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Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt responds to a criticsim during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 10, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt responds to a criticsim during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 10, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Raitt defends move to shelve nuclear reactors Add to ...

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt is defending her government's decision to shelve the two Maple reactors, arguing that they wouldn't have prevented the global isotope crisis because they simply couldn't be brought online.

"The reality is that the Maples would not have solved this problem today," she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail Thursday.

But she said an expert panel on isotope alternatives will take a second look at the mothballed reactors because restarting the Maples is part of at least one of the 22 proposals submitted to the panel - that of medical technology company MDS Nordion, which is suing AECL over the decision not to bring the two reactors online. Medical isotopes are used in diagnostic tests.

The panel is expected to make its findings public in November.

Many physicians say the Maple I and Maple II reactors are an obvious solution to the global medical isotope shortage that followed the shutdown in May of the 52-year-old NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ont., because of a heavy water leak.

The Maples, also at Chalk River, were intended to replace the aging reactor, but the plans were cancelled in May, 2008, when the reactors were found to operate differently than designed.

Parliament's Standing Committee on Natural Resources will to meet today to discuss progress on the isotope crisis.

Ottawa's response to the reactor shutdown drew fresh criticism this week. The Canadian Medical Association on Wednesday passed motions at its national conference demanding that Ottawa consult doctors on all isotope-related decisions, reconsider its decision to end Canada's involvement in the isotope-production business, appoint an independent panel to look at putting the Maples online, and ramp up research and implementation of alternatives to the now-scarce isotopes.

"We are deeply troubled at the prolonged and unpredictable shortage of medical isotopes," outgoing CMA president Robert Ouellet said, adding that Ottawa should pay for increased costs caused by the shortage.

"There is a responsibility for the federal government to pay for that - they created the problem, so they need to fix it."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told doctors at the conference this week she plans to discuss the issue of compensation at a health ministers' conference in September.

Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Nuclear Medicine Association, said Ottawa still seems unaware of the implications of its decisions on isotopes, and its confused response to the crisis leaves doctors and technicians around the world wondering what's coming next.

"The government does not appear to have a ready, organized plan to deal with this," he said. "I think it's lacking political leadership at the highest levels."

Ms. Raitt said she has been in close contact with her counterparts in the United States working on medium-term and long-term solutions to the shortage.

She rejected the suggestion of several nuclear physicians that Ottawa has let the world down by not acting sooner to head off the crisis.

"Last year, Canada produced 60 per cent of the world's isotopes, and one thing operators understand is that sometimes, when your technology or when your unit is as old as it is, 52 years, this stuff is going to happen. ... It certainly has crystallized, though, the fragility of medical isotope supplies in the world. And we're working together on that."

The U.S. government is expected to decide in the next week on an alternate supply of isotopes, possibly from U.S. reactors.

The White House's Office for Science and Technology Policy is "close to making some decisions about how to deal with the issue in the short term," said spokesman Rick Weiss. "There's a longer process ahead to deal with the long-term solution, which essentially, at its core, has to involve increasing domestic production so this doesn't become an issue in the future."

Such a move could render Canada's isotope industry redundant: The United States is a major importer of Canadian-made isotopes, and uses 10 times more of the radioactive material than Canada does.

A reactor at Missouri University can irradiate but not process isotopes. It is submitting a proposal to build its own processing facilities.

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