Saskatchewan may produce radioisotopes
REGINA – Saskatchewan Premier Brad
Wall has floated the idea of building a nuclear reactor in the province,
to transform Saskatchewan into a producer of medical isotopes and to
provide a new global source of supply.
The suggestion by Wall comes at a time when the Chalk River reactor in
Ontario has been shut down for repairs and has stopped producing the
medical isotopes needed for many nuclear medicine exams.
The premier ran an election campaign that included a pledge to build up
a full-fledged nuclear industry in Saskatchewan, which already produces
nearly a quarter of the world’s uranium, but does little beyond extract
Mr. Wall said he discussed the medical-isotopes issue at the Western
Premiers Conference in June, and that his fellow premiers agreed that
the West could take action “with Saskatchewan taking the lead.”
“Maybe the West can provide a solution,” he said in an interview with
The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Wall said he wants to launch a full-speed effort to build a research
reactor within two to three years, likely at the University of
Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Such a project would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
Saskatchewan would pick up part of that tab, Mr. Wall said, but he also
hopes the reactor can be built through a partnership of the federal
government, the province and the private sector.
He said he has discussed the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper,
but that the federal government has not yet made any commitments. Mr.
Wall said he expects that any funding from Ottawa would be contingent on
Saskatchewan being willing to spend money. Private-sector financing
would be relatively straightforward, he said, noting that there is a
commercial market for medical isotopes.
Mr. Wall is also hoping for expedited federal regulatory approval, so
that construction could commence quickly and the reactor could be up and
running in three years. That would not help with the immediate shortfall
in isotopes, he conceded, but it would mean Canada could still be a
participant in the medical-isotopes market in the longer term.
Another factor in creating a medical isotope facility in Saskatchewan is
the issue of logistics. Radioisotopes have a short life of
effectiveness, and getting them to end-users must be done quickly. That
means lines of transportation must be regular, fast and reliable.
The proposed reactor would be on a smaller scale than Ontario’s Chalk
River facility, in line with a push to diversify the production of
medical isotopes and so minimize the impact of the failure of any one
Small-scale reactor technology could be useful elsewhere in Western
Canada for distributing power to remote areas, Mr. Wall said. There have
been sporadic discussions in Alberta about how to harness nuclear power
to create the energy and steam needed for oil-sands projects.
Mr. Wall is looking to act quickly on a research reactor: A final
decision will come as soon as August, after consultation with the
public. He stressed that public reaction will be key to how he proceeds.
But he said he believes there is more support for nuclear power in
Saskatchewan than in other jurisdictions, in part because uranium mining
has created some familiarity with the nuclear industry.
Ultimately, Mr. Wall said, a research reactor producing medical isotopes
would help transform the province’s nuclear sector from mining into a
knowledge industry. And production of medical isotopes in Saskatchewan
would be in a sense a return to the past, he said “the province was
the first to use cobalt-60 in medicine, with the 1949 treatment of a
female patient suffering from cervical cancer.”