Excellent Analysis of AECL’s Isotope Follies

Here is a thorough and insightful investigation and historical review by Alison Motluk on the demise of the medical isotope business in Canada. The article, “A political Meltdown” is published in the April edition of The Walrus.Here is the comment I posted to the Walrus:


Thanks to Ms. Motluk for the very informative piece.

If we survey AECL’s history in many lines of business, from historic heavy water production and organic cooled reactors all the way to present day retubing contracts, we see the same patterns — irrational confidence and blindness to risk. As the liabilities have mounted, the liabilities themselves became a guarantee of institutional continuity for AECL.

One of the craziest aspects of AECL’s isotope business model is its reliance on weapons grade uranium. This reliance brought AECL into conflict with antiproliferation legislation in the US and resulted in the creation of vast quantities of heat generating, liquid nuke waste capable of criticality stored on the bank of the Ottawa River upstream of our capital city. As the whole world moved away from weapons grade uranium for research and isotopes, AECL fought a decades long rear guard action to keep the insanity going.

The circumstances surrounding the firing of Linda Keen deserve more investigation. Keen was pushing nuclear safety standards towards international norms, which started to freak out the Candu boys because they knew they couldn’t measure up. Keen’s initiative came just as the Harper government was looking to privatize AECL’s Candu business line. In light of what we are seeing in Japan, it is worth remembering that the issue the government used as the excuse to decapitate the nuclear safety regulator was the security of back-up power to reactor cooling pumps. AECL lied to the regulator about having complied with an earlier order to upgrade the system. Keen’s reaction — ordering a shutdown and full review — was exactly consistent with the CNSC’s mandating legislation. Keen’s replacement with a deputy minister seems to have been a big relief to the regulator’s licensees.