Chalk River plant to begin making radioisotopes in a week

The nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont., which provides more than half the world's medical isotopes, is in the process of restarting, officials said Thursday.

Vital new supplies of medical isotopes should be produced within the next week, the Crown corporation that manages the Chalk River, Ont., nuclear reactor confirmed Thursday.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL)issued arelease Thursday saying the plant was resuming operations and would be replenishing hospitals with crucial radioisotopes again in seven or eight days.

The Chalk River facility, which has been shut down since Nov. 18, provides two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes — nuclear material essential for medical imaging and diagnostic scans for fractures, cancers and heart conditions.

November's shutdown of the Chalk River site was due to safety concerns, and unforeseen maintenance problems delayed the reactor's reopening and caused worldwide shortages radioactive substances.

Officials from AECL, which owns the facility, said in Thursday's statementthey had "initiated procedures to restart" the reactor.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) had ordered the 50-year-old Chalk River reactor closed because its emergency power system was not connected to the cooling pumps, as required to prevent overheating during a disaster such as an earthquake.

But the federal government bypassed the regulatory body's order by fast-tracking an emergency bill allowing AECL to restart the reactor for 120 days.

Tories accusedof undermining regulator

Although all parties agreedafter frantic backroom negotiations to fast-track a bill through the Commons and then the Senate to reopen the plant, the Liberals attacked the Conservatives on Thursday for undermining the nuclear safety regulator.

Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff demanded to know why the justice ministry left the president of the nuclear safety watchdog, Linda Keen, without legal counsel during the Chalk River crisis. Earlier in the week, Keentold a committee of MPs the government removed the CNSC's legal counsel sothe agencycould not dispute the legislation.

"Why did the minister of justice withdraw legal services to the commission?" Ignatieff asked. "Why did this government subvert the legal authority of the regulator?"

Justice MinisterRob Nicholson rose in the House and said the department offered legal services but "gave the very sensible advice that they may want to contact independent legal advice" on the Chalk River issue.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suggestedthis week that the Liberals were only defending the CNSC's decision to keep the plant closed for inspection because Keen was appointed by the Liberals.

'Partisan hacks'

On Thursday, Liberal MP Omar Alhambra shot back at the Conservative suggestion, saying he had learned that the "independent advice" Harper received to reopen the plant actually came from consultations with the president of the Durham Conservative riding association.

"How can anyone have confidence in Canada's nuclear safety when the prime minister personally … relies on the advice of partisan hacks?" he said.

Environmentalists have accused Ottawa of setting a dangerous precedent by overriding the safety commission's decision, sending the message that the regulatory body doesn't have any authority.

In communities surrounding the reactor, reaction was mixed. Some worried public safety was compromised in a rush to get the reactor online, while others seemed confident the reactor posed no immediate threat.

The Chalk River facility was originally closed for a week of maintenance, but then the nuclear safety commission refused to allow it to resume production until a host of safety issues were resolved.

The reactor's closure caused a critical shortage of radioisotopes, which can't be stockpiled because of their short shelf life.