TORONTO (Reuters) - The shutdown of a Canadian reactor that produces key radioisotopes for nuclear medicine, is already beginning to have an impact on hospital services, the head of a Canadian medical association said on Friday.
"In my own hospital, yesterday, I was unable to do tests looking for blood clots in the lung because the isotope was not available," Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine said.
O'Brien also said that the medical community was not advised of the shutdown.
"We had no idea until our supplier told us we have no isotopes," he said.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd said earlier this week that its National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River in eastern Ontario would be out of commission longer than expected.
The reactor, which supplies more than two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes, will remain shut down until early to mid-January to install safety-related equipment, after shutting for scheduled maintenance in November.
It was originally expected to be back at normal production by mid-December.
The Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine said the delay could affect tens of thousands of medical tests across North America. It estimated that about 50,000 Canadians and 160,000 Americans would be forced to have services postponed for each month the reactor remains shut down.
Barclay Howden, director general of the directorate of nuclear cycle and facilities regulation at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said on Friday that the work was very important from a nuclear safety standpoint and had to be done.
The plant is a key producer of medical isotopes for MDS Inc and its MDS Nordion division, which is responsible for about 50 percent of world supply.
When injected into the body, isotopes give off radiation that can be imaged with a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.
Bristol-Myers Squibb said on Friday that it had been told by MDS Nordion, its sole supplier of molybdenum, to expect shortages of the radioisotope through mid-January.
Molybdenum is used in the manufacturing of its cardio-imaging product TechneLite. A Bristol-Myers spokesman said that the company is currently shipping the product at 15 percent to 20 percent of its capacity.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which has regulatory oversight of the Chalk River facility, said on Thursday that its staff had found last month that the reactor did not comply with the conditions of its license.
Canadian opposition politicians accused the government of not having a sufficient back-up plan in the event of a shutdown at Chalk River. Atomic Energy of Canada is a government-owned nuclear technology company.
"The minute you notice that you've got a reactor shut down, you think, what is this reactor producing? It produces isotopes for medical tests," Liberal member of Parliament Michael Ignatieff told reporters.
"We have a medical problem here right now."
Reporting by Leah Schnurr, Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson