Tories face more heat over handling of isotope shortage

Ottawa's decision to restart an Ontario nuclear reactor that produces most of the world's supply of medical isotopes is drawing praise from physicians, but also some fierce criticism.

Halifax-based nuclear medicine specialist says emergency legislation like a gift

The federal government's decision to restart an Ontario nuclear reactor that produces most of the world's supply of medical isotopes drew praise Wednesday from physicians struggling with a shortage, but also fierce criticism from opposition partiesover the handling of the situation.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of undermining nuclear safety in Canada by 'turning his guns' on the federally appointed regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. ((CBC))

The government passed emergency legislation Tuesday night to reopenthe Chalk River nuclear facilityfor 120 days,overriding the advice of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Passing the bill so quickly required all federal parties in Parliament to agree.

"Last night this House had to clean up the government'smess and pull us back from a medical catastrophe," Deputy Liberal LeaderMichael Ignatieff told question period on Wednesday. "When will the government get our nuclear house in order?"

The Chalk River facility, which generates two-thirds of the radioisotopes used in hospitals around the world, has been shut down since November because of a licence violation.

That has created a shortage of the nuclear material used for life-saving diagnostic scans and for medical imaging for fractures, cancers and heart conditions.

Dr. Andrew Ross, a nuclear medicine specialist at Halifax's Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, hailed the emergency move, saying it will be welcomed by hospitals everywhere.

"This is a crucial thing, a great Christmas present for us, for sure," Ross told CBC News on Wednesday. "We have been living day to day."

Undermining nuclear safety?

But Green Party Leader Elizabeth May accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of undermining nuclear safety in Canada by "turning his guns" on the federally appointed regulator.

"It was already a bad situation, but the prime minister made it worse," May told CBC News on Wednesday. "By politicizing this debate, as Mr. Harper always does … he has undercut the regulator for nuclear safety in this country."

She also alleged the government-owned company that runs the reactor, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), has been "negligent, if not criminally negligent" in its operation of the more than 50-year-old facility.

Harper "has chosen to side with the nuclear industry against the regulator who ensures the safety of nuclear operations in Canada, and that's a dangerous move," May said.

"I can certainly assure the House when this is all behind us the governmentwill carefully examine the role of all actors in this incident and make sure accountability is properly resolved,"Harper told Wednesday's question period.

Harper also said AECL and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission operate "completely independently" of the government.

"I think it's ridiculousthat the government can only resolve an escalating disputebetween these two agencies by actually coming to Parliament and passing a law," he said.

Ignatieff said the Liberals wantthe auditor generalto investigatethe AECL and he asked forassurancesthat Canadian medical clinics would be first in line to receive isotopes needed fordiagnostic tests, once the Chalk Riverreactor is brought back online.

Health Minister Tony Clement said individual AECL contracts withhospitals andclinics would be honoured.

MDs were on 'razor's edge': Clement

On Tuesday,Clement defended the decision to start the reactor over the objections of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

"It takes about six or eight days to start up the reactor and get usable isotopes, so you could see we're really on the razor's edge," Clement told CBC News on Wednesday.

"All of us who are in power always have to balance risks every day," Clement said of the commission's concerns over the plant's safety.

"We're talking about stuff on the margins here. When you compare that to the safety of cancer patients and heart patients over the next few days, to us it was important to get the reactor started up."

But Mayinsisted therewere other reactors in Canada andaround the worldthat couldhave been put onnotice to fill the isotope shortfall, including a plant in the Netherlands that was already preparing material.

Dr. Ross said the government's movetakes some pressure offpatients and hospital staff.

"It's a very important step. It will… return to stability what we do each day in our departments. What's been so missing for the last two weeks, really."

Healso said governments, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and AECL must improve communications to ensure long-term stability.

Ross's hospital received a radioactive generator that produces small amounts of isotopes last Sunday and has been running at 220 per cent of their normal caseload to try to catch up, he noted.

They've also been shipping isotopes to six other hospitals in the province.

"Our staff has literally scraped every single drop each day from this generator," said Ross, who praised hospital employees for pulling together during a stressful period.

The bill must still be passed by the Liberal-dominated Senate, which will likely deal with it on Wednesday.

Professor says commission 'overreacted'

University of McMaster engineering physics professor John Luxat said he is disturbed by how both the commission and the facility have allowed the issue to develop.

Luxat serves as a research chair in nuclear safety analysis through two research partnerships funded equally by government and industry.

"My belief is that the commission has overreacted and placed a low-risk issue above the isotope issue, which we know puts a large number of people at risk," said Luxat, who also is a past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society. "There is some grandstanding in the way they have handled it."

But he said AECL was "quite rightly rapped on the knuckles for not doing what they said they'd do" tocompletesafety upgrades to the reactor's backup system.

"They should pay the price," he said. "Not the public."