As the looming shutdown of a European reactor threatens to create shortages of the material used to diagnose life-threatening illnesses, the Opposition is pushing Ottawa to develop plans to ensure the continued supply of medical isotopes.
Liberal MPs sent a letter yesterday to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, expressing "growing concern" that there is no contingency plan to deal with the shutdown of the Petten reactor in the Netherlands, which will occur while the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Ont., remains out of service.
The NRU has been off-line for repairs since last May and will not run again until April. The Dutch reactor will be shut down for several months starting Feb. 19. When both units are functioning, they produce more than 60 per cent of the world's medical isotopes.
Among other actions, the Liberals want a meeting with the two U.S.-based isotope distributors to determine why they have different scenarios for Canada in coming weeks.
Covidien, which is mostly responsible for supplying the West, says intermittent periods of serious shortage will occur. Lantheus, which is mostly responsible for the East, says it has been supplying 40 to 50 per cent of its customers' required isotopes since the NRU went down and will continue to do so even when Petten is taken out of service.
Both Mr. Paradis and Ms. Aglukkaq said they have received the letter from the Liberal MPs. Ms. Aglukkaq said she will "respond accordingly" and Mr. Paradis said he will "respond in the usual fashion."
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters that the world ultimately needs an international panel of nuclear experts who "will sit down with public leaders and say, okay, here are your options. Here's what's viable, here's what's doable, here's the plan."
The Liberals held informal hearings into the isotope issue yesterday that were partly designed to draw attention to the fact that Parliament has been prorogued until March.
"We are in a situation where cancer and heart patients across the country, now especially in Western Canada, are not being able to get the diagnostic services that they require," said Mr. Ignatieff.
With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa