Canada's recent isotope crisis has U.S. exploring alternatives

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Congress considers U.S. isotope production. Source: Idaho National Laboratory  

The U.S. Congress is looking into the security of its supply of medical isotopes, prompted by the recent Chalk River, Ontario, nuclear reactor shutdown, according to CBC News.

The facility, which provides two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes, was shut down Nov. 18 for safety concerns. It was reopened Dec. 16 by Canadian legislature.

The U.S. does not make any of its own isotopes—importing them from Canada, South Africa and Belgium.

CBC News reported that the National Academy of Science, a group of scientists based in Washington, D.C., that advises Congress on a number of issues, has been asked to consider questions relating to the supply of medical isotopes, and whether the U.S. should consider producing its own.

Sandy McEwan, MD, president of the international Society of Nuclear Medicine, said the shutdown of the Chalk River reactor, concerns from the safety commission, and the government's legislation to have it turned back on have led to questions about the future of the government agency that runs the reactor, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL).

"There is huge expertise and huge investment in Canada, and remember AECL reactors are marketed around the world, so anything that suggests there's a problem is a black eye for a major Canadian industry," McEwan said.

The recent battle between the government and the safety commission can't help, and neither can the ongoing problems with AECL's two reactors —Maple 1 and Maple 2 — both of which are years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, he added.

McEwan said that if these reactors come on line soon, Canada can keep its dominance in this industry. If not, he said, the United States will begin to look elsewhere.