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Nuclear medicine

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 the ore.

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 reactor.

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.”