Trouble at Chalk River Bodes Poorly for AECL; AREVA Rubs It In

By Jacob Mazer, Assistant Editor, Fuel Cycle Week

Uh oh! The troubles just keep piling up for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. The company is catching heat following the May 15 shutdown of the medical isotope-producing Chalk River, built by AECL in 1957. The cause this time is a radioactive heavy water leak from the reactor. The problem is yet to be determined, and sources connected with the facility told Canwest News Service that it could be eight to twelve months before the reactors restarts operation—that is, if it restarts at all.

Medical isotopes play a critical role in the detection and treatment of some cancers. Unfortunately, Chalk River is the major medical isotope source for much of the world, providing about 80% of Canada’s supply and about 40% of the world’s, some 20 million patients in 80 countries. The medical isotopes have a short shelf life, and the last batch from Chalk River was gathered last week, leaving the rest of the planet scrambling to make up for the missing production.

Canada has had little in the way of a back-up plan for the Chalk River reactor ever since AECL decided in 2008 to scrap the intended the years-over-deadline and millions-over-budget MAPLE reactors that were intended as replacements due to design flaws. Much ire has been directed at the government for failing to produce an alternative, but it doesn’t exactly cast a flattering light on AECL either, especially as the company struggles with high stakes to win a contract for two reactors at Ontario’s Darlington nuclear station.

Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party, went so far as to call for an inquiry into to AECL’s conduct, and suggested that given its track record, the company would be a poor selection to build the Darlington reactors.

The Organization of CANDU Industries, which represents a force of more than 30,000 Canadians working on AECL’s supply chain, came quickly to the defense of the company. “If you look at projects where AECL has been building power reactors, they probably have one of the best records of any constructor in the world...these comments are incredibly irresponsible,” said Organization President Neil Alexander. If the statement sounds a bit defensive, it may be due to an awareness of the potential effects that AECL’s bad press could have on all those jobs.

Those eager beavers at AREVA, always willing to lend a hand, were quick to offer their resources. “AREVA is ready to provide all the support that you will deem necessary to reduce the health impact of the current isotope shortage,” read a letter from AREVA Canada President Armand Leferrere to Canadian Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. It should be noted that said resources are fairly spare. Leferrere offered to "facilitate contact with European isotope producers," as well as to assist with repairs. He noted that AREVA could possibly alter some European research reactors to produce isotopes, but that the process could take "several" weeks.

It's hard to know how seriously to take that claim, or even how much help AREVA's resources would actually be. But this is not really about the isotopes. AREVA, along with Westinghouse, is competing with AECL for the Darlington contract. We won’t be so bold as to suggest that the offer might be a show of greater capability and competence that the competition—but perhaps you will be bold enough to infer it.