University says it can meet Canada’s isotope needs

Within 18 months, and with an extra $30 million, McMaster says it could fill the gap

An Ontario university says its aging nuclear reactor is capable of supplying Canada’s medical isotope needs – four times over.

The catch is, it will take up to 18 months to start production, which won’t help solve the current shortage crisis.

Representatives from Hamilton’s McMaster University told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that their reactor needs an extra $30 million – on top of the $22 million it just got from the federal and Ontario governments – over five years for staff and fuel.

“Our physicists have done the calculations and verified them with the literature and . . . that equals, at the end of the day, 20 per cent of the North American market,” said Christopher Heysel, the school’s director of nuclear operations and facilities.

The McMaster reactor is the only Canadian reactor outside of Chalk River capable of producing the isotopes used to detect cancer and heart ailments.

Doctors have been struggling to deal with a scarce supply of isotopes since Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. shut down its aging reactor at Chalk River, Ont., a month ago after finding a heavy-water leak.

Many cancer and heart patients have had to scramble to find alternatives.

The 52-year-old reactor produces a third of the world’s supply of the medical isotopes and AECL expects the reactor to be out of commission for at least three months.

The 50-year-old McMaster reactor would need to ramp up to a seven-day, round-the-clock production cycle. It now runs five days a week for 16 hours at a time. The reactor filled in for the Chalk River during a shutdown in the 1970s.

The school also wants to partner with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to store highly enriched uranium from the United States or Russia, and handle other logistics.

And it wants the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to forego any changes to the school’s licence to operate the reactor.

The McMaster reactor is just one option the Conservative government is mulling to deal with the isotope shortage.

Other far-off possibilities include working with the TRI-University Meson Facility (TRIUMF) laboratory in British Columbia to produce alternative isotopes.

TRIUMF director Nigel Lockyer told MPs the lab might be able to start producing isotopes in its particle accelerators in four or five years.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government has earmarked $6 million for research into alternatives.

“We need to look at what options are available to TC-99 (technetium-99) and the research . . . in the long term to address this,” Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Tuesday.

“So when we are dealing with shutdowns, that there are alternatives available to provinces and territories to manage the situation. And I think this investment will go a long way in the long term.”

But the money won’t be a quick fix for hospitals struggling to book cancer and heart scans amid the current shortage of isotopes. The research grants will only start going out on Oct. 31.

Reactors in the Netherlands and South Africa, which are of the same vintage as Chalk River, are ramping up production to help make up the shortfall.

The federal government also announced Monday it has authorized Lantheus Medical Imaging of Boston to use molybdenum 99 (Moly-99) – an isotope produced by the Open Pool Australian Light-water (OPAL) reactor – to make Tc-99m for diagnostic use in Canadian health-care facilities.

Health Canada’s approval means that the Moly-99 produced by the OPAL reactor is safe and effective for use by Canadian health-care providers.

Lantheus expects to begin receiving Moly-99 from the OPAL reactor over the next few weeks.

Aglukkaq couldn’t say how much of Canada’s isotope demand Australia will be able to supply.

“We’ve been reassured by Australia that the supply will come to Canada and we’re responding very quickly in response to this issue,” she said.

The Ontario Ministry of Health also announced Tuesday it will pay for an alternative diagnostic procedure for some 2,000 cancer patients. It is putting aside $1.4 million in one-time funding to produce an alternative isotope called sodium fluoride.

– The Canadian Press