OTTAWA — Canadian doctors are concerned any further delay in getting the Chalk River reactor up-and-running will have serious consequences for the country’s hospitals.
The nuclear reactor was scheduled to reopen in spring after 10 months off-line due to a pinprick-sized radioactive water leak. But so far, only 24 per cent of the work has been completed.
Despite the slow pace, everything is going according to plan, said Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. spokesman Dale Coffin in an interview. The reactor was supposed to be down for a month, then three months. AECL’s best guess now is the reactor will be back up by March, Coffin said.
“It’s coming along and we are on target to start the reactor near the end of March,” he said.
Meanwhile, the medical establishment is crossing its fingers that work to restore the reactor will actually finish on time.
Francois Lamoureux, president of the Quebec association of nuclear medicine specialists, said any further delay would be “extremely serious.”
He said the reactor in the Netherlands, which took up the slack for the production of medical isotopes when Canada stopped its own production, has to close by mid-February for repairs.
Patients awaiting treatment – mainly for heart ailments and cancer -may suffer as a result of any further delay between the shutdown of the Dutch reactor and the re-opening of Chalk River.
Isabelle Legault, from the association representing health professionals in Quebec, is concerned a prolonged isotope shortage will also have an impact on the professionals already forced to do significant amounts of overtime to accommodate the current crisis.
“If this goes on much longer, we’re going to have to revise the way we do things here,” she said.
“The troops are exhausted, that’s for sure. In fact, the employees are already rushing because they know the isotopes won’t be coming in indefinitely.”
So far, hospitals have managed to perform necessary medical tests either by relying on pricier imported isotopes or by using alternative, but less precise, diagnostic tests.
“I think patients were cared for given the methods available,” said Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine.
Quebec escaped the worst because it already had tomography machines in place that could be used as an alternative to isotopes. The rest of the country wasn’t so lucky.
“Elsewhere in Canada it was noticeably harder,” Urbain said.
The isotopes shortage has been a costly crisis for the provinces. In Quebec, Health Minister Yves Bolduc estimated the crisis has so far cost the province $10 million.
And Karine Rivard, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said it’s still too early to put a precise figure on the cost.
“It’s a bill that increases each day,” she said. “Once the crisis is over, then we’ll be able to calculate the costs and send a claim to the federal government.”
The extra costs are for both to the workforce and the purchase of foreign isotopes. Legault estimates the costs of overtime work alone runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And Urbain noted the cost of medical technetium isotopes has jumped 30 per cent.
“That’s costing Canada $10 to $15 million each year,” he said.
Hospital have been instructed to do what’s necessary despite the high costs and to keep a running tally, said Lamoureux.
But this week, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s office refused to comment on whether it was still considering compensation for the provinces.
“Since the shutdown of the reactor, the government of Canada is in contact with the provincial governments, the territories and suppliers of health services in order to exchange information and to identify new approaches to managing the situation,” said ministry spokesman Stephane Shank.
But Urbain said the requests for compensation are legitimate.
“The spike in prices is related to the defective reactor, which is under federal jurisdiction,” he said. “So it’s normal that the provinces ask for help from the federal government.”