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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is demanding the Harper government unveil its plan to deal with the isotope shortage. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has accused the Conservative government of having no plan of action to deal with a medical isotope shortage expected to worsen later this month.

"This kind of drift has to stop because the health and safety of Canadian patients is at stake," Ignatieff told reporters Tuesday.

The Liberals held a roundtable on the isotope shortage on Tuesday, which included domestic and international experts on the issue, as well as 22 Liberal MPs and several senators.

The roundtable heard from nuclear medicine doctors, physics professors, isotope distributors and the organization responsible for co-ordinating scheduled maintenance for reactors around the world — the Association of Imaging Producers and Equipment Suppliers (AIPES).

Canada has faced a shortage of medical isotopes, used in nuclear imaging, since a nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., was shut down in May 2009 after officials discovered radioactive water leaking inside.

"If there is a delay to launch the NRU [beyond April], we would be suffering again from a significant crisis from the end of May to the beginning of June," said Jean Pierre Cabocel of AIPES.

"The crisis has led to a certain economical use or rationing. There is currently not a long-term solution to replace [isotopes] so we need to ensure supplies are secure."

Added Dr. Briane Scharfstein of the Canadian Medical Association: "Failure to take action will result in a worsening situation and ultimately a crisis."

Shutdown in Netherlands

Ignatieff said the government has to explain its plans now that the Petten reactor in the Netherlands is scheduled to shut down for six months beginning in February for maintenance.

As well, the National Research Universal reactor in Chalk River is not scheduled to be up and running until the end of March.

"The shortages are going to get worse. What’s their plan?" Ignatieff asked.

Speaking in French, Ignatieff said the Tories are trying to make it sound like "it’s perfectly normal for Canadian patients not to have access to nuclear medicine. We believe on the contrary, that this is totally unacceptable.

"There’s no plan of action and Canadian patients who are concerned and who need diagnostic services can’t access them," Ignatieff said.

Technetium-99 is the most widely used isotope for diagnostic imaging. It accounts for as many as 20 million diagnostic nuclear medical procedures every year.

It is used for getting a detailed look at the heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, spleen and bones as well as for blood-flow studies through single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) scans.

With files from Krista Erickson