OTTAWA – The Chalk River reactor will be down until the end of year.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. says it needs at least that long to figure out how to repair the leaky and aging reactor.
“We are now able to advise that the NRU will not return to service before late 2009,” company president Hugh MacDiarmid said Wednesday on a conference call.
The 52-year-old reactor supplied a third of the world’s medical isotopes until AECL shut it down in mid-May after it found the facility was leaking radioactive water.
According to the Crown company’s last status update, the aluminium reactor vessel was still leaking 0.5 kilograms of heavy water every hour.
The reactor was supposed to be down for a month, then three months, and now even longer. MacDiarmid said the end of the year is the earliest the reactor could be repaired and restarted.
“We don’t know the ultimate length of the (shutdown’s) duration,” he said.
AECL says it can still repair the reactor. Others aren’t so sure.
“My gut feeling is telling me that this reactor may never be reactivated,” said Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, head of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.
The company says the leak is about nine metres from the nearest point of access. The wall at the leak site is thinning and tests have turned up nine “areas of interest.”
AECL expects the actual repairs, slated to begin in a few weeks, will take about two months. It should take another two months to restart the reactor.
The shutdown has curtailed the supply of isotopes used to detect cancer and heart ailments. Doctors and governments are scrambling to find alternatives to the radioactive isotopes that are in short supply.
Last month, the federal government set aside $6 million to fund research into isotope alternatives. Ottawa has also approved isotopes produced by a fledgling Australian reactor for use by Canadian health-care providers.
Health Canada has made it easier for doctors to get isotopes from a reactor in South Africa. Doctors used to have to ask permission each time they wanted a shipment of the isotope Iodine I-131. That’s no longer necessary.
This latest setback at Chalk River also brought renewed calls from MDS Nordion to bring a pair of scrapped replacement reactors out of mothballs.
But MacDiarmid said the Maple reactors “have never produced an isotope that could be used for a patient.”
Also Wednesday, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall reiterated his province’s pitch to build a nuclear reactor that can make isotopes, saying such a reactor could cost half a billion dollars or more.
Canada’s next best option to Chalk River is an aging reactor at Hamilton’s McMaster University. But it will take up to 18 months and millions of dollars in upgrades before that reactor can make isotopes, which won’t help solve the current shortage crisis.
So it falls to a small handful of other reactors to pick up Chalk River’s slack.
Two reactors of Chalk River’s vintage – one in the Netherlands and one in South Africa – have increased their isotope production.
But the Dutch reactor, which also supplies a third of the world’s isotopes, is scheduled to be shut down for maintenance next week.
A Belgian reactor is supposed to take over for the month that the Dutch reactor is down. But the Belgian reactor normally makes just 10 per cent of the world’s isotopes, so it will have to ramp up its output.
“We are anticipating a bump in the road if the transition is not seamless,” said Dr. Christopher O’Brien, head of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine.
“On paper it looks as if it should be fine. But if there is any delay in the Belgian reactor getting up online, then we would be in dire straits again.”
The federal Liberals were quick to pounce on the delay as a sign the Conservative government has mismanaged the isotope affair.
“We’re sick of getting the run-around from this government while cancer and cardiac patients compromised by isotope shortages get sicker,” Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said in a statement.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said they are “disappointed” by AECL’s delays in repairing the reactor.
“We understand that AECL’s announcement today … is of concern to Canadians. We are likewise very concerned about and understand the seriousness of the effect of this announcement on Canadian families,” they said in a statement.
The ministers added they expect “a period of more critical shortage” in August.