Reports: AECL reactor shutdown could have been avoided

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The development of medical isotopes continues to fuel debate. Source: U.S. Department of Energy  

The shortage of medical isotopes caused by a reactor shutdown in Chalk River, Ontario, last year led Canada’s nuclear medicine community “teetering on the brink of disaster,” according to newly released reports.

Health Minister Tony Clement commissioned a group of 10 medical experts to advise the government on the consequences of the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) reactor. With the release of the report, the panel is urging the Ottawa government to build more medical isotope manufacturing plants so as to lessen the dependence on one reactor to produce half of the world’s supply, the Canadian Press reported.

Experts investigated the closure of the Chalk River reactor in November 2007 for routine maintenance. USA Today reported that at the time, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission discovered that the emergency backup power was not connected to two pumps, which would prevent a meltdown.

According to the report, the nuclear medicine community was ill-informed during the shutdown and “in some circumstances, patients and their healthcare providers had to decide whether they would resort to procedures known to have higher risks or to be less accurate.”

One of the report’s authors, Douglas Abrams, said that things can always go wrong with the reactors, and it is important to have another supply venue open to the nuclear medicine community.

A breakdown in communication between the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the AECL was cited as a contributing factor in the reactor shutdown, according to a separate, but related, report released by independent consultant, Talisman International. The report stated that the “shutdown could have been avoided with improved communication, clear license conditions and a shared understanding of issues surrounding the reactor.”

The Canadian Press reported that the commission’s “obtuse regulatory language failed to specify what safety upgrades need to be made in order for Atomic Energy’s operating license to be renewed in 2006.”

Clement said the government has put in place a new communications protocol since the shutdown and is reviewing AECL to determine the future of the Crown Corporation, which owns the reactor.