Reactor delays frustrate doctors

OTTAWA, Ont. — Doctors who rely on medical isotopes to diagnose ailments say they are “very frustrated” it’s taking so long to repair a leaky Canadian nuclear reactor.

OTTAWA, Ont. — Doctors who rely on medical isotopes to diagnose ailments say they are “very frustrated” it’s taking so long to repair a leaky Canadian nuclear reactor.

The Society of Nuclear Medicine took aim Monday at Canada’s flagship nuclear company for the repeated delays in fixing its aging reactor at Chalk River, Ont.

“We’re very frustrated by the fact that we’ve been waiting for a year,” said Dr. Robert Atcher, the group’s past-president.

“Initially they told us a month before they would have repairs done, then subsequently three months, then after that six months, then we didn’t even get any deadlines.”

The National Research Universal reactor supplied a third of the world’s medical isotopes until Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., shut it down last May after finding a pinhole radioactive water leak.

AECL’s best guess is the 53-year-old reactor won’t be back up until the end of July — more than a year after it went offline.

It has fallen to a handful of other reactors around the world built a half-century ago to supply the isotopes used to diagnose cancer and heart ailments.

The loss of the Chalk River supply has been exacerbated by the fact that the Petten reactor in the Netherlands, which supplied another third of the world’s supply, has also been taken out of production, leaving reactors in Belgium, France and South Africa to carry the load.

Doctors have been scrambling to make do with an erratic supply of isotopes. That’s forced them to rely on alternatives. Some facilities are resorting to an older type of isotope, thallium, when possible. It does not produce images as clear as those produced by technetium-99, but can be used in a pinch.

“Certainly, there is frustration,” said Dr. Rob Beanlands, chief of cardiac imaging at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

“This is something basically that people took for granted for years, right, that there was always a supply of technetium.

“I guess, partly in a way, we’re learning … the motherhood type of thing that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Beanlands added wait times haven’t changed at his institute since Chalk River went down because doctors have adapted on the fly.

Atcher also chided the Conservatives for scrapping a pair of next-generation nuclear reactors called the Maples, which were meant to replace the NRU reactor.

The Maple reactors were millions of dollars over-budget and years behind schedule when the Tories pulled the plug two years ago due to design flaws.

The United States put off development of its own isotope-producing reactors because Canada touted the Maples as a long-term source of isotopes, Atcher said.

“We took that promise at face value, stopped development in the U.S., and waited,” he said.

“Unfortunately, our friends to the north failed to deliver on that promise and cancelled the project two years ago, which has put the whole molecular imaging community in the U.S. in a bind.

“So let’s call it like it is and say that Canada assured us that there would be a long-term solution, and Canada needs to deliver on those assurances.”

A report by a panel of Canadian experts recommended the federal government build a new reactor to replace the one at Chalk River. Atcher said Canada should heed the panel’s advice and start building a new reactor.