Key isotope reactor down at least three months

Thu May 28, 2009 8:59am EDT
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By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - An aging Canadian nuclear reactor that produces a third of the world's medical isotope supply is expected to be out of operation for at least three months, officials said on Wednesday.

Crews have found the source of a heavy water leak at the Chalk River reactor in eastern Ontario, but more inspections will be needed before a repair plan can be worked out, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. said.

"Based on our preliminary findings to date, we now believe that the NRU reactor will be out of service for at least three months," AECL Chief Nuclear Officer Bill Pilkington said in a news release.

AECL said it cannot give an exact prediction on how long the facility will be down until the inspection is completed. The government-owned firm had previously estimated it would be out of operation for at least a month.

The 50-year-old facility was shut down May 17 so crews could find the cause of the small heavy water leak, which officials say does not pose a health threat to the public.

A medical isotope is a very small quantity of radioactive material used to perform nuclear medicine imaging tests. Isotopes are mixed with different solutions and injected into patients where they give off energy that is read by a special camera.

Isotopes have a short shelf life, so the unexpected shutdown has sent hospitals in the United States and Canada scrambling to find alternative suppliers. There are a limited number of reactors that can produce them.

"The real problem is that those other reactors don't have the excess capacity that (Chalk River) has," said Robert Atcher, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine.   Continued...