NRU reactor back online, but medical isotope shortage continues

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Nuclear medicine continues to endure isotope shortages. Image Source: MediCarein India  

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) NRU reactor was restarted on Dec. 11, following the completion of its scheduled, but extended, maintenance outage that lasted one week. However, the medical shortage continues to baffle the nuclear medicine community.

As of Dec. 12, the NRU reactor was operating at high power and the medical isotope production process has resumed.

The NRU's maintenance outage was to have started on Dec. 7 and last five days, according to the Daily Observer. However, the reactor was shut down Dec. 4 to carry out a required configuration change to conduct research, unrelated to medical isotope production. The outage was extended to address unanticipated technical challenges and AECL decided to couple this with the scheduled shutdown.

Prior to required maintenance outages, AECL said it produced additional isotopes within the reactor, allowing it to maintain delivery of isotopes to its customer, MDS Nordion throughout the outage period, and did not anticipate shortages. However, Health Canada alerted provincial and territorial officials, as well as the nuclear medicine community, about the anticipated short-term shortage on Dec. 8.

Officials at AECL claim that the shutdown should not have dramatically affected the flow of isotopes to Canadian hospitals and clinics.

"Over the past few weeks, our delivery of medical isotopes has been decreased and, in all honestly, we don't know why," Jean Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine, told Globe & Mail. "Next week, we are not going to receive much isotope" at all.

Now that the NRU Reactor has restarted, AECL said it will continue its efforts to help alleviate the global demand for medical isotopes resulting from technical problems with a European reactor. Over the last four months, the NRU reactor has been producing about 40 percent above its normal production levels to meet global demand due to extended European shutdowns.