May 28, 2009 / 7:03 PM / 9 years ago

MDS struggles to replace Chalk River isotopes

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.

The Chalk River plant has been in operation since the late 1950s, and there has been speculation that the leak may spell the end of the aging facility if the inspection finds additional corrosion problems.

The leak at the facility in Eastern Ontario does not pose a threat to the public, AECL said.

In a separate announcement on Thursday, the Canadian government said it wanted major international firms to buy some or all of the nuclear reactor business run by AECL and that Chalk River should be split off as a separate entity.

Benjamin said MDS was not surprised by the government’s recommendation, and was pleased officials were calling for a long-term solution to global medical isotope supply problems.

MDS is calling on the government to restart work on replacement reactor to Chalk River. AECL abruptly canceled the replacement Maple Project in 2008 over technical issues, but MDS said it was never consulted on the decision.

Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Peter Galloway

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