Canada Wednesday warned of a "critical shortage" of medical isotopes used for cancer and heart patients because a temporarily shuttered nuclear plant was to remain closed until the end of 2009 for repairs.
Ottawa's ministers of natural resources and health issued a joint statement warning of "a significant shortage of medical isotopes in Canada and in the world this summer" as a result of the longer-than-anticipated shutdown of the aging reactor at Chalk River in Ontario, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Ottawa.
The government warning came after Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) said the nuclear facility -- shuttered in May after a leak of radioactive water inside the reactor -- would be out of service through at least the end of 2009.
AECL had earlier estimated that the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River would be back in action after three months.
"The unplanned shutdown... will result in a significant shortage of medical isotopes in Canada and in the world this summer," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt in a joint statement.
"We expect a period of more critical shortage during the month of August. For this reason, careful management of available supplies by the health care community and the successful identification of alternatives will remain essential," the statement said.
When operational, the half-century old NRU reactor at Chalk River produces one-third of isotopes used for medical radiation treatments around the world, particularly for diagnosing cancer and heart patients.
Closing the facility, which produces as much as 40 percent of the world's supply of radio-isotope Molybdenum 99, has led doctors to postpone critical medical procedures and prompted health federal officials to import isotopes from Australia and South Africa to try to make up the shortfall.
"Since the shutdown of the NRU in May, we have been working tirelessly with the Canadian medical community and with international isotope producers to help manage supply shortage and minimize its impact," the Canadian ministers said in their statement.
"These international discussions have brought all isotope-producing countries to the table to maximize production from existing reactors, coordinate and minimize outage times and help address the current global shortage."
Despite those measures, the isotopes shortage is likely to be felt acutely in the short term, particularly during the next several weeks.
Managers at the facility said everything possible was being done to speed repairs to the aging plant.
"Returning the NRU to service to support the production of medical isotopes for Canadian patients and health care practitioners is our primary objective," said AECL's president and chief executive Hugh MacDiarmid.
However it was uncertain how soon the work would be completed.
"We have a dedicated team working around the clock to bring the NRU back to operation as quickly and as safely as possible. However, it is a complex task with many variables," he said in a statement.
Company officials said AECL is working closely with safety inspectors at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to repair the Chalk River reactor, while metallurgical and material experts are teaming up with outside engineering firms on cleaning and repairing the reactor.