Canadian isotopes fiasco foreshadows troubles for nuclear industry everywhere

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Thursday that Canada is getting out of the medical isotope business. The implications of the decision, which appears to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid further political embarrassment, go beyond the confines of the country's health-care system. It also hints at some tough times ahead for those responsible for overseeing the world's nuclear industries.

First, Canada until recently produced close to 40% of the world's supply molybdenum-99, a radioactive isotope that decays quickly to technetium-99, which is widely used to help diagnose cancers. A heavy-water leak at the sole reactor involved in producing the isotope forced a shutdown a few months back, and there is serious doubt that technicians can get the thing back online in the three months the government says it will take. Even if the reactor can be repaired, Harper says he wants to shut down the entire program by 2016. So the world's medical labs will have to find alternative sources.

That's bad enough, seeing as Harper had no concern about the future of the medical isotope program until his minister of natural resources was caught describing the shut-down and resulting global shortage as a "sexy" story that could be used to political advantage. Rather than try to manage the problem for the next few months, he appears to have chosen to try to sweep it all under the rug.

But this won't be the last time a politician has to weigh the heavy political and economic costs of managing a nuclear program against the energy and environmental consequences of shutting it down.

The Canadian radioisotope-generating reactor at issue differs in many ways from power reactors. It uses heavy water, instead of regular water, as moderator and coolant. It's also a lot smaller and less powerful than anything used to produce electricity. And it's 50-some years old.

That explains the leak. But in the coming years, a lot of reactors around the world are going to be coming up on the end of their lifespan. Owners and regulators will have to decide whether to extend the permitted lifespan or approve decommissioning. Extending the life of a reactor will increase the risk of problems, and therefor maintenance and repair costs. But shutting down a reactor that supplies several hundred megawatts of electricity at a time when demand for clean, non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources of electricity is rising fast will not be a particularly attractive option.

As anyone who engages the public on energy and climate issues can attest, it's impossible to ignore the nuclear issue. It's relatively easy to make a case against the construction of new reactors on economic grounds. These days it costs at least $7 billion to build a 1-GW reactor, and possibly much more. Plus, they tend to take 10 or 15 years to site, commission, build and get online. There's a reason why there's hasn't been a new nuclear reactor ordered in the U.S. for more than 30 years. Utilities need regulatory and market certainty to build big, expensive power plants, and simply doesn't exist right now. Not while we're debating climate bills and not when renewable alternatives like solar and wind are growing at double-digit rates each year.

But there's no denying the attraction of nuclear power on environmental grounds. If one can overlook the costs of mining and the challenge of what to do with the waste, it makes an awful lot of sense to take advantage of a technology with a much lower (though not zero) carbon footprint. Compared to coal and oil, nuclear winds hands down. There's simply nothing to be gained from shutting down a reactor unless you really need to on safety grounds.

The problem is, according to one survey, it will take 338 new reactors to replace the ones scheduled to be taken offline over the next 20 years. Unless the reactor-construction business expands dramatically, there's no way that's going to happen.

So that leaves those in charge facing the realization that trying to keep existing reactors going as long as possible is the least-bad option. And that means there will be break-downs. And sooner or later, release of radioactivity to the immediate environs will occur. Politicians won't like that. But unless we can learn to reduce our demand for electricity -- it's expected to grow by 44% by 2030 -- there's no way around the need to keep as many nukes running as we can.

Of course, there are plenty of off-the-shelf technologies that can help cut consumption. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates they could chop our need for electricity in half. And if we can hike our efficiency rates, renewables should have no trouble meeting all our electricity needs, by 2050 or so. But transforming the world's electricity infrastructure can't be done overnight. You can only build windmills and solar plants so fast. So for the next couple of decades, how we handle our aging reactors will be, well ... critical.

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There may not have been a new reactor ordered in the US for 30 years, but here in Europe, Areva are building two - both of which are comically behind schedule (last I heard, Flamanville was 9 months into construction and 9 months behind schedule), astoundingly over-budget, and plagued with basic construction defects... Funny how the people who go on about France's wonderful nuclear industry never bother to mention that.

Yes, we will build and pay for these fabulously expensive pieces of technology and then be held hostage for years to come, by the companies that supply the uranium for the reactors and then the disposal of all that irradiated material, reactors and all, which has yet to be adequately explained, let alone put into practice. Nuclear may seem a prudent alternative but in the long run may prove to be a boondoggle of extreme proportion.

Stew, there does come a point when you have to ask just how much explanation is necessary for 'disposal of irradiated material' to be 'adequately explained'. Yucca Mountain isn't infeasible in principle - the fission products at the Oklo natural nuclear reactor stayed in one place for almost two billion years. (See the last paragraph in this section of the Wikipedia article.)

Is there anything as dense as a politicians brain?

IIRC the Australian research reactor at Lucas Heights was also the subject of some political ping-pong some years ago. One of the cries from the anti-side was "we can import the isotopes from Canada"!

The old reactor was eventually replaced by a new one called OPAL

Yuppie medicine comuppance! Cheers.

#3, my understanding is that fission products' activity is down to environmentally 'safe' (this is a relative term) levels on the order of 10^3-10^4 years. This is obviously still a long time--at our current rate such products will almost certainly outlast the species, which is a damning fact--but I think it's important not to overstate it.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

The CBC has an article on the viable alternative of cyclotrons/PET scans, older yet still effective technology for medical imaging. Like all infrastructure issues its lack of social will and leadership to deal with the logistics.

Three Mile Island, like all other US reactors are generation 2 reactors. Generation 3 reactors produce a lot less waste. Generation 4's and 5's will reduce that even further. Most radioactive waste (past, present, and future) is already here, sitting out in the open at temporary sites. Yucca Mountain is a very good site. Its main problem is that so many people are biased against it. We need all the space in Yucca Mountain as well as future sites.

I'm in the paper on this very issue.

For me, its not the isotopes, but the neutron scattering experiments I do at the NRU reactor, that will be lost. That that will be sooner than 2016, since the expertise will have left for other jobs as quickly as they can. I hope the new steering committee will find an science-based, not industry-oriented, plan to replace NRU soon.

By Thad Harroun (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink