AECL behaviour over medical isotope reactor 'scandalous': Greenpeace

THE CANADIAN PRESS: Colin Perkel - December 7, 2007

TORONTO - The failure of Canada's publicly owned nuclear company to follow safety orders involving a reactor that supplies material for much of the world's medical isotopes is a scandal that demands investigation, Greenpeace Canada said Friday.

Also, the ongoing inability of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to get two replacement reactors up and running at its facility in Chalk River, Ont., 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, casts serious doubt on the company's ability to deliver on its commitments as Ontario gets set to request bids for nuclear power next year, the group said.

The fact that AECL failed to notify federal regulators that important, compulsory upgrades were not done on its aging NRU reactor is "scandalous and raises questions about public safety and environmental protection as well," said Sean-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace.

"(Also), if they can't get two small reactors at Chalk River laboratories online on time and on budget, that's got to raise some questions."

AECL shut down the reactor for five days of planned maintenance last month, but discovered it had failed to perform critical safety upgrades and was forced to extend the shutdown.

On Thursday, amid a deepening crisis facing medical facilities and patients across the continent, safety regulators ripped the Crown company for violating terms of its licence.

The company told the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that it hadn't realized the safety-related upgrades were compulsory, but couldn't explain why.

"We are doing our root-cause analysis of the situation and we will have the answers to the comments and concerns that were raised," AECL spokesman Dale Coffin said Friday.

"We take (the CNSC's) comments very seriously."

The shutdown of the NRU reactor, now expected to last into January, has crippled MDS Nordion, which is one of the world's largest suppliers of medical isotopes - used for testing millions of people around the world for cancer and other diseases.

In Ottawa, the political opposition accused the government of being negligent and of failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

"This is an emergency; people can die," said Liberal MP Hedy Fry.

"And when you ask the questions, they say, 'Oh, but we could do nothing,' and we know that they could."

Steven Fletcher, parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Tony Clement, said the Conservative government was "concerned" about the situation.

"The health minister is taking action. We are looking into alternative supplies in other countries. We are ready to fast track those sources," Fletcher told the House of Commons.

"We are taking action. We will keep Canadians informed on this very important issue."

Coffin said the company was "making progress" in getting the reactor up and running.

Beyond the frantic scramble to find scarce isotopes, the nuclear medicine community has been in an uproar over what it sees as abysmal lack of information about the outage.

Many doctors said they had little idea of the problem until their supplies started to dwindle.

Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff accused the federal government of sitting on its hands for far too long.

"They took 18 days to get their act together," Ignatieff said. "We think that is a negligent attitude towards the public health of Canadians."

Once part of AECL, MDS Nordion was privatized in 1991 but remains heavily dependent on its former owner for molybdnum it processes into medical isotopes.

As part of that deal and following years of litigation, AECL assumed full responsibility early last year for building two replacement reactors, which are now years behind schedule and are running over budget by at least $160 million.

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