McMaster offers isotope solution

OTTAWA, CANADA - Millions of dollars and government leadership are all that is needed for a research reactor at McMaster University to start cranking out the medical isotope in short supply around the world, MPs were told.

"We're waiting for the call to put this project into high gear," Chris Heysel, director of nuclear facilities and operations at McMaster University in Hamilton, told a Commons committee studying the troubled reactor at Chalk River, Ont., responsible for a looming shortage of medical isotopes crucial to diagnostic tests.

Heysel said that in less than 18 months, the McMaster reactor, using low-enriched uranium, could begin supplying 20 per cent of the North American demand for the molybdenum-99 isotope produced at Chalk River, which decays into the technetium-99 isotope used in the majority of nuclear medicine procedures.

The university would need $30 million in operating costs over five years in addition to the $22 million in infrastructure funding the federal and Ontario governments announced last month.

The McMaster reactor is the only Canadian one apart from the 52-year-old National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River capable of producing molybdenum-99, and it used to do just that in the 1970s.

Hospitals across the country have been hoarding technetium-99 and using other alternatives when possible since Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. extended an unexpected shutdown of the Chalk River reactor due to a heavy-water leak. AECL expects the reactor to be out of service for at least three months.

Heysel said the McMaster reactor is only part of the solution to the fragility of the supply of medical isotopes.

"It's a very complicated problem that they are dealing with right now. I don't think there is one super-solution. There is no low-hanging fruit on this tree, so I think it is going to be a matter of a group of solutions coming together that will all add up to an international solution on this," Heysel told reporters after appearing before the committee.

Heysel said the university would need to import fuel from France, get funding and leadership from the government, scrutiny from the nuclear safety regulators, secure suppliers and work with AECL to use its processing facility.

"We're one stop along the supply chain," Heysel said.



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