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Ottawa’s new isotope production plan raises fears of more shortages

Posted on March 1, 2013

Globe and Mail / Shawn McCarthy / February 28, 2013 —

The federal government is plowing ahead with its plan to revamp Canada’s production system of medically critical isotopes, raising concerns the country could face another scramble for medical imaging services if the new system does not perform as expected.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver announced Thursday that Ottawa will provide $25-million to three different groups to support development of medical isotope technology that, by 2016, can replace production from the aged nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont. Two emergency shutdowns of the Chalk River reactor five years ago provoked a medical and political furor when physicians were forced to delay diagnostic tests for cancer and heart disease.

In the wake of those failures, Ottawa began looking for an alternative to the reactor owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which currently supplies much of North America’s supply of technetium-99, a key isotope used in 85 per cent of medical diagnostic procedures. Consortiums based in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg are working to retool existing isotope-producing machinery – cyclotrons and linear particle accelerators – in order to mass-produce technetium-99.

However, there is a risk that full production from the new sources will not be ready when needed, which would force Ottawa to scramble for replacements. As well, the technetium-99 isotope degrades quickly, raising questions about whether Canadians who live in rural communities will be properly served.

“Is there some risk [in the development process]? Absolutely,” said Timothy Meyers, head of strategic planning for Vancouver-based TRIUMF, one of the groups chosen to develop the isotope technology.

The cyclotron and other particle accelerators are already used to make isotopes, but have not been called on to produce large quantities of technetium-99, the workhorse of the nuclear medicine world.

Mr. Meyers said TRIUMF group is confident it can be ready for 2016, but there are engineering and licensing challenges. The TRIUMF executive said the medical community should be ready for the possibility of a temporary shortfall in 2016. As well, he suggested the government may have to keep the Chalk River facility operating longer than intended if the new suppliers are unable to meet the tight development deadline.

In a speech to the Canadian Nuclear Association, Mr. Oliver said the challenge is “to prove that cyclotron and linear accelerator production can be commercially viable.” However, the minister later told reporters that he is confident the technology will be ready when needed.

Some in the medical community worry that technetium-99 degrades far more rapidly than the isotope produced by the Chalk River reactor. “That’s been the major concern with the alternative production techniques,” said Christopher O’Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine. “With the large geography of Canada, you have to be able to ensure the isotope will get into your small hospitals that are more rural-based.”

The federal government says Canadians will be served by numerous cyclotrons across the country, while more remote centres will still be able to access the longer-lasting isotopes from foreign sources which have grown in number since 2009.

In making the announcement, Mr. Oliver said the federal investment will allow Canada to remain a leader in the production of medical isotopes, without relying on a reactor fuelled by high-enriched uranium, which is weapons-grade nuclear material. The minister also announced Ottawa is launching a competitive bidding process for private-sector operators of the AECL Chalk River laboratories, where the isotope-producing research reactor is located.

While the federal government intends to get out of the isotope business, it will continue to own the laboratories, which will focus research on decommissioning nuclear sites, supporting the government’s scientific needs, and supporting the industry’s research requirements on a fee-for-service basis.