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Nordion undertakes review of strategic options

Barrels of Molybdenum 99 are loaded at the Ottawa airport for shipment round the world.

Nordion International Inc.

Nordion Inc., a major provider of isotopes used in medical imaging, said on Monday it hired advisers to examine options for its future, sending its shares sharply higher.

Nordion suspended its dividend in September after an arbitration panel rejected its claim for damages from its main supplier, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., putting one of its core businesses in jeopardy.

The company said no decision had been made on a deal and it intends to stay with planned business activities during the strategic review. Jefferies & Co. will advise the company in the review.

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On a conference call with analysts and investors, chief executive officer Steve West said the review was in "early stages" and declined to comment further.

The company also reported financial results after postponing their release in December, when it said it was in discussions to amend the terms of a credit facility. It reached a new $80-million (U.S.) credit facility agreement on Jan. 25.

Nordion is one of the world's leading producers of molybdenum-99, used in medical imaging, and it depends on raw material from AECL's aging facility in Chalk River, Ont.

The plant has been operating since 1957, and while it is licensed to operate until 2016, its future beyond that is unclear. Nordion had hoped to force AECL to pay damages or complete two new reactors that would have ensured a long-term supply of the radioactive material it needs.

Nordion's dispute with AECL turns on the Maple reactors, built to replace Chalk River. The reactors never worked properly, and AECL halted an effort to repair them in 2008. Nordion has argued that AECL is legally required to complete the reactors, or pay damages.

Despite the arbitration loss, it has not given up that objective, and on Jan. 18 it returned to court, amending its 2008 statement of claim against AECL in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to seek damages of $243.5-million for negligence and breach of their production agreement.

Nordion has struggled to find an alternative supplier. It terminated a preliminary agreement with a subsidiary of Russia's State Atomic Energy Corp. in October and said it would begin talks with a related Russian source.

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But even if the negotiations result in a new deal, Nordion would obtain less material than previously thought, the company said then.

Moly-99 is not Nordion's only product, and the company has said in the past that it expects future growth to be driven by its "targeted therapies" business, which includes TheraSphere, a liver cancer treatment. It also sells sterilization systems that use radiation, and isotopes used in sterilization. Those businesses do not depend on the Chalk River facility.

Nordion took a $24.1-million charge related to the ongoing litigation, and that, paired with higher income tax expenses, hurt its fourth-quarter results, even as revenue edged higher.

For the quarter to Oct. 31, it reported a loss of $43.5-million, or 70 cents a share, compared with a profit of $6.9-million, or 11 cents, a year earlier.

Excluding the litigation charge and other items, the company earned $21.4-million, or 34 cents a share, up from $18.7-million, or 30 cents, a year earlier. Revenue rose 1 per cent to $74.7-million.

The sterilization segment's earnings rose 15 per cent to $16.7-million, and earnings from medical isotopes – the division that sells moly-99 – fell 1 per cent to $11.3-million, hurt by falling demand. Nordion said it expects medical isotopes revenue to decline 20 per cent in fiscal 2013.

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Regulators closed the Chalk River facility because of safety concerns in fall of 2007 and again from May, 2009, to August, 2010, causing a worldwide shortage of moly-99 and encouraging many of Nordion's customers to diversify suppliers.

The stock rose 7.3 per cent to $6.90 (Canadian) on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Before Monday's gains, the shares had fallen 41 per cent from a year-high of $10.86 in September. At current levels, the company has a market capitalization of about $427-million.

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