Canada approves restart of isotope reactor

Wed Jul 7, 2010 5:27pm EDT
 
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - A dormant nuclear reactor that once supplied a third of the world's medical isotopes will restart this month after regulators agreed on Wednesday it had fixed safety problems.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd shut down its aging Chalk River nuclear facility in Eastern Ontario in May 2009 after discovering a leak of heavy water that took months longer to fix than initially planned.

In a presentation earlier this week to the Nuclear Safety Commission -- the national regulator -- AECL said its National Research Universal (NRU) reactor was once again fit for service after tests showed no leaks.

The commission issued a statement authorizing the company to reload fuel in the NRU reactor and proceed with the restart. AECL estimated it would be able to produce isotopes by the end of July.

The shutdown had also hurt MDS Nordion, a Canadian health sciences company that depends on the aging reactor for the bulk of the medical isotopes it sells. MDS said it was pleased that AECL met the safety requirements for restarting the reactor.

"We're continuing to prepare for the expected end of July return to service date," said Tamra Benjamin, vice-president of communications at MDS Nordion.

"It's great news for the nuclear medicine community also," she said.

The long shutdown forced doctors and research facilities to look elsewhere for supplies of the isotopes, small quantities of radioactive material used to perform medical imaging tests.

The reactor is more than 50 years old and the leak of heavy water -- used as a moderator and coolant in the reaction process -- led the Canadian government to announce in early June that it would spend C$35 million to promote the development of alternative sources of medical isotopes.

In its presentation, AECL pledged to suspend operations after nine months to maintain the reactor and said it would carry out maintenance annually thereafter.

(Reporting by Louise Egan and Solarina Ho; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rob Wilson)