Chalk River repairs push back isotope production
Disappointing news this week for those who require medical services involving radioactive isotopes. Repairs at the Chalk River nuclear reactor have been pushed back at least one more month. It will likely be June before production of isotopes resumes.
For MDS Nordion of Ottawa, this is one more bump along the road for the high-tech firm to get back to business.
Last year, radioactive isotopes were used for diagnosis or treatment 35 million times.
MDS Nordion is the world leader in handling those isotopes; nearly a year ago, things changed.
The nuclear reactor at Chalk River sprung a leak; repair work began. Welding patches on to a nuclear reactor is complex and expensive. So far, an estimated bill of $70 million and the job is almost half-complete
Bill Pilkington is the chief nuclear officer for AECL and he says, "We have two sites left to go, but they are the largest and most complexs areas for us to fix."
MDS Nordion is watching the situation as closely as a patient who needs medical imaging. Nordion's base business needs the reactor. So far they have lost over $60 million.
Steve West, the CEO at MDS Nordion says, "I'm sort of keeping my fingers and toes crossed. I know that AECL has a very tough and complex job.
"This sort of work has never been done before. If it's a few more weeks, that is fine. If it becomes a few more months, then that is when I become quite concerned, and we just don't now that yet."
MDS knew Chalk River wouldn't run forever. They pumped millions into building new reactors called Maple.
As costs skyrocketed, they asked AECL and the federal government to take over. Nearly $500 million was spent, and the government shut it down and said Canada was getting out of the isotope business.
MDS launched a $1.6 billion lawsuit. West says others with more skills than AECL believe Maple is the best option.
"There are, we believe, clear technical reasons to pursue the Maple project. People who have worked on research reactors all over the world tell us that the facility can be made to work. Perhaps in a different way, but we think it can still be pursued."
Nordion has been around for 64 years, and the reactor supply problem has forced them to look rapidly at some changes that need to be made to re-invent the company.
Nordion took advantage of the crisis to overhaul their entire process. Work was done that would be impossible while handling radioactive material.
Chris Ashwood, the head of human resources at Nordion, says "We decided not to take the easy option and save money and lay people off. We decided to take the opportunity to improve our facilities and be ready to go once the reactor is back up."
The company won't say how much the refurbishment cost them.
West says the company is working with universities and hospitals and other research groups to develop a range of new products that will build on their current expertise.
New products that may not need isotopes? West says there is a huge market opportunity in medicine and he says, "For Ottawa it's good. We are now based in Ottawa as a company, and we are a medical company with a global reach, and there are not too many companies like that in Ottawa anymore."
Nordion has sold off all its operations, betting everything on the 400-plus employees at Nordion in Ottawa.