Maple fall

21 July 2009

On 10 June 2009, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper confirmed that Canada was getting out of the medical isotope business, bringing down the curtain on the final act of a play that has included tragedy, farce and theatre of the absurd in equal proportions. We take our seats as the curtain rises, 18 years ago.

Act I

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) has a long and honourable history in pioneering radioisotope production for medical and commercial applications. So successful was it in this that the AECL Commercial Products Division (renamed the Radiochemical Company in the seventies), responsible for marketing isotopes and radiotherapy units, was sold to MDS Nordion in 1991. Radioisotopes were originally produced in the NRX reactor (started up in 1947) and ten years later the more powerful NRU, but by the eighties it was apparent that a dedicated medical isotope production reactor would be needed: NRX was due to be withdrawn from service in 1992 and NRU was expected to be shut down in 2005. The plan was initially for a single dedicated isotope production reactor, but this was cancelled in 1993 as a result of budget constraints. Three years later, in 1996, Nordion and AECL reached an agreement to construct two reactors and an associated processing facility by 2000 to provide a 40-year supply of medical isotopes. Two reactors were needed to ensure that the supply of isotopes would not be interrupted by maintenence, or unplanned shutdowns.

Act II

When the first Maple reactor was started up in 2000, it was found that the reactor’s power coefficient of reactivity (PCR) was not negative, as predicted in the design, but positive. In other words, as reactor power increased, so did reactivity. While this didn’t mean that the reactor was necessarily unsafe, or unusable, it did mean that the regulatory authority (the CNSC) felt that the reason for the discrepancy between predicted and actual behaviour should be understood before routine reactor operation should begin, a not unreasonable point of view. But the process of achieving this understanding seemed to take rather a long time. It was not until December 2005 that AECL reported that the “PCR issue [is] poised for resolution following significant work by AECL and independent organisations.”

Though the government took no action, MDS Nordion certainly did. They saw project costs doubling on a project that was already five years late, and promised to be much later. They wanted out. In 2006, agreement was reached whereby AECL took over complete financial responsibility for the project, committed to have the reactors in service by October 2008, and agreed to provide Nordion with a 40 year supply of isotopes.


While the NRU reactor was shut down for maintenance in November 2007, it was discovered that AECL had not installed required safety upgrades (to two of the circulating pumps), and the reactor was in violation of its operating licence. The interruption of isotope supply provoked the government to prompt action. In an unprecedented move, they over-rode the authority of the CNSC, and introduced a bill (passed with all-party support) ordering the return to service of NRU. To emphasise its displeasure, the government also sacked CNSC’s president. No-one asked the question that, if continuity of supply of medical isotopes is so vitally important to the health of Canadians (the rationale used by the Prime Minister Harper to justify his government’s foray into nuclear regulation), why were no contingency plans made to cover this sort of eventuality?

Act IV

On 16 May 2008, AECL announced it was stopping work on the Maple project, the board of directors having concluded that it was “no longer feasible to complete the commissioning and start-up of the reactors.” The company added that this decision would not affect the ‘current’ supply of isotopes from the NRU reactor. The natural resources minister stated that the government was “absolutely committed to ensuring the medical community has the isotopes it needs in the future,” but offered no plans of how he proposed to meet this commitment. MDS Nordion announced that it was seeking an order to compel AECL to meet its obligations under the 2006 agreement (including the 40-year supply of isotopes). It also noted it was filing a court claim for CAD1.6 billion in damages against AECL and the Canadian Government.

Act V (finale)

A year after AECL’s announcement the NRU reactor shutdown safely following a loss of electrical power. Subsequently a heavy water leak was detected at the base of the reactor vessel. Repair of this leak has required defuelling the reactor. While no firm restart date has been given (nor could one be reasonably expected at this stage) the reactor is not expected to be back in service for at least three months. And on 10 June the prime minister confirmed that Canada was getting out of the isotope business.

There are two contributing factors to this dismal story. First, AECL’s abysmal performance. It is nothing less than tragic that an organisation that can justifiably take pride in its pioneering work in nuclear science should now appear as a sort of atomic Inspector Clouseau (but without the funny bits). No one appears to be held accountable for a project that has cost Canadian taxpayers between CAD650-750 million but has achieved nothing. Second, and perhaps more serious, is the egregious irresponsibility and total disconnection from scientific reality of AECL’s government minders. Despite clear indications by 2006 that the Maple project was in serious trouble, no-one appears to have taken charge of the issue.

Author Info:

By David Mosey, author of Reactor Accidents, whose 2nd edition was published in 2006 by NEI.

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