Canadian producers are offering to take over the business of supplying hospitals with medical isotopes as the prolonged and potentially permanent shutdown of an aging nuclear reactor forces the government to look elsewhere for the radioactive material.
Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt said yesterday that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a Crown corporation, is developing alternatives to repairing its reactor at Chalk River, Ont., the source of one-third of the world's medical isotopes.
Asked if the reactor could be closed permanently, Ms. Raitt said: "The answer is, we don't know."
The NRU reactor, which is more than 50 years old, has been out of commission for about two weeks since a leak of heavy water was discovered following a power outage.
It is the largest reactor of its kind in Canada. But it is not the only one.
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., has a reactor of about the same vintage. It produces a limited amount of the isotopes, which are shipped around the world for use in a variety of procedures.
Officials at McMaster say the university's reactor cannot permanently supply the quantity of isotopes produced at Chalk River. But with some modification - as well as more cash and a change to the university's operating licence - they could boost production to stem the current shortage.
Meanwhile, at least one private company is offering a different type of technology that its owner says could produce enough isotopes to meet the Canadian demand within two years.
Lloyd Scott, president of Vancouver-based Iotron Industries, said his company purchased an electron beam accelerator from AECL in 1992 and bought the technology in 2000.
"The technology we have is certainly capable of doing this and doing it much quicker and we think at a very competitive cost to what they are doing," said Mr. Scott, but a specific site would have to be built and Iotron's licence would have to be changed.
He said he is willing to do that if the government will guarantee his company enough of the market to justify the cost.
Ms. Raitt announced yesterday that the government will divide AECL into two units, a commercial division that handles reactor sales and service, and the research side based at Chalk River.
Ottawa is seeking buyers for the commercial side of the business, including international partners to help the company expand its global presence. It plans to bring in private-sector managers for the problem-plagued Chalk River reactor.
The minister also announced the formation of a panel to assess proposals from various laboratories, including McMaster, to determine whether the government should partner with any of them to assure future supplies of isotopes, and how quickly they could begin producing.
"None of them are ready for the immediate, short-term future," she said. "And they would all require investment. But the purpose of doing the expert review panel is really to chart the future and determine what the long-term supply is going to look like."
The government has hired financial advisers to seek buyers for the commercial division of AECL, and Ms. Raitt said all options are on the table, from selling a majority stake to selling the entire company.
The minister has even talked to provinces such as Ontario and New Brunswick about taking an equity position in AECL, in partnership with international nuclear vendors that would be able to boost the company's global presence.
Possible bidders include French-based AREVA Group, which is AECL's main competitor to build two reactors in Ontario; General Electric Hitachi Nuclear; and Toshiba Corp.'s Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC.
In its current form, AECL will wither away from lack of strong international sales, Natural Resources officials told the minister in a report released yesterday.
"Simply put, AECL does not have the critical mass or financial strength to establish a strong presence into the key markets that will ensure its success," the report said. "Remaining a niche player, however, will not generate sufficient demand for new reactor construction to make the Candu reactor division a viable business."
Ms. Raitt said the federal government remains confident in the Candu technology and will continue to support AECL's bid to build in Ontario.
She stopped short of demanding that any new owner remain committed to the Candu technology. "But the whole point of doing the restructuring is so we can sell Canadian product to the world," Ms. Raitt said. "And we want to offer Canadian product to the world."