Canada

Unclear when Chalk River will produce isotopes again: officials

Officials in charge of Ontario's Chalk River nuclear reactor say they are no closer to knowing when the reactor will be back online and producing medical isotopes again.

Officials in charge of Ontario's Chalk River nuclear reactor say they are no closer to knowing when the reactor will be back online and producing medical isotopes again.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. officials made the comments to members of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission at a public hearing in Ottawa on Thursday. Commission members, who regulate Canada's nuclear industry, asked for a timeline for repairs to the aging reactor, which has been shut down for weeks, sparking a global shortage of isotopes.

"As you can imagine, we are under rather severe pressure to come up with an estimate of the outage," AECL president Hugh MacDiarmid told the commission. "We really feel we have to have some evidence to base an outage estimate on before we go public, otherwise it would be pure guesswork."

A leak of radioactive water was detected inside the reactor May 15. Since then, workers have been conducting visual inspections of the leak, lowering cameras through small holes at the top of the reactor.

AECL officials told the commission that their cameras have captured corrosion in a number of areas.

"We are currently completing a root cause assessment to determine why the corrosion was not identified in previous inspections," said William Pilkington, AECL's chief nuclear officer.

But some commission members scolded AECL for not catching the corrosion earlier and raising it during licence hearings in 2004.

"Why did you not do a thorough investigation and not give the commission all the information going forward to give you a licence and extend the life of this reactor? We didn't get all the information and you admit today that it was limited," said Alan Graham, a former New Brunswick energy minister.

Isotopes arriving from abroad

Meanwhile, nuclear medicine doctors who use isotopes to diagnose cancer and heart disease in patients received some good news Thursday. New supplies of isotopes from reactors overseas are expected to arrive at hospitals shortly.

"We will get 50 per cent of our normal supply over the weekend," said Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.

"We have some abilities to co-ordinate [procedures] now for next week," added Dr. Christopher O'Brien of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.

The Chalk River reactor normally provides a large portion of the world's medical isotopes. Reactors in the Netherlands and South Africa have recently ramped up their production of isotopes to help with the shortfall created by the shutdown.

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