Canada cites dangers in abandoned isotope reactors

Fri Jun 12, 2009 3:02pm EDT
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - One of the reasons Canada abandoned a project to build new reactors to produce medical isotopes was the risk they could not be shut down if something went wrong, Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said on Friday.

The government agency Atomic Agency of Canada Ltd and health sciences company MDS Inc had poured large sums of money over 12 years into what was called the Maple project to build reactors to make the isotopes, used for medical imaging to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

The government backed an AECL conclusion last year that the project should be killed. But MDS, which markets the isotopes worldwide, and the political opposition have been pressing Ottawa to resurrect the Maple projects in light of the temporary shutdown of Canada's aging isotope reactor in Chalk River, Ontario.

"The problem was a serious one," said Raitt, speaking in an interview with Toronto radio station CFRB, about the Maple project.

"It was one where if the reactor were to run it wouldn't be safe, because there's a possibility it wouldn't be able to be shut down," she said.

There had been the hope that that problem could be fixed, but she said the timeline for solving it was put at sometime between 2013 and 2018. "That's not a short fix," she said.

The Chalk River reactor was commissioned more than 50 years ago and normally produces about one-third of the world's medical isotopes.

It was shut down in May for at least three months because it was leaking a small amount of heavy water, prompting a scramble in Canada and around the world to find alternative sources for the isotopes, which have a short shelf life.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week that he expected Canada would eventually get out of the business of making the isotopes.

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson)

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) speaks during a news conference with Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 10, 2009. REUTERS/Chris Wattie</p>