Chalk River reactor unable to meet global isotope needs

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The series of reactor closures this week created a "perfect storm” in global isotope availability. Source: Idaho National Laboratory  

Even as medical isotope production ramps up, there is no way that the Chalk River, Ontario-based nuclear reactor can meet the global demand, according to the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL).

Dale Coffin, a spokesman for the Crown corporation which owns the reactor, said Thursday the facility will increase its production of medical isotopes following the closure of the reactor in Belgium this week, but there is no way the plant could supply the entire world's isotope's needs, reported The Vancouver Sun.

All five of the major reactors which provide the majority of all the world's isotopes, including one in Canada and others in Europe and in South Africa, were shut down this week for various unrelated reasons. The Ontario plant, which produces about 50 percent of the global supply, is expected to resume operations next week.

Four of the reactors were closed for routine maintenance, but the unexpected closure of the Belgium plant generated concern for a potential global shortage and underlined the need for international coordination regarding production. The Vancouver Sun reported that there are no international agreements or treaties regulating how and when reactors can be shut down for maintenance, which halts production for at least five days.

The series of closures this week set up a "perfect storm in isotope availability," the effects of which have been felt with U.S hospital shortages, and could reach Europe next week, according to Robert Atcher, president of the U.S.-based Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM).  "This is a cumulative situation where we cannot maintain a patchwork approach to isotope production and supply," he said on Wednesday.

The Chalk River facility was shut down last November, due to safety concerns, causing an international isotope shortage that ended when the government forced the plant to reopen.

MDS Nordion, which buys isotopes from AECL and sells them to pharmaceutical manufacturers, said Thursday that it had no control over which clients receive its product, signifying it could not guarantee Canadian hospitals would receive any extra supplies produced by Chalk River in the event of a widespread shortage, according to The Vancouver Sun.

Covidien, a pharmaceutical manufacturer that distributes the isotopes, said starting Aug. 31, it is warning clients to expect shortages. The company noted that it would be hard to tell which markets, such as Canada, would be most affected from the shortages.

According to Atcher, it could be October before the world's production of medical isotope resumes normal levels.