Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Canada bypasses nuclear watchdog for scant isotopes


The Canadian House of Commons passed emergency legislation late on Tuesday night aimed at bypassing Canada's nuclear safety watchdog and putting a swift end to a critical shortage of medical isotopes.

The bill will allow Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd to immediately restart the 50-year-old reactor at Chalk River, Ontario. It was shut down last week, sparking a shortage of radioisotopes -- a substance used in diagnostic medical tests.

The reactor produces half the world's supply of radioisotopes, which are used in at least 15 million medical scans a year in the US, by one estimate. Those scans are used to diagnose and assess a wide variety of conditions including cancer, heart disease and bone or kidney illnesses.

Since the closure, many hospitals began facing a shortage of a radioactive substance called technetium-99 that is injected into patients undergoing body scans. As a result, hospitals worldwide were forced to cut back on procedures and many patients have had to postpone crucial medical tests.

The reactor was not slated to reopen until mid-January. The Canadian Society of Nuclear Medicine estimated the shortage will cause delays in treatment for 50,000 Canadians each month that services are reduced.

But following frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations, all the parties agreed to fast-track the legislation through Canada's House of Commons in one evening.

Despite some initial concerns by the opposition Liberals that the bill would undermine the country's independent nuclear safety regulator, all the parties eventually voiced support for the emergency legislation after hearing from experts during an late-night hearing.

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