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Gauges of the control room of Atomic Energy Canada Limited plant in Chalk River, Ont. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Gauges of the control room of Atomic Energy Canada Limited plant in Chalk River, Ont. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

U.S. moves to end dependency on foreign isotopes Add to ...

The United States is moving to secure its own isotope supplies as soon as possible rather than continue what the country's nuclear experts are calling an "unhealthy" dependency on other countries and the whims of foreign governments.

This comes as Canadian doctors accuse a federal government experts' panel on isotopes of wasting time by focusing on hypothetical alternatives to the scarce radioactive material, rather than rolling out short-term solutions immediately - and providing funding to cash-strapped hospitals facing bills that could reach $20-million nationally.

The NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ont., normally supplies about a third of the world's supply of molybdenum-99, a medical isotope used in procedures ranging from cardiac imaging to bone scans. It has been off-line since May, when a heavy water leak was discovered. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that runs the reactor, has pushed back the estimated start date three times. AECL insists the reactor, now scheduled to start up in early 2010, will be functional again.

Others aren't so sure.

In a hearing Wednesday on plans to push forward the country's quest for a domestic isotope reactor, American nuclear experts decried the country's reliance on an increasingly precarious global supply chain of the radioactive material.

A bipartisan bill called the American Medical Isotope Production Act got its first reading in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives energy and commerce committee. It would dedicate $163-million (U.S.) to developing an isotope-producing reactor in the next five years. The bill states that it's "unclear" whether Canada's NRU will be able to resume production.

The current shortage, which has caused health-care providers to rework facility operations and in many cases cancel or postpone treatment, "is the result of an unhealthy dependency on reactors in other countries whose operational life expectancy is unpredictable," Steven Larson, chief of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's nuclear medicine service, told the committee.

"To make matters worse, continued operation of these reactors depends on the willingness of foreign governments in Canada, Europe and South Africa … to continue medical isotope production for the needs of our citizens."

Congressman Edward Markey, the committee chairman who put forward the bill, said in a statement that the United States is "facing a crisis in nuclear medicine."

"We are entirely dependent on a handful of foreign nuclear reactors, most of which are several decades old, some of which are literally falling apart."

The bill also places an imperative on developing reactors that produce isotopes using low-enriched uranium, considered a safer alternative to the more common high-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons and is regarded as a security risk.

The two most likely candidates for such a reactor are the University of Missouri, which has a reactor capable of producing the necessary isotopes, but not processing them, and a partnership between isotope supplier Covidien and Babcock & Wilcox to build a U.S.-based isotope reactor over the next several years.

The U.S.'s move to produce its own medical isotopes isn't surprising, said Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which does its research at Chalk River.

"The contrast between the U.S. and Canadian responses is not encouraging. They are actually committing money to doing something," he said, adding that it casts Canada's nuclear industry in a less than flattering light.

"Maybe it's just a recognition they can't depend on us. … They're trying to scramble to build something to replace the supply that we've been providing for the last few decades because they think we're unreliable."

Dr. Ryan noted, however, that the addition of an American reactor wouldn't eliminate the need for Canadian isotopes.

"They don't have a reactor physically large enough to replace the NRU," he said. "The holes are still going to be there."

The federal government has emphasized the importance of Canada's nuclear industry. Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt is scheduled to give a talk on the topic in Toronto Friday.

In the meantime, Canadian health-care providers are calling for more assistance from the federal government in coping with the crisis. In a closed-door meeting of Ottawa's isotope expert panel yesterday, doctors lobbied for government support of immediate alternatives to traditional technetium imaging - procedures such as PET scans, doctors argue, are viable options, but far more expensive.

Norman Laurin, nuclear physician and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine, said the expert panel seems to have made little progress.

"Let's just say my expectations are small at this point," he said. "I'd be more than happy to be corrected on that."

east one provincial health ministry have asked Ottawa for help footing the bill. The federal government has pointed out producers planned to increase isotope prices before the Chalk River reactor was shut down, but Dr. Laurin said those increases don't account for the extra costs hospitals are facing in staffing and operations to accommodate the shortage - not to mention imported isotopes, which decay during transport so hospitals end up with less than they pay for.

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