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Chalk River repairs have $70-million price tag: AECL

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. has put a $70-million price tag on repairing its downed Chalk River reactor.

That was the estimate given Monday by AECL's chief nuclear officer to a House of Commons committee looking into the isotope shortage.

Bill Pilkington, who is also the Crown company's senior vice-president, said that figure includes lost revenue from selling medical isotopes as well as physical repairs to the facility at Chalk River, Ont.

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New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen questioned the wisdom of putting millions of dollars into the 52-year-old National Research Universal reactor, which has been plagued by shutdowns in recent years.

"When does the tipping point hit for Chalk River?" he said.

But Pilkington defended the cost.

"We are committed to operating the NRU through … 2011 to 2016. We believe it can be operated cost-effectively beyond that point," he said.

"There is no defined end date that the NRU would be taken out of service. And that will be determined as we continue to gather data on the aging over the years ahead."

Mr. Pilkington said the $70-million is over and above AECL's annual budget to operate the Chalk River facility, which is about $120-million. He added that the federal government has not yet committed the repair money.

The Chalk River reactor supplied a third of the world's medical isotopes until AECL shut it down in mid-May after it found a pinprick-sized radioactive water leak.

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The reactor was supposed to be down for a month, then three months, and now AECL's best guess is the reactor won't be back up until the first quarter of next year.

So it's fallen to a handful of other reactors around the world built a half-century ago to supply the isotopes used to diagnose cancer and heart ailments.

Doctors have been scrambling to make do with an erratic supply of medical isotopes since Chalk River's shutdown. That's forced them to rely on alternatives to medical isotopes.

"Over the past six months, we went back in time and we practise now nuclear medicine the way I was practising in the 1980s," Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Nuclear Medicine Association, told MPs on the committee.

"So we went from a 21st-century type of service to a 20th-century type of service."

Hospitals and clinics have also been hit with massive bills that are up to $30,000 higher than normal from isotope suppliers who hiked their prices this spring.

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Health Canada has said it doesn't plan to cover the extra costs, pointing out price regulation for medical isotopes is a provincial and territorial responsibility.

Ottawa is looking into alternatives to radioactive isotopes, which have a short shelf life and can't be stockpiled.

The federal government set aside $6-million in June to fund research into isotope alternatives and approved the Canadian use of isotopes produced by a fledgling Australian reactor.

However, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, which operates the reactor, has said it is still months away from shipping isotopes to other countries.

Health Canada has also made it easier for doctors to get isotopes from a nuclear reactor in South Africa by allowing doctors to get shipments of the isotope Iodine I-131 without first having to ask for permission.

Also Monday, the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates released a survey commissioned this spring by the federal government that suggests most Canadians oppose AECL becoming a private company.

Earlier this year, Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt announced that AECL's reactor business should be spun off from its research division.

The corporation's Chalk River research facility will stay government-owned, but with private-sector management.

Investment bank N.M. Rothschild and Sons has been hired to draft a restructuring plan for the company's Candu reactor business.

The survey included just over 2,000 people between March 2 to 13 and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

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