MDS struggles to replace Chalk River isotopes

Thu May 28, 2009 2:56pm EDT
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Medical isotopes will stay in short supply despite distributor MDS Inc's efforts to replace supplies lost due to the shutdown of a key Canadian reactor, an MDS spokeswoman said on Thursday.

The Chalk River reactor, which produces about a third of the global medical isotope supply, was idled in mid-May by a heavy water leak. The reactor's operator, government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, warned on Wednesday it will be at least three months until the leak is fixed.

MDS's Nordion division has an exclusive agreement with AECL to distribute the isotopes, which are tiny quantities of radioactive material used for medical testing and in the treatment of heart disease and cancer.

"We've reached out to our supply network, and they've been responsive. But I'll be honest with you, there is a limited supply," said Tamra Benjamin, a spokeswoman for MDS Nordion.

The shutdown has sent hospitals, especially in North America, scrambling for alternative sources of the isotopes, which have a limited shelf life and cannot be inventoried.

There are few reactors around the world that produce the isotopes, and medical experts have warned they do not have enough excess capacity to replace Chalk River, which produces about 50 percent of the North American supply.

MDS has not updated its financial forecasts based on Wednesday's announcement, Benjamin said.

The company said last week that for each month the facility is out operation, its adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization is reduced by $4 million.

AECL had initially estimated the leak would cause a one-month shutdown of the reactor. It warned on Wednesday the new three-month estimate was preliminary and it could be extended as more information on the leak is collected.   Continued...