Government of Canada

Government of Canada

December 10, 2007 14:12 ET

Statement by the Honourable Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources and the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Health

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Dec. 10, 2007) -



The Government of Canada has been working to solve the critical shortage of
medical isotopes caused by an extended shutdown at the Atomic Energy of
Canada Ltd. (AECL) research reactor in Chalk River. This shutdown has
caused the delay or cancellation of certain medical procedures in Canada
and abroad.

We understand and are concerned about the stress and worry that this
situation is causing to patients and their loved ones.

The Government has been in constant contact with AECL and the Canadian
Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to ensure that they work together to find
a solution to this critical shortage. Resuming this production is an
immediate priority for the Government of Canada and we are exploring all
options at our disposal that would lead to such a resolution.

We have been working with our officials as well as national and
international partners to identify alternative sources of supply in other
countries; other isotopes that can be re-applied; and other diagnostic
options which may be available.

We can report actions in the following areas:

- Health Canada has initiated a data collection process which includes
contacting 800 hospitals and clinics which will allow all of us to
determine next steps that may be necessary to address the situation.

- Government has asked both Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and the
CNSC to continue to work together to develop a go-forward strategy such
that AECL National Research Universal reactor can be safely restarted as
quickly as possible.

- Government has confirmed that the parts and equipment required to
complete the upgrade maintenance on the Chalk River facility has been
expedited.

- This is a situation that affects all Canadians and we are committed to
working with our partners to bring it to a speedy resolution.
Attached are letters from Ministers Lunn and Clement to CNSC and AECL to
this effect.

Mr. Ken Petrunik
Executive Vice-President,
Chief Technology Officer and
President, CANDU Reactor Division
2251 Speakman Drive, Mississauga,
Ontario, L5K-1B2

Dear Mr. Petrunik:

We are writing to you to express our strong concern that AECL allowed the
NRU at Chalk River to become out of compliance with its operating licence.
The extended outage at Chalk River and the late notification to the
Government of Canada of this situation have created serious shortages of
medical isotopes in Canada and around the world. The health of Canadians
is being put at significant risk. We are asking you to find an urgent path
forward to re-start the NRU reactor safely.

AECL has reported over the last few days that it believes there is a strong
safety case to be made that the reactor could resume operation safely on a
temporary basis with one of the two pumps enabling an early return to
service. First and foremost, we need your absolute assurance that the
safety case you have made is a valid one. We are aware that you have
submitted a safety case to CNSC and understand that there is further
information required. We need you to work constructively with the
regulator on an urgent basis to provide this information to allow an
expedited review by the regulator.

We know that the outage of the NRU is an urgent priority for AECL and as a
result we expect that you are working effectively and expeditiously with
the CNSC. We are aware that you are preparing the reactor for restart. We
understand that the first pump will be installed today and that you will
continue to dedicate around-the-clock effort to complete this work.

You should bear in mind that any significant delays in restarting
operations of the NRU reactor will have serious consequences for the
diagnosis and treatment of cancer and heart disease around the world. Dr.
Brian Day, President of the Canadian Medical Association, has indicated
that the CMA is "very concerned about the impact on the health of Canadians
and of all those reliant for isotopes on the NRU reactor. In balancing
relative risk, it is important to ensure that the serious and immediate
human health consequences of the isotope shortage are fully taken into
account."

Health Canada has contacted nearly 800 facilities across Canada to assess
the extent, severity and implications of the shortage. Preliminary
information has indicated that many institutions have very limited supplies
and some centres are focusing on emergency patients only. Health
implications include delays in diagnosis and therapy, focus on emergency
and limited elective surgeries and increased wait times for diagnostic
procedures. A longer-term shortage (two weeks or longer) will have severe
health consequences in many provinces. This will potentially place
patients' lives on hold.

Our highest priority is the health and safety of Canadians. We recognize
that you share this priority and we expect that you will ensure that AECL
is working closely with the CNSC to expedite the completion of the safety
case under current consideration.

Yours sincerely,

The Honourable Gary Lunn, The Honourable Tony Clement,
P.C., M.P. P.C., M.P.
Minister of Natural Resources Minister of Health

cc.Mr. David Torgerson
Executive Vice-President,
Chief Technology Officer and
President, Research and Technology Division
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.

Ms. Linda Keen
President
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
P.O Box 1046, Station B
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5S9

Ms. Keen:

We are writing to you because we are very concerned about the impacts on
the health of Canadians of the extended outage of the NRU at Chalk River,
which supplies over 50% of Canada's and indeed the world's need for
medical isotopes. We take this situation very seriously.

As a Government, we are analyzing on an ongoing basis the situation in
almost 800 health care facilities across Canada to assess the extent,
severity and implications of the shortage. Preliminary information has
indicated that many institutions have very limited supplies and some
centres are focusing on emergency patients only. Health implications
include delays in diagnosis and therapy, focus on emergency and limited
elective surgeries and increased wait times for diagnostic procedures. A
longer-term shortage (two weeks or longer) will have severe health
consequences in many provinces. This will potentially place patients' lives
on hold.

In addition, our Government is examining all available avenues to expedite
availability of Tc99m from alternative suppliers, examining all possible
supplies of alternate isotopes, and convening an expert group to provide
further advice on health impacts and mitigating strategies.

However, we clearly believe that the best solution for Canadians would be
to have the NRU up and running again as expeditiously and safely as
possible.

In our conversations, your technical experts acknowledged that the NRU has
Operated safely for many decades and that re-starting the NRU in its current
condition would entail no reduction in safety as compared to when it was
operating before this shutdown. We further understand from AECL that one of
the two backup pump power systems - which you recently mandated to mitigate
the risk of a potential earthquake - will be installed later tonight or
tomorrow. This would be a clear further improvement in safety from November
21 when the reactor was shut down. AECL also informs us that it has
submitted to you what it believes to be a strong case that the reactor can
be operated safely with the backup power system connected for one of the
two pumps.

In light of the above facts, we therefore seek an urgent explanation of why
you believe it to be essential that both earthquake-proof power backup
units be made operational immediately, notwithstanding the result that the
health of Canadians and others around the world is being put at risk
because of a shortage of isotopes. Why is the course you have chosen
essential, as opposed to a more orderly upgrade process that might take, at
most, a few extra weeks, but which would allow isotope production to resume
uninterrupted?

The Nuclear Safety and Control Act allows you to take into account the use
of nuclear substances, which would include isotopes for medical purposes,
in regulating to ensure the health and safety of Canadians. We would like
to note that any significant delays in restarting operations of the NRU
Reactor will have consequences for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer
and heart disease. Dr. Brian Day, President of the Canadian Medical
Association has indicated that the CMA is "very concerned about the impact
on the health of Canadians and of all those reliant for isotopes on the NRU
reactor. In balancing relative risk, it is important to ensure that the
serious and immediate human health consequences of the isotope shortage are
fully taken into account".

Our highest priority is the health and safety of Canadians. We believe it
is imperative for you, in the context of your current powers, to ensure
that the health and safety of all Canadians is taken into account in the
decisions as to when to re-start the NRU. To this end, and given the
circumstances set out above, we request that you employ all means to bring
the NRU reactor back on-line safely, with due regard for the consequences
of delay for those reliant on medical isotopes for disease diagnosis and
treatment.

We look forward to your immediate response to this letter and your plan for
how to achieve the objectives noted.

Yours sincerely,

The Honourable Gary Lunn, The Honourable Tony Clement,
P.C., M.P. P.C., M.P.
Minister of Natural Resources Minister of Health

Contact Information

  • Natural Resources Canada
    Louise Girouard
    Director of Communications
    613-996-2007
    or
    Health Canada
    Rita Smith
    Director of Communications
    613-957-0200