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Cancer patients hit by nuclear reactor shutdown

CANADIAN officials have again shut down a nuclear reactor that produces much of the world's radioactive isotopes used to diagnose cancer patients through medical imaging.

Patients in line for tests to diagnose cancer and heart ailments may have a longer wait as hospitals try to conserve isotopes, doctors say.

The latest shutdown of an Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ontario - which provides about half the global supply of isotopes used in medical imaging - is expected to last about a month as technicians repair a leak of heavy water.

The Government-owned AECL said yesterday it has enough medical isotopes for the coming week, but will be unable to meet demand by Saturday. The AECL said its NRU reactor was shut down last Thursday after a power outage. The leak was discovered shortly after that.

The 52-year-old reactor was ordered closed by Canada's nuclear regulator in 2007 until mandated safety upgrades had been completed. The nearly month-long shutdown that resulted sparked a critical global shortage of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and heart ailments, and only ended when Canada's parliament voted to bypass the regulator's order.

Another lengthy shortage will force hospitals to delay non-urgent tests, said Dr Karen Gulenchyn, a nuclear medicine expert who helped advise former health minister Tony Clement during the last isotope shortage in December 2007.

"It may mean that if you have an elective study booked ... that patient is going to be deferred and will have to wait until the situation is resolved," she said.

Radioactive isotopes are injected into patients so radiologists can pinpoint areas of higher radiation and spot changes in the body so they can make more accurate diagnoses.


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