AECL requests hearing to restart leaky isotope reactor
The gauges of the control room of Atomic Energy Canada Limited plant are seen in Chalk River, Ont., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007. (Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, June 12, 2010 8:38AM EDT
OTTAWA - Canada's nuclear watchdog is fast-tracking a request for a hearing to consider reopening the country's aging medical isotope-producing reactor.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. made a request Friday for a formal hearing in hopes of restarting medical isotope production at the Ontario plant by mid-summer.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has not yet scheduled a hearing, which is expected to take one day, but it said the date would be announced quickly and normal hearing rules will be tossed aside to deal with what it calls a priority case.
"Returning the NRU to service as safely and as quickly as possible to support the production of medical isotopes for Canadian patients and healthcare practitioners is a priority, and the Commission is aware of the importance of the NRU facility to Canadians and nuclear medicine patients around the globe," the regulator said in a statement.
"The Commission will vary the CNSC Rules of Procedures so that AECL's request will be dealt with in a fair and expeditious manner."
Speeding up the process will mean the public will have little time to respond to documents filed by AECL to the regulator.
If the application is successful, the Chalk River plant could be up and running by the end of July.
Resuming the production of isotopes vital in diagnostic tests for cancer and other ailments, however, will be a slow process.
It could take nearly two weeks from reactor startup to begin production of the Technetium-99 (Tc-99) isotopes, said an AECL spokesman.
"It's not as simple as flicking a switch," said Dale Coffin.
"Isotope production wouldn't probably begin for at least 10 days after achieving full power status."
In its last update issued on Wednesday, AECL said that 98 per cent of repairs to the main reactor had been completed.
Reconstruction of the reactor itself has been done in tandum with the repairs, said Coffin.
The request for a hearing comes as doctors who rely on medical isotopes voice their frustration over the length of time it has taken to repair the reactor.
Doctors have been scrambling to make do with an erratic supply of medical isotopes since Chalk River's shutdown. That's forced them to rely on alternatives to medical isotopes.
Some facilities have also resorted to an older type of isotope, Thallium, when possible. It does not produce as clear images as Technetium-99, but can be used in a pinch.
The National Research Universal reactor supplied a third of the world's medical isotopes until it was shut down in May of last year after a pinprick-sized radioactive water leak was discovered.