By Andrew Mayeda, Canwest News ServiceMarch 31, 2010
OTTAWA —The federal government took another step toward exiting the medical isotope business Wednesday, announcing it will not build an isotope reactor to replace the Chalk River, Ont., facility that has been shut down since last spring.
The government said it plans to transform isotope production into a commercial business that can survive without taxpayers' money. But nuclear-medicine specialists warned that Canadian hospitals will have to increasingly rely on relatively unproven technology to procure the isotopes used to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other conditions.
"The government, by moving to an experimental, untested situation, is taking a very big risk for Canadian patients," said Dr. Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.
In a report released in December, an expert panel appointed by the government recommended Ottawa move "expeditiously" to build a "multi-use research reactor" to replace the aging facility.
The panel said a new reactor represented the best way of creating a sustainable supply of medical isotopes, which have been in short supply since the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor. The latest date for a resumption of operations at Chalk River is mid-summer.
However, in a response to the report released Wednesday, the government notes a new reactor would be costly and take years to build.
"The government finds that the very high costs and very long lead times make this a less attractive option than others. Based on the experience of other countries, it would likely take a decade or more to bring a new research reactor on stream," states the response.
The expert panel estimated that a new reactor would cost $500 million to $1.2 billion, depending on its features. Operating the reactor would cost $35 million to $70 million annually.
Instead, the government will invest in research and development in isotope technologies with commercial potential, support more effective management of supplies by the health-care system, and continue to work with the international community to co-ordinate production.
But O'Brien said shortages could worsen at hospitals in smaller communities.
"Under the best-case scenario, the larger urban centres will have a relatively reliable stable of medical isotopes, but whether the community hospitals can maintain services, we don't know."
The government plans to invest in an emerging technology that uses cyclotrons, a particle accelerator that does not require a traditional fission reactor to generate isotopes. O'Brien said it remains to be seen if such technologies can produce sufficient volumes of high-quality isotopes.
Liberal MP Geoff Regan said the decision appeared to be ideologically driven.
"I think that this government came to power with the attitude that governments shouldn't be doing all kinds of things," he said. "My impression is that, from the start, they didn't want to be involved in nuclear . . . despite the fact the research that has been done at Chalk River has made Canada a world leader in the nuclear sector."
The decision creates more uncertainty around the future of the labs operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, about 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. The government has put AECL's CANDU reactor business on the block, but has yet to clarify what it will do with the Chalk River operations.
Michael Ivanco, vice-president of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, said it appears the government will leave the isotope business in 2016, when the licence on the Chalk River reactor is expected to expire.
"Beyond 2016, if it lasts that long, what is there?" said Ivanco, who works as a scientist at AECL.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last summer that the government planned to eventually exit the isotope business. At the time, he said Ottawa would keep the Chalk River reactor running long enough for isotope producers in other countries to pick up the slack.
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