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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada will eventually stop making medical isotopes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday amid a prolonged shutdown of an aging Canadian reactor that makes a third of the world's isotope supply.
The isotopes are valuable in medical imaging for diagnosing cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions, but Canada's nuclear reactor is 50 years old and efforts to engineer a replacement have failed.
"Eventually we anticipate Canada will be out of the business" of making isotopes," Harper told reporters.
The Chalk River reactor in eastern Ontario, run by government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, was taken out of service in May because of a leak of a small amount of heavy water. AECL says it will be down for at least three months.
AECL and health sciences company MDS Inc had poured large sums of money over 12 years into the Maple project to build replacement reactors but the government backed an AECL conclusion last year that the project should be terminated.
"We can't spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and never produce an isotope," Harper said.
"What we decided to do instead was to invest money in the repair of the reactor to keep it online for a longer period of time while others sources around the world come online," he added.
"But obviously we will continue to have difficulties with a reactor that's very old and whose operation is not always dependable or predictable, and that's just the tough reality of the situation."
MDS, which has exclusive distribution rights to the Chalk River isotopes, urged the government last week to resurrect the Maple project, and Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said she would take into account all interests in an expert panel review of the situation.
But Harper's remarks made it clear that the government still feels that project is an inoperable sinkhole.
The substance on the isotope issue has been overshadowed in recent days by an unguarded remark by Raitt in which she called the isotope issue sexy and one which could raise her profile.
She made the remark in January to an aide, who had mistakenly recorded it and then left the recorder in a women's washroom. A reporter had got a hold of the recording, and the remarks were published this week.
On Wednesday, Raitt tearfully apologized for the remark.
Editing by Peter Galloway; editing by Peter Galloway