Dutch reactor down

OTTAWA — The already shaky isotope supply may get a whole lot shakier.

OTTAWA — The already shaky isotope supply may get a whole lot shakier.

A Dutch reactor stepping in for its downed counterpart at Chalk River, Ont., is scheduled for a month of maintenance starting this weekend — but hospitals still don’t know how the shutdown will affect their isotope shipments.

“We’re holding our breath to see what will happen,” said Dr. Christopher O’Brien, head of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.

“I assume towards the end of the week we may be getting information — I would hope, let’s put it that way — because we all have to determine what to do as of Monday.”

Isotope shipments are already erratic, he said. Supplies vary weekly so doctors have to wait to see how many isotopes they get before booking patients.

“You can’t book anything … until you get the notice probably Tuesday, Wednesday, which will allow us to know what to do Thursday, Friday,” O’Brien said.

“Scheduling is terrible.”

Further shortages could mean hospitals and clinics already coping with a scare supply of isotopes will bump some patients for others with pressing ailments.

Five aging nuclear reactors supply the world with molybdenum-99, which is used to generate the radioactive isotope technetium for nuclear imaging.

Of those reactors, the Canadian and Dutch ones together produce about 70 per cent of the world’s medical isotopes.

The Dutch reactor increased its output after Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. shut down its Chalk River reactor in mid-May after finding it was leaking radioactive water.

AECL doesn’t expect Chalk River back until at least the year’s end.

But the Dutch reactor will be down from July 18 to Aug. 18 for repairs — leaving much smaller reactors in Belgium and South Africa to make up the shortfall.

Combined, the Belgian and South African reactors account for less than a quarter of the world’s isotopes.

Doctors worry their supply will dry up even more.

“It’s walking into the unknown,” said Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, head of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.