May 19, 2008 / 2:57 AM / 9 years ago

Canada pulls plug on costly medical reactor plan

4 Min Read

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada said on Friday it was scrapping a nuclear reactor project designed to produce medical radioisotopes, a move that means half the world's supply will be made by a 50-year-old reactor that was temporarily shut down for safety reasons last year.

The Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine said the announcement was "a major concern" and said Ottawa had to ensure it could access back-up supplies.

The aging National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at the Chalk River facility in eastern Ontario, operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), produces about half the world's supply of the radioisotopes.

The NRU was supposed to be replaced in 2000 by AECL's MAPLE project, which consisted of two small reactors, but they have been plagued by technical problems and cost overruns. AECL said on Friday it was scrapping the project.

A shutdown of the NRU reactor late last year caused a shortage of radioisotopes, which are used in cancer tests and other medical procedures.

Chalk River produces medical isotopes for Canadian health care company MDS Inc and its MDS Nordion division, which is responsible for about half of world supply.

"The decision to discontinue development of the MAPLE reactors will not impact the current supply of medical isotopes as commercial agreements between MDS Nordion and AECL provide for isotope production to continue through (the) NRU and associated facilities in Chalk River," said AECL.

In a separate statement, MDS said it was disappointed by the decision and would take steps to protect the interests of its patients, customers and shareholders.

MDS "was not consulted by AECL about this decision, and the company is evaluating these developments," it said.

Short Shelf-Life

When injected into the body, the isotopes give off radiation that can be seen by a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions. They have a very short shelf-life and cannot be stockpiled.

The NRU has a license to operate until October 31, 2011. The government said it had asked AECL "to pursue an extension of the NRU operation beyond its current license to ensure the ongoing supply of medical isotopes."

The Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine said that while it was relieved the license would be extended, Ottawa had to work out a deal with other suppliers to ensure supplies would not be hit by another NRU shutdown.

"It's a major concern, but at the same time we have to see that contingency plans are being put in place," association president Jean-Luc Urbain told Reuters.

The two MAPLE reactors have cost more than C$500 million ($500 million) to develop.

"These reactors have never worked and never produced medical isotopes ... the project has long been crippled with both technical and economic impediments, which remained unresolved," the government said in a statement.

Ottawa said the reactors had failed every one in a series of tests carried out last month.

The government fired the country's top nuclear watchdog in January, saying she had mishandled the NRU closure.

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commissioner Linda Keen had refused to allow the reactor to restart after regular maintenance in November, saying not enough safety systems were working.

($1=$1 Canadian)

Additional reporting by Cameron French

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