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The Chalk River reactor will reliably produce isotopes once repairs are made, said Atomic Energy of Canada President Hugh MacDiarmid. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday he's disappointed the aging nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont., won't be able to produce medical isotopes until at least next spring.

The federal government will continue to encourage Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to supply isotopes as soon as possible from the National Research Universal, or NRU, reactor, Harper told a news conference in Kitchener, Ont.

For several months, Ottawa has been working with provincial and international partners to manage the isotope shortage that began when the Chalk River reactor was shut down in mid-May, he said.

Earlier Thursday, Dr. Kevin Tracey, vice-president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine, said he's concerned the idled reactor won't be able to produce a reliable supply of medical isotopes ever again.

"I think it's analogous to sitting at the airport and hearing that your plane's delayed three hours, and then four hours, and then next it's cancelled," Tracey said.

"Our concern is that we're not sure that this thing is ever going to get up and functional reliably to allow us to do the patients that we need to do."

Simulating repairs

Hugh McDairmid, the president and CEO of AECL, insisted the reactor won't be abandoned and that the repairs will be done as quickly as safety allows.

"It, indeed, is a reactor that is ready to be brought back into service, and it will produce isotopes reliably once we complete the needed repairs," McDairmid said. 

Dr. David Cox, who leads the team carrying out the repairs at the Chalk River reactor, said they've prepared a mock-up of one quadrant of the reactor to simulate the repairs in a non-radioactive environment. 

The team is designing specialized tools to carry out the repairs, and then workers will be trained to use the tools in the simulator before actual repairs to the reactor are made, Cox said.

Tracey said his group wants the federal and provincial governments to act now to prepare for a worst-case scenario in February 2010, when both of the world's major suppliers of medical isotopes will be down for maintenance.

Harper responded that he believes the medical community and provinces have reacted well to the shortage and are able to provide necessary services to patients.

"From the government's point of view, their [AECL's] mandate is to make sure that the reactor is up and running as soon as possible," Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said, adding the repairs must be done safely and reliably. "The first quarter of 2010 is a long way away."

Extra costs

Given the complexity and uncertainty of repairing aging reactors, Tracey's group is concerned about a worst-case scenario of both the Chalk River reactor and the Petten reactor, which is in the Netherlands, going down for six months. That would force Canadian hospitals and clinics to rely on isotope supplies from smaller reactors in South Africa and Belgium that cost more to transport.

There's a window to plan now, but the federal and provincial governments need to assist doctors and technologists to get ready for what could be a critical time, Tracey said.

Also on Thursday, Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc said his province will ask the federal government for compensation for costs incurred because of the medical isotope shortage, which he said could reach $10 million by the end of the year.

Both Tracey and Dr. François Lamoureux, head of Quebec's nuclear medicine specialists, said hospitals face higher operating costs. The cost of software to use alternative isotopes for some scans and overtime for employees who complete scans on weekends are adding up, they said.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is discussing the extra cost issues with provincial health ministers.  

After the Chalk River reactor was last shut down, on May 14, AECL said repairs would take a month, then three. But on Wednesday, AECL officials announced the NRU reactor will not be able to start producing medical isotopes until at least next spring.

AECL said its analysis indicates the repair process is more complex than initially thought, with nine sites in the reactor that likely need repairs because of corrosion. The repairs pose no threat to workers, the public or the environment, the Crown corporation said.

Reacting to the announcement, Aglukkaq and Raitt also said that they were "very disappointed," and that they have asked AECL to provide a firm return-to-service plan as soon as possible.

The reactor was previously shut down for several days in February. Before that, a December 2008 shutdown because of a leak involving radioactive water temporarily reduced the isotope supply, and a December 2007 maintenance shutdown threatened to create a global shortage of isotopes.