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Maples reactors no solution to isotope shortage Add to ...

The president of the Crown corporation that runs Canada's nuclear-energy sector says two mothballed reactors that were built to replace the aging unit in Chalk River, Ont., would not provide the solution to the supply crisis of medical isotopes.

"Even if we decided tomorrow morning to restore the Maples reactors to some state whereby they could potentially produce isotopes for medical purposes, it is years away, hundreds of millions of dollars away, and entails very, very high technical risk," Hugh MacDiarmid told the Commons natural-resources committee Friday.

Opposition politicians and some nuclear experts have said the federal government should revisit its year-old decision to walk away from the two Maples reactors given the unreliability of Chalk River's NRU reactor, which has supplied much of the world's isotopes.

The 50-year-old unit will be out of service until the first quarter of next year as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., repairs nine separate holes created by corrosion.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt has appointed an expert panel to look into alternative supplies for the isotopes, which are used in a wide range of procedures including cancer diagnoses and heart treatment. That panel, which will report in November, will also look at the viability of the Maples.

Mr. MacDiarmid told the committee that he imagines Ms. Raitt wants to leave no stone unturned in looking for a source of isotopes. But, he said, the Maples are not viable. The natural-resources committee was called back for a special sitting this week by opposition members who wanted to review what is being done to help find a source of the material.

Speaking to the committee by phone, Ontario Health Minister David Caplan reiterated his position that the federal government should compensate provinces for the millions of dollars in extra costs they have had to incur as a result of the shutdown of the NRU.

Robert Atcher, the past-president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, told the committee that 80 per cent of his members have been affected by the shortage, and that the alternatives are all less than desirable.

The committee also heard from Sandy McEwan, a nuclear-medicine expert who is special adviser on isotopes to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Dr. McEwan said the results of the disruption have not been as dire as originally feared. But, he said, there are disparities in supply across Canada that concern him, and small urban hospitals have been particularly hard hit.

Opposition members asked why Dr. McEwan's analysis of the situation seemed much more optimistic than that of others in his field. Dr. McEwan responded that he fully recognizes the importance of the issue and he took offence that one Bloc Québécois member said he seemed almost jovial.

Provinces and territories "are reporting that there are manageable delays," he said. "This is clearly not entirely acceptable for our patients, but they are manageable."

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