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Cablegate: Critical Medical Radioisotope Production May

VZCZCXRO0249
PP RUEHGA RUEHHA RUEHQU RUEHVC
DE RUEHOT #2255/01 3462145
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 122145Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY OTTAWA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7025
INFO RUCNCAN/ALL CANADIAN POSTS COLLECTIVE
RUEHBS/AMEMBASSY BRUSSELS 0717
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 0977
RUEHSA/AMEMBASSY PRETORIA 0289
RUEHTC/AMEMBASSY THE HAGUE 3465
RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHDC
RHEBAAA/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 OTTAWA 002255

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR WHA, OES AND ISN
HHS FOR OFFICE OF GLOBAL HEALTH AFFAIRS
DOE FOR NE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: TBIO ECON KSCA CA
SUBJECT: CRITICAL MEDICAL RADIOISOTOPE PRODUCTION MAY
RESUME SOON

1. (U) Summary: In the face of a growing shortage of medical
radioisotopes, the Canadian House of Commons passed emergency
legislation late on December 11 to exempt the nuclear reactor
where much of the world's supply of medical radioisotopes is
produced from regulatory oversight (for a very narrow
exception) for 120 days in order to facilitate a rapid
restart of the reactor and resumed production of medical
radioisotopes. Once the legislation passes through the
Senate, expected later today (December 12), and it receives
Royal Assent, perhaps by the end of this week, reactor
operator Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) will commence
restarting the reactor, which has been shut down since
November 18. Barring unforeseen events, AECL anticipates it
will take several days to ramp up to normal operations and
several days after that before the medical radioisotope
supply chain can return to normal. End summary.

2. (U) On the evening of December 11, in the face of a
growing shortage of radioisotopes for medical use, the
Conservative government introduced and then pushed through
the House of Commons emergency legislation, Bill C-38, that
would allow Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the
operator of the 50 year-old National Research Universal
reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, to resume operations and
radioisotope production without complying with nuclear
regulator Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) orders to
modify and upgrade certain of its components. Essentially
the bill removes CNSC oversight for 120 days for this
specific aspect of AECL's operations. In addition to its
Chalk River laboratory, AECL also operates a variety of other
atomic facilities, such as nuclear waste sites, throughout
Canada. Presently a Crown Corporation whose privatization
has been discussed, AECL is the designer and builder of CANDU
technology.

3. (U) The NRU was shut down for routine maintenance on
November 18, at which time CNSC inspectors became aware that
modifications to the reactor's cooling system called for in
an August 2006 licensing review had not been installed, and
notified AECL that they were not in compliance with the NRU
operating license and could not therefore restart the
reactor. AECL of course complied with the CNSC order to not
restart the reactor, but claimed the modifications were
upgrades, not mission critical, and could be accomplished
over a longer period of time during regular maintenance.
AECL claimed it could continue to operate the NRU safely
without complete installation of the additional equipment, at
least as an interim measure. The impasse between the
regulator and AECL has extended NRU's scheduled shutdown from
one week to over three weeks, at this point, and global
supplies of critical medical radioisotopes have dwindled.
Since only four other reactors around the world (one each in
France, Belgium, South Africa, and the Netherlands) produce
these basic radioisotopes, many of which have half-lives
measured in hours, any unplanned reactor shutdown quickly
leads to supply disruption. The NRU alone accounts for about
50 percent of global supply of molybdenum-90 the source of
technetium-99m, the most widely used isotope for diagnosing
disease.

4. (U) On December 11 in the House of Commons Prime Minister
Q4. (U) On December 11 in the House of Commons Prime Minister
Harper noted the shortage of medical radioisotopes presented
a very clear danger to hundreds if not thousands of people
around the world, whereas the risk to be mitigated by the
CNSC-mandated upgrades was significantly more remote and less
certain. The Bloc Quebecois and New Democratic Party
supported the measure immediately, but the Liberal Party fell
in line, and by 11:30 pm Bill C-38 had passed with all party
support through all three stages of debate in the House of
Commons. It now will go to the Senate, where the government
believes it will also pass quickly. The government
anticipates the bill could receive Royal Assent by Thursday,
December 13. (In fact, we've heard reports the government
leader in the Senate thought she would receive the bill from
the Commons last night and had maintained a quorum until it
became clear the House would not be able to conclude its
business until near midnight.)

5. (U) Once Royal Assent is received, making Bill C-38 law,
CNSC's authority and licensing conditions in this matter will

OTTAWA 00002255 002 OF 002


be suspended for 120 days, and AECL can begin to restart the
reactor, which may take several days. AECL and CNSC will
nevertheless be working closely together during this 120 day
period. Government relations executives for MDS Nordion, the
company that actually refines and processes the medical
radioisotopes from NRU, told embassy the company will only be
able to estimate when the medical radioisotope supply chain
will return to normal once reactor operations have
recommenced successfully. AECL had earlier said it could not
return NRU to service before December 20 if had to comply
with all of the upgrades mandated by CNSC.

6. (SBU) Comment: Canada,s nuclear regulator, the CNSC, was
only formed in 2000 from the former Atomic Energy Control
Board (AECB). Where AECB had non-proliferation as its
primary focus, CNSC has as its principal mandate to "protect
people and the environment from licensed sources of man-made
radiation resulting from the use of nuclear energy and
materials". Given this focus on human health and safety some
observers have commented that it is odd that the regulator
may not have anticipated that an extended shutdown of NRU
would have immediate and far-reaching health impacts
downstream. While these second-order health effects may not
formally be the concern of the regulator, CNSC's decision on
this occasion suggests the capacity to assess the impact of
its decisions more broadly may have been lacking. End comment.


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