not written in stone,’ he says. ‘Technically, it seems feasible to me, but what’s it going to cost to do this? Everytime you add costs you pass that on to the health-care community, you increase the cost of nuclear medicine.

“‘What we said we would do . . . is do a technical and economic feasibility (study) and if it was economically feasible then we would convert. We didn’t say we were going to convert at any cost. That could kill our business.'”

Another problem: in the past, HEU irradiated fuel has been returned to the USA (Savannah River) from Chalk River where it has been recycled into the bomb program (which uses HEU as “driver rods” in plutonium-production reactors to produce the plutonium needed for warheads). So in this sense, Mo-99 is like a piece of candy that is produced as a byproduct of the nuclear weapons business. Without nuclear weapons it would be too expensive to produce the HEU in the first place, and without the cash credit obtained by returning the HEU to the USA the costs become prohibitive also. I am not sure whether this practice of returning the irradiated HEU is still going on.

Yet another problem is that the Maple reactors cannot be operated safely and so they are at least 6 years behind schedule. The reactors do not operate as the AECL designers said they should, and the difference is a matter of safety — instead of being “self-braking” when the power of the reactor is increased, the Maple reactors accelerate in power when any attempt is made to just increase the power a little bit. This makes the reactors too unsafe to operate.

The NRU (National Research Universal) reactor started up in 1957. It was about 10 times more powerful than the earlier NRX (National Research eXperimental) reactor that started up in 1946. The Gov’t of Canada was reluctant to spend the money to build the NRY reactor, but AECL argued that they could help defray the cost be selling plutonium produced in the reactor to the USA. And that’s what they did — sold plutonium that was of course used in the American bomb program. But the main purpose of the NRU was to produce isotopes of various kinds by using ingenious “loops” that would allow you to insert non-radioactive materials into the loops without shutting down the reactor or opening up the core of the reactor so as to irradiate those materials and make them radio-active. The NRU was also used to test various fuels and components of CANDU reactors. But it is 50 years old now and should have been retired years ago. Since the Maple reactors are not running, NRU has had to be the workhorse, delivering the Mo-99 to the market.

Which raises another question: who makes the profits from this?

In 1988, the Gov’t of Canada privatized the only really proftable part of AECL’s operations, which was the radio-isotope production. AECL sold Nordion International Inc. (formerly the AECL division known as the Radiochemical Company) to the Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDIC) for eventual privatization. In 1991, CDIC sold Nordion to MDS Health Group Ltd. for $165 million, and it was reported that AECL received $150.5 million from CDIC, and that this “together with interest earned thereon between the dates of receipt and disbursement, has been distributed to the shareholder (i.e. gov’t of Canada) by way of dividends”.

So AECL is responsible for designing and building and operating the reactors to produce the isotopes that MDS-Nordion sells for a profit. This also means that the radwaste and the decommissioning of the reactors is a public responsibility through AECL whereas the profits are a private matter for MDS-Nordion.

As of now, it would be difficult to replace the Mo-99/Tc-99m isotope business with something else, but I believe that if nuclear weapons were phased out the entire isotope business as currently practiced would be unaffordable. In that case I have little doubt that some other more cost-effective isotope production scheme would be found to replace the Mo-99/Tc-99m that the medical people are currently addicted to. I’m not saying this would be easy nor that the replacement is obvious, but I do believe that necessity if the mother of invention.

Dr. Gordon Edwards
President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility


So, if we then follow the money, the collusion of the industry and the Getting Old Government of Canada doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched, does it?

Does someone else smell a rat? Or at the least supreme stupidity?

While many of us may believe radionuclides in general have been, for all their value, a questionable dead-end for sustainable health care, how can we believe that the only source for Canadian medical radionuclides is a fifty year old nuclear reactor currently operating outside Atomic Energy Control Board safety standards?

Apparently two newer nuclear power plants have been or are in the process of being built over the past ten years but are hampered by cost overruns and safety concerns.

This is an emergency now? Just as the nuclear industry is endeavoring to sell itself as essential to international “green energy”? And is under greater and greater attack from critics to prove itself? (After all, it takes more than twenty years and billions of dollars to begin to produce non-polluting energy – provided we deal with the wastes.) How better to enrage and engage civil society that to get people at the health care end? Especially when we talk about “life-saving” measures?

Chalk River has been a safety concern for years with arguably the most radioactively contaminated site in the world (exceptions may be several sites in Russia).

This is entirely too much like the “anthrax” scare that hit the US Congress after 9/11 albeit on a different scale. Call me paranoid but we are extremely suspicious.

Dale Dewar, BSc, MD, CFPC, FCFP


And, finally, this bit:

Subject: I warned Linda Keen. . .


In a document now entitled “Alarm over inexperienced Bruce operator”, a letter from me to CNSC president Linda Keen dated November 19/2002 and found at

We suggest that CNSC should recognize that no nuclear reactors can be considered acceptably safe, or adequately regulated, if they cannot be taken out of service without thereby creating catastrophic or unacceptable consequences. We believe that recognition of this “obvious truth” would naturally lead CNSC to require minimum reserve levels (planned and actual) and maximum grid shares of nuclear power, or at least maximum grid shares of power provided by essentially identical nuclear reactors. We realize that these activities, like ascertaining the financial solvency of a licensee, would bring CNSC to examine matters that have traditionally not been considered part of a nuclear regulator’s job. But we believe that it is unacceptable not to do so.

At the time, I didn’t even think of the similarly unacceptable situation at NRU, but the principle obviously applies, and it has now come around to bite Ms. Keen and her agency on the behind.

Norman Rubin
Senior Consultant, Borealis Energy Research Association
Director of Nuclear Research and Senior Policy Analyst, Energy Probe

So, ya, like I said earlier, nice try, Steve. 😉

UPDATE: Check out this and this for additional information.

UPDATE 2:  AECL top dog resigns.  (Thanks to The Jurist for the lead.)

4 thoughts on “Chalk River, Isotopes & AECL

  1. Whooee! Great research, P’n’P. I’ve been following the comment threads on the G&M. What’s coming out i sthat there was a labour dispute in the not-too-distant past that shut down Chalk River. There was no shortage of isotopes. Supplies were obtained from alternate sources in South Africa and Australia. MDS Nordion had to bite the bullet and pay more for those imported isotopes. MDS Nordion lost profits but no shortage occured.

    There was never a crisis. This was a fully manufactured “crisis” ained at discrediting a pesky regulatory agency and ensuring maximum profits for the private sector distributor of AECL product.

    THe big lie that started the ball rolling in teh HoC was that that is a crisis and lives are at stake. If lives are at stake, it is simply due to AECL and MDS Nordion failing to do what they obviously knew how to do — use an alternate source. They did it before. They could have done it again. Instead, they manufactured a crisis and cried “Wolf!” loud enough to scare the commonsense out of all four parties.


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  4. A few more points:

    Tc99m gives off the medically useful (?) gamma rays as it decays into Tc99, no “m”, which then emits beta particles for a half life of about 200,000 years. The experts say beta particles are no big deal if emitted several feet away from you. But they are very harmful if ingested, injected or inhaled.

    Proponents of Tc99m diagnostics mention the 6 hr half-life as if the stuff goes poof and is gone forever. No, it’s beta particles forever, pissed into rivers etc if the person tested has perfect kidneys…

    From the Sellafield reactor etc, Tc99 is the bane of the North Sea, lobsters, seaweed, fish and shellfish as far away as Norway. There was a huge fuss about this and then nothing. Greenpeace and another enviro org.

    Gamma cameras in Canada are popping up like mushrooms.
    Jan 2006 72 Nova Scotia 0
    Jan 2007 139 Nova Scotia 15, for example
    Dec 2008 245? (according to Tony Clement Feb 12, said his staff “communicated with 773 health care facilities across Canada, including 245 nuclear medicine facilities” some of which may actually now have more than one gamma camera, yikes, lotsa lotsa molycows, lotsa piss in the rivers)
    A handful of the nuclear med facilities may be adjacent to cyclotrons, but only a few.

    Spotlight on LEU as fuel, worth knowing that the targets for bombarding are HEU.

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