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OECD nuclear chief hopes Ottawa will be 'flexible' on medical isotopes

Canada should remain "flexible" and consider the global need for medical isotopes as the end date approaches for the Ontario reactor that produces much of the world's supply, the head of a major international nuclear agency says.

"The world is expecting that Canada will be conscious of the problem that is represented by a shortage of supply and that it is flexible to accommodate the production to cover the transition period," said Luis Echavarri, the director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, who was in Ottawa to attend a conference Thursday.

That does not mean Canada should artificially extend the life of the aging NRU reactor at Chalk River that is responsible for about a third of the world's isotopes, Mr. Echavarri said.

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Rather, he said, Canada should help foster an understanding that action must be taken to protect access to the radioactive material which is used to treat and diagnose a number of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

As the head of a group made up of many countries, the Spanish-born Mr. Echavarri is careful not to dictate domestic policy. But like other nuclear experts around the world, he is looking ahead to 2016 - the year Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada would get out of the medical isotope business.

It was a shutdown of the half-century-old NRU after the discovery of a leak in 2009 that alerted the international community to the uncertain nature of the supply of technetium, the most common isotope used in medical procedures. That closure lasted more than a year and coincided periodically with a similar outage at the aging Dutch reactor that also produces a large amount of isotopes.

At various times and in a number of countries, including Canada and the United States, shortages of the material caused delays and cancellations of treatments.

The response outside Canada was not one of anger but rather surprise, Mr. Echavarri said. Everyone knew the reactor was old, he said, but there was a supposition that it would keep running.

If there was frustration, it was directed at the 2008 cancellation of two other reactors called the Maples that Canada was building to replace the NRU. "Some people thought for some years that the Maples reactors were really ensuring the continuity of the supply from Canada and, well, the situation is that this has not happened," he said.

But the world has also learned much from the prolonged NRU outage, Mr. Echavarri said, including the fact that the supply of medical isotopes is not guaranteed and that 95 per cent of the isotopes used in the world come from five reactors, all of them are very old.

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As a consequence of the Canadian outage, he said his agency has created a high-level group to discuss ways to protect and bolster the amount of isotopes available internationally.

"Some countries are discussing the possibility of using reactors which were not producing isotopes but, with come small modifications, could do it," Mr. Echavarri said.

But the demand for isotopes will only grow in coming decades as more countries broaden their use of nuclear medicine, he said. So even though other countries not expecting Canada to make "drastic decisions" in relation to the isotope supply," Mr. Echavarri said, "I think they are expecting that the decisions will be commensurate with the problem of ensuring the supply of isotopes."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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