MDS Nordion predicts isotope shortage due to reactor shutdown

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Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) anticipates that the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, Canada, will remain out of service for more than one month. Last Friday, AECL removed the remaining molybdenum-99 available for isotope production from the NRU reactor; and as a result, MDS Nordion expects the impact of the shutdown to be felt this week.

The NRU produces approximately 30 to 40 percent of the global medical isotopes and approximately 50 percent of those used in North America. It is one of only four reactors in the world producing significant commercial quantities. The AECL anticipated that the NRU reactor will remain out of service for more than one month. However, "the visual inspection process, once completed, will provide a more accurate return to service timeframe," according to a statement from the organization on May 22.

Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), has called for a public inquiry into recurring problems with the aging reactor at Chalk River. Keen also told the Toronto Star that "the current crisis is worse than the [2007] prolonged closing" that led to her dismissal. In January 2008, the Canadian federal government fired Keen as president of the CNSC, appointing Michael Binder as president of the commission.

Although MDS said it is working closely with its supply network to source additional isotopes, based on AECL's information and global supply capability, the company expects that the "medical community and their patients will experience a significant shortage of isotopes worldwide."

MDS said it "recognizes the important role medical isotopes play in the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and cancer. The company continues to work to secure a reliable, long-term supply of medical isotopes."

In 1996, MDS contracted for AECL to complete and commission the MAPLE reactors, which were meant to replace the NRU. This project was unilaterally discontinued in May 2008 by the federal government and AECL. MDS investment in the MAPLE project was approximately $350 million. MDS said that the completion of the MAPLE project is the best alternative to provide long-term global isotope supply. As another alternative, MDS also highlighted its collaboration with TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, to study the feasibility of producing a viable and reliable supply of photo fission-based Mo-99.

Based on this latest update from AECL, MDS said it expects the financial impact of this current extended interruption to reduce its earnings by approximately $4 million per month.