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In 1991, the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout played a key role in fostering Parliamentary debate on nuclear issues through the inroduction of Bill C-204 -- a piece of legislation that would have ended all licensing of new nuclear power reactors in Canada for a period of fifty years, without affecting those already in operation.
One of the arguments used by the industry against the Bill was that, if approved, the legislation would hurt nuclear medicine and scientific research, by eliminating an important source of radioactive isotopes (some of which -- notably cobalt-60 -- are produced in Ontario Hydro's nuclear reactors). But this argument is fallacious, as the following document explains.(See the Annex for a chronological account of a related controversy -- the SLOWPOKE controversy -- including comments from a number of independent people in the field of nuclear physics and nuclear medicine.)
Canadian nuclear industry proponents are misleading people when they maintain that Bill C-204 [ a proposed piece of legislation calling for a 50-year moratorium on nuclear power expansion in Canada ] would have a sudden and drastic negative impact on nuclear medicine and on the use of radiation in industry and in scientific research.
- Firstly, it must be pointed out that X-ray machines are completely unaffected by Bill C-204. Such machines have been built and operated in large numbers since before 1900 -- half a century before the first nuclear reactor was ever built.
X-ray machines are used for diagnostic purposes (to photograph internal bone structurs and organs) as well as for therapeutic purposes (to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours). X-rays have also been used to sterilize insects and animals, to check welds in industry, and for a host of other purposes.
Unlike nuclear reactors, these machines are completely safe once they are turned off. They generate no nuclear waste. They do not require robotic decommissioning. And they cannot be used to produce explosive materials for use in an atomic bomb.
[Similar comments can be made about CT-scans.]
- Secondly, it should be recognized that radio-isotopes have been used in nuclear medicine, industry and scientific research, for a very long time, starting around 1900 -- half a century before the first nuclear reactors were built.
At first, the radio-isotopes utilized were naturally-occurring ones such as radium-226, radium-224, radon-222, polonium-210, tritium (hydrogen-3), carbon-14, et cetera. Even today, "radium needles" and "radon seeds" are used to shrink cancerous tumours, and polonium-210 is used in industrial devices to eliminate static electricity. These naturally occurring radioactive substances have nothing to do with the operation of nuclear reactors.
Later, in the 1940s, when the first particle accelerators were built (beginning with the cyclotron of Ernest Lawrence in California) a host of artificial radio-isotopes became available -- produced not by the fissioning of uranium, not by neutron bombardment inside a nuclear reactor, but simply by colliding a beam of accelerated subatomic particles with various target materials.
- Thirdly, it should be noted that although many radio-isotopes used in industry, medicine and scientific research can be produced inside a nuclear reactor, most of them (and many more besides) can also be produced inside a particle accelerator such as a cyclotron. Thus, even if there were no nuclear reactors in existence, there would continue to be an extensive use of a wide variety of artificial radio-isotopes produced in accelerators.
Although accelerators create small quantities of lingering radioactivity, they do not pose the staggering high-level waste and proliferation problems associated with nuclear reactors, nor do they have any potential for catastrophic accidents of any kind, nor are they capable of producing weapons materials in militarily significant amounts.
- Fourthly, it should be acknowledged that Bill C-204 would have no effect whatever on the operation of existing reactors. If the nuclear industry is correct in saying that these existing reactors can continue to operate for thirty or forty years or even longer, then there need be no diminution at all in the production of radio-isotopes from CANDU reactors for several decades. Thus cobalt-60 -- one of the major radio-isotopes currently produced in Canada, which cannot easily be produced in an accelerator -- can continue to be produced for many decades yet to come, even if Bill C-204 passes this year.
Existing Canadian nuclear facilities are nowhere near their full capacity in terms of cobalt-60 production. Even a significantly expanded market for cobalt-60 could be serviced without building additional reactors. However, the market for cobalt-60 is not expanding, but shrinking -- as a result of which AECL has had to lay off (in recent years) many hundreds of workers associated with cobalt-60 production.
Over the next thirty or forty years, several options may be explored:
- the use of cobalt-60 may eventually be phased out altogether, as safer alternative technologies take over -- especially since several patients have now been killed or seriously injured by cobalt-60 radiotherapy devices due to programming errors in the computerized AECL radiotherapy units. It is a sobering thought to realize that Co-60 sterilization units could be considered as "dirty bombs in waiting", since a conventional explosion could spread deadly radiological contamination over a very large area. Sterilization of medical supplies can be (and has been) done using intense beta radiation from an accelerator instead of hard gamma rays from cobalt-60;
- alternative radio-isotopes may be found which can be produced in cyclotrons and which can substitute for cobalt-60, or a method may be developed for producing cobalt-60 economically in an accelerator;
- if need be, arrangements may be made to maintain a number of small reactors in operation solely for the purpose of producing selected radionuclides for use in medicine, industry and scientific research. As a matter of fact, the entire world's supply of medical isotopes has been produced by just five or six very old and relatively small reactors up until the present time.
In summary, it is seriously misleading to state that nuclear medicine or the use of radiation in industry and in scientific research depends in any "essential" way upon nuclear reactors. Such uses existed long before the first nuclear reactors were built, and will continue to exist long after the last reactor is shut down.
A SHORTENED CHRONOLOGY OF THE SLOWPOKE CONTROVERSY
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SHERBROOKE HOSPITAL CENTER (CHUS)
taken from the handbook
"Beware of AECL Bearing Gifts -- A Slowpoke Journal"
published in 1989 by
la Coalition pour la surveillance du nucléaire (COSUN)
In the late 1980's, the debate over radio-isotope production in relation to nuclear reactors came to head in Québec, when Atomic Energy of Canada Limited offered to give a large "Slowpoke" reactor, free of charge, to the University of Sherbrooke Hospital complex, known as the "CHUS" [pronounced "Shoe" ~ this is an abbreviation for the Centre hospitalier de l'université de Sherbrooke. ]
Originally intended only to provide hot water to heat the buildings of the Hospital complex, the Slowpoke "District Heating Reactor" -- designed for unattended operation, with no on-site operating staff -- was also touted by AECL as an inexpensive way to produce radio-isotopes for medical uses, even though the necessary design work had not been carried out for this function. In fact, even the District Heating function had never been demonstrated in practice or even approved in principle by the licensing agency (AECB : The Atomic Energy Control Board). Thus -- if it had been built -- the "Slowpoke" would have been an experiment in more ways than one.
After being turned down at Sherbrooke, AECL tried to give the same type of Slowpoke reactor to the University of Saskatchewan. Again, AECL ran into strong opposition from many quarters. Meanwhile, the (much smaller) protoype Slowpoke District Heating reactor that had been built at AECL's Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Manitoba was never allowed to be operated at full power because of unresolved safety questions. Eventually AECL scrapped the entire Slowpoke District Heating concept as a non-starter.
The following abbreviated chronology makes for an interesting and instructive story. A fuller account can be found in "The Slowpoke Journal", available for purchase on request.
In the Autumn of 1987, behind closed doors, and with no public notification, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) begins negotiations with authorities at the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre (the CHUS : Centre hospitalier de l'université de Sherbrooke) to provide free of charge (i.e. at federal taxpayers' expense) a new generation prototype nuclear reactor for heating the Hospital complex.
With a population of over 75,000 plus about 10,000 university and college students, Sherbrooke is the largest city in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
The offer is welcomed by Hospital officials, particularly Dr. Etienne LeBel, former director of the Department of Nuclear Medicine, who -- much later -- will claim that the 10 Megawatt SLOWPOKE District Heating reactor proposed by AECL will also put the CHUS at the forefront of nuclear medical technology through the production of radio-isotopes.
- On February 16, 1988, AECL makes a presentation to the CHUS Board of Directors, promising that there will be "very little public reaction" to the reactor project, and hinting that other institutions are considering the same offer from AECL for a "free" nuclear reactor.
- On March 14, the SLOWPOKE story breaks in the local Sherbrooke media. Dr. Max Krell, a nuclear physicist and professor of Computer Science at l'Université de Sherbrooke , reads the news and is not favourably impressed by the SLOWPOKE district-heating concept being advanced by AECL. Dr. Krell formerly worked at major nuclear research facilities in Germany and Switzerland. He is eventually to become an outspoken critic of the AECL reactor project for the CHUS.
- On April 6, CHUS Director Normand Simoneau tells the press that the SLOWPOKE reactor will be used not only for heating purposes, but also for producing radio-isotopes used in nuclear medicine.
- On April 27, Hospital officials emphasize radio-isotope production rather than heat as the primary motivation for wanting a reactor. On May 19, an ad hoc citizens' coalition against the proposed reactor forms after hearing informational talks by mathematician Dr. Gordon Edwards, nuclear physicist Dr. Max Krell, civil engineer Michael Grayson, and others.
- On September 14, 1988, Max Krell receives a letter from Dr. Louis Rosen, Senior Fellow at the prestigious Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a leading physicist, saying "I believe you would be well advised to obtain a cyclotron for producing medically useful isotopes, while avoiding the environmental concerns that a reactor might pose."
- On September 19, 1988, Max Krell receives a letter from Hal O'Brien, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, saying: "I absolutely agree with Dr. Rosen's advice that an accelerator is the most appropriate choice for a university hospital center."
- On September 29, 1988, the Syndicat des travailleurs de la santé du CHUS (CHUS Hospital Workers Union, representing 1150 employees) holds a press conference to announce its official opposition to the SLOWPOKE project. M. Quassai Samak, technological spokesman for the Conseil des syndicats nationaux (CSN) -- a powerful Quebec-wide umbrella organization for trade unions -- tells the press: "The nuclear industry is in a crisis. It is highly financed by the government and needs to survive. The SLOWPOKE is part of their survival strategy."
- On Nov 10, the Physics Department of the Université de Sherbrooke passes a resolution against the nuclear reactor. On Nov 16, a general assembly of the Syndicat des professeur(e)s de l'Université de Sherbrooke (University of Sherbrooke Teachers' Union, with 400 members) also passes a resolution against the reactor.
- By Nov 24, a petition against the SLOWPOKE is signed by 83 percent (29 out of 35) of the researchers in the Nuclear Medicine Department of the Hospital. The petition declares, in part, "I am open to the installation of an accelerator or cyclotron, for example, for a safer production of certain radio-isotopes." The three researchers in the department who organized the petition say they have scientific as well as environmental reasons for opposing the SLOWPOKE.
- At the end of November, doctors and professors at the Université de Sherbrooke Faculty of Medicine are invited to take a position on the reactor. As there is no consensus, they decide to wait until the end of January 1989 to take a decision, using the intervening time to obtain more information.
- On December 8, Réal Rancourt, former Parti québécois MNA, releases a press statement opposing the reactor and suggesting a cyclotron instead.
- On December 9, chemist Pierre Deslongchamps, physicist André-Marie Tremblay, and biologist Adrien Beaudoin go on record as opposing the SLOWPOKE. In a press release, Biology Professor Beaudoin of the Université de Sherbrooke says that a majority of the professors, technicians, graduate students, and secretaries in the Biology Department join him in declaring their opposition to the reactor as well.
- On December 10, a letter from physicist André-Marie Tremblay to the Hospital Director Normand Simoneau notes that the directors of the Nuclear Medicine Department of the Hospital have still not been consulted on the SLOWPOKE, and thus this "research project" has not originated from the department most often cited as the beneficiary of the project, nor has the proposal been subjected to peer review.
- On December 16, the Syndicat des infirmiers et infirmières du CHUS, representing 650 nurses at the hospital, publishes a unanimous resolution opposing the reactor, citing the dangers to public health and the environment inherent in such a project.
- On December 17, extracts from a letter to the CHUS Board of Directors by Mme. Gagnon-Tremblay, Ministre déléguée à la condition féminine -- Minister on the Status of Women -- are published. The letter says, in part, that "The population which I represent is massively opposed to this project. I am simply echoing their opposition."
- On December 20, the Hospital Board of Directors announces its unanimous decision to abandon the SLOWPOKE project. At the same time, it announces that it will "pursue other means to produce radio-isotopes for medical research."
taken from the handbook
"Beware of AECL Bearing Gifts -- A Slowpoke Journal"
published in 1989 by
la Coalition pour la surveillance du nucléaire (COSUN)
[ AECL's Isotope Business ] [ Use of Weapons-Grade Uranium ]
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