Not any more

Chalk River reactor set to resume producing medical isotopes

In Canada on August 12, 2010 at 20:32

OTTAWA — The world’s oldest operating nuclear reactor is poised to restart after a 15-month breakdown that threatened the global supply of life-saving medical isotopes and Canada’s dominance in nuclear medicine.

Refuelling of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River, testing of its main heavy-water cooling system and all 35 auxiliary systems are complete.

Now comes low-power testing, then returning the reactor to high-power operation.

If all goes as planned, the NRU is expected to resume isotope production as early as next week, with isotopes to roll out for processing and distribution within 10 days, says Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL).

“It’s been a complex project and a challenging job,” said Robin Forbes, a spokeswoman for the Crown corporation, which operates the Chalk River Laboratories, northwest of Ottawa. “The goal has always been, we want it up and running safely and as quickly as possible.”

The reactor, which will be 53 years old Nov. 3, was placed in an extended shutdown May 15, 2009 to repair a pinprick leak of radioactive heavy water and other corroded spots at the base of the unit’s 65,000-litre heavy-water containment vessel.

AECL initially estimated the work would take three to four months. But the extent of corrosion, the complexity of working in a highly radioactive environment and other problems caused repeated delays, threatening Canada’s world dominance in the estimated $4-billion global molecular imaging and radiotherapeutics market, led by Ottawa’s MDS Nordion.

In the U.S, the federal government is under increasing pressure to quit Canada’s erratic supply of isotopes — the NRU shut down for a month in late 2007 over safety concerns from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that were later overruled by emergency federal legislation — in favour of building U.S. production capacity.

AECL has estimated the cost of the NRU breakdown, including lost isotope revenue, at $70 million. Prior to the shutdown, an estimated 27 million people worldwide were treated annually with NRU-produced medical isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases.

The NRU routinely produced about 30 per cent of the worldwide molybdenum-99 requirements for medical diagnosis (imaging) of the brain, thyroid, heart, lungs, liver, kidney, spleen and bone marrow. Another crucial NRU isotope, Cobalt-60, accounts for 16 million annual cancer therapy treatments in 80 countries.

The long-term cost of the NRU closure will be an inevitable spike in advanced cardiovascular diseases and cancers over the next few years among patients who were unable to undergo exams, says the Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine.

That concern is supported by a recent survey by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. The health data agency reported a near 22-per-cent decrease in the number of nuclear medical exams performed on Canadian patients’ hearts, bones and lungs last October compared to one year earlier — 12,000 fewer exams overall.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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