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Canada Stops Medical Isotope Reactor Project

by Barbara Kram, Editor | May 19, 2008
Much of the world's medical
isotope supply comes
from the NRU reactor
at Chalk River, Ontario
MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO -- Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) discontinued development work of the Maple reactors located at its Chalk River Laboratories, effective May 16, 2008. The facilities were to be devoted to production of isotopes used in medicine.

"We are making the right business decision given the circumstances," stated AECL's President and Chief Executive Officer Hugh MacDiarmid. "This was a difficult choice given the tremendous efforts expended by our people on development of the MAPLE reactors. Nevertheless, our Board of Directors and senior management have concluded that it is no longer feasible to complete the commissioning and start-up of the reactors."

Factors in the decision included the costs of further development, as well as the time frame and risks involved with continuing the project.

AECL said the decision to discontinue development of the MAPLE reactors will not impact the current supply of medical isotopes since commercial agreements between MDS Nordion (the leading provider of medical isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals) and AECL provide for isotope production to continue through AECL's National Research Universal reactor (NRU) and associated facilities in Chalk River. NRU currently has an operating site license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) through October 31, 2011. AECL said it would work closely with CNSC and MDS Nordion on the requirements for continued production beyond that date.

MDS Nordion was not consulted by AECL about this decision, and the company says it is evaluating these developments. "The most important issue has always been the continuity of medical isotope supply for patients worldwide," said Stephen P. DeFalco, President and CEO, MDS Inc., parent company of MDS Nordion. "We are pleased that the government has asked AECL to pursue the extension of the NRU operation beyond its current license and to ensure the ongoing supply of these critical medical isotopes."

However, the impact on nuclear medicine worldwide is uncertain, particularly because the NRU reactor, now without the backup that the new facilities would have secured, was shut down for an extended period from mid-November to mid-December 2007. The shutdown put at risk the flow of isotopes needed for nuclear medicine applications across Canada and worldwide.

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