Canada plans to leave medical isotope business

June 12, 2009

Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper has announced his opposition to the Canadian government’s continued long-term involvement in medical isotope production.

Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper has announced his opposition to the Canadian government's continued long-term involvement in medical isotope production.

Harper told reporters during a June 10 news conference that his government plans to discontinue isotope production at the troubled National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River, ON, as soon as facilities outside of Canada are ready to handle its production. It is currently shut down to repair a heavy water leak.

"We anticipate Canada will be out of the business," Harper said.

The NRU reactor is by far the world's largest molybdenum-99 producer. When operational, the NRU reactor and related production facilities meet about one-third of the global demand for Mo-99, the parent isotope for technetium-99m. Tc-99m is used in about six of 10 nuclear imaging procedures. Because of its 66-hour half-life, Mo-99 supplies dwindle quickly whenever manufacturing is disrupted.

Medical isotope production has repeatedly been the source of embarrassment for Harper's administration and the Ottawa government. The shutdown of the NRU reactor beginning May 14 triggered isotope shortages, forcing the delay of diagnostic medical procedures at thousands of hospitals and clinics throughout North America. Repair of the heavy water leak will take at least three months, according to Atomic Energy Canada, Ltd., the semipublic corporation that operates the Chalk River facility.

The supply crisis may deepen further in mid-June when the Atomic Energy Corporation SAFARI-1 reactor in South Africa is shut down for maintenance.

AECL's inability to bring the Multipurpose Applied Physics Lattice Experiment (MAPLE) reactors -- the planned successors for the NRU reactor -- into operation added greatly to criticism about government management of the program. Designed and built by AECL at a cost of more than $460 million, the twin MAPLE reactors were supposed to start up in 2000. Despite repeated renovations, they never performed safely enough during testing to be licensed. The government scrapped the project in May 2008.

During the news conference, Harper told reporters that the government could not afford to spend more on the project.

The Harper government was also embarrassed in late 2007 when discord between AECL and Canada's Nuclear Safety Commission forced an unexpected shutdown of the NRU reactor for safety-related retrofitting. That situation was painfully and publicly sorted out in an emergency hearing before the Canadian House of Commons. The resulting isotope shortage lasted 28 days.

During the current shortage, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt issued a public apology for telling an aide in a recorded conversation that the medical isotope crisis was a "sexy" way to advance her career. The Natural Resources Ministry oversees AECL. Opposition members of Parliament have called for Raitt's resignation.

Harper offered no specific timetable or plan for closing down the 50-year-old NRU reactor. It is operating on a license that will expire in 2011, and sources expect a regulatory extension allowing it to run until 2016. Its future after that is considered dubious.

At least three initiatives are under way in the U.S. to establish the first domestic source of Mo-99 since 1989. Officials with the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) and a joint venture between Covidien and Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services group have each announced plans for reactor production facilities big enough to meet half of U.S. demand. Both projects are roughly four years away from startup.

Back in Canada, Harper may not need a specific long-term plan for turning the responsibility for isotope production to others. Some sources familiar with its operation have speculated that NRU may be permanently shut down.