June 18, 2009 / 4:09 PM / 8 years ago

Canada may open isotope project to private sector

<p>Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources (R) speaks with Associate Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Serge Dupont (C) during a meeting in Toronto, June 18, 2009.Mike Cassese</p>

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Canadian government defended its decision to scrap the Maple isotope reactor project on Thursday, but left the door open for private groups to take over the mothballed nuclear program.

Ottawa halted construction of the project last year because of cost overruns and technical problems. It was planned to be a replacement for the ailing 50-year-old Chalk River unit and take over the production of medical isotopes.

The isotopes are used for diagnosing cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.

"There may be groups of individuals and groups of companies out there that want to revisit the Maples and the calls for information and expressions of interest may very well point that out, because there are pieces that are not the reactor that are still utilizable, with still good infrastructure," Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, told reporters.

"So we are hoping to get some interesting proposals coming out in the calls for information," Raitt said.

The minister's comments followed a Toronto meeting with representatives from an international taskforce looking into the medical isotope shortage.

Canada has been in the spotlight for more than a month after the Chalk River reactor, which supplies a third of the world's medical isotopes, was shut down in May because of a small leak of heavy water, used in the nuclear reaction process.

The reactor's operator, government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, warned it will be at least three months until the leak is fixed.

Raitt, who came under personal attack recently for calling the shortage a "sexy" issue, and saw it as a way to advance her political career, said on Thursday that AECL is still sticking with its timeline despite speculation it could take much longer to fix the problem.

MDS Nordion, which markets the isotopes worldwide, urged the government and AECL earlier this month to consult with international experts in hopes of reactivating the Maple project.

The company was not immediately available for comment.

($1=$1.12 Canadian)

Reporting by Scott Anderson; editing by Rob Wilson

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