Repairs to the nuclear reactor at Chalk River are finally complete, its operators say, and they want it up and running again by the end of July.
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, which operates the eastern Ontario reactor that produces isotopes for thousands of medical tests across Canada and the world, says it is applying to restart the reactor and will propose more measures to prevent future isotope shortages.
In the past week, the reactor-repair team finished the final weld and a series of tests on the last of ten areas that had been affected by corrosion. By the end of this week, the reactor will undergo a full vacuuming and be handed over to the start-up team, AECL said in its 60th public update on the repairs.
The news comes at the same time as the release of a national report that notes a significant drop in health and medical tests in Canada due to the reactor closing at Chalk River. The National Research Universal reactor had operated for half a century.
The Canadian Institute of Health Research surveyed two-thirds of Canadian facilities doing nuclear medicine and found a 22-per-cent decrease in tests completed last October compared to the previous year - a drop that translates to about 12,000 fewer exams.
When both the Chalk River and the Petten reactor in the Netherlands were closed last August, the number of lung and bone exams dropped by 18 per cent and heart tests were down 25 per cent.
The research institute also found that labs had spent more money on the tests because they had to use isotopes that had been extremely hard to come by.
The report confirms the drop in tests that those in the field of nuclear medicine had noted throughout the year the reactor was not operated, said Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.
Many medical labs resorted to testing without the isotopes, he said, which made for less accurate results.
While he is pleased that AECL says the reactor is safe to start again, he is skeptical about whether all the parts will be fully functional.
"If, by July, the NRU is again producing medical isotopes, it's incredibly good news," he said. But, he added, Chalk River will have to undergo some serious testing first.
AECL spokesman Dale Coffin said, "Everyone at AECL understands the impact that the reactor has had on the medical and health community and we're certainly all very focused on returning it to operation as quickly and as safely as we can and we look forward."
The reactor has been closed since May, 2009. AECL had aimed to reopen the site by the end of March.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will hold a public hearing in Ottawa on June 28 to comment on AECL's start-up application.
The company is proposing a one-month shutdown each year to do more thorough maintenance, Mr. Coffin said, adding that Chalk River is the only global nuclear reactor that does not do this already.
With a report from The Canadian Press