Isotope reactor to stay idle until late in year: Physicians forced to use more invasive diagnostic tools

Globe and Mail: Karen Howlett and Shawn McCarthy - July 8, 2009

Toronto and Ottawa — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Wednesday, Jul. 08, 2009 05:32PM EDT
The Canadian nuclear reactor that until a few weeks ago produced a third of the world's medical isotopes will be down until late this year, sources say, leaving patients facing further shortages of a premier tool for many heart and cancer tests.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns the aging reactor at Chalk River, Ont., plans to announce today that it needs more time to repair a leak of heavy water, according to sources close to the situation.

The reactor, which has been plagued with problems in recent years, will be closed for at least several more months, the sources said. But that is the optimistic scenario.

AECL had initially hoped to have the reactor up and running next month. The latest setback has sparked worries in the nuclear medical community that it will not be back on line for another two years, if ever.

The National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River was taken offline after it was found to be leaking heavy water in May, and was initially expected to remain offline for at least three months. The reactor produced more isotopes than any other facility in the world. When it went down, the world supply was threatened.

Chalk River produced about a third of the worldwide supply of molybdenum-99 isotopes, considered the best tool for many heart and cancer tests.

The isotope shortage is affecting hospitals worldwide and is forcing physicians to look to more invasive diagnostic tools to pinpoint the location of tumours and heart problems.

“We're going to go back into the dark ages in terms of health care,” Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine, said in an interview Tuesday. “We'll be practising 21st-century medicine with 20th-century technology.”

Dr. Urbain said he does not have confidence in the government or AECL to manage the crisis.

But John Waddington, a former director-general at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said he expects AECL will be able to repair the reactor, and keep it operating with a licence renewal.

To be relicensed in 2011, AECL will have to demonstrate to the CNSC that the reactor can be run safely. That should be possible once the current problem is addressed. Mr. Waddington said.

Opposition members have accused the Harper government of bungling its handling of the 50-year-old reactor, which was ordered closed by the CNSC in November, 2007 until mandatory safety upgrades had been completed.

Liberal MP Jeff Regan suggested the government likely knew the reactor would not be back in operation before fall, and had AECL delay the announcement until the House of Commons recessed for the summer.

The extended shutdown is “very disturbing,” Mr. Regan said. “It is putting more and more lives at risk.”

Officials in Ottawa and at AECL declined to comment yesterday.

After the breakdown in May, the government appointed a three-person panel of experts to report on options for producing isotopes, but Mr. Regan said that there is no immediate alternative available.

A new reactor in Australia will help address the shortages, but supplies from that site have been erratic. An isotope-producing reactor in Belgium was scheduled to come online July 21, but the date could be moved up to July 17, the reactor's radioisotope project manager, Bernard Ponsard, said in an e-mail. He said the reactor is projected to produce between 35 and 45 per cent of the global supply.

Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine, said uncertainty about the Chalk River reactor should prompt the government to take another look at the mothballed Maple reactors. The Maple reactors were to replace Chalk River, but did not perform as expected after many years of experimentation and more than half a billion dollars, and the government has demonstrated no appetite for revisiting them.

“If NRU is down for a very long time, we do need an immediate alternative resource,” Dr. O'Brien said. With a report from Anna Mehler Paperney