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Canadian firm shelves isotope reactors

The sad saga of the MAPLE nuclear reactors may have finally come to a close with today’s announcement from Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) that the firm will no longer try to get the pair of reactors licensed to produce medical isotopes.

MAPLE was conceived in the 1980s as a replacement for AECL’s ageing NRX and NRU research reactors at Chalk River, Ontario. “M” stands for “multipurpose”, and the MAPLE was intended for both basic research as well as the commercial production of radioactive isotopes for medical and other applications.

Two MAPLE reactors were finally built at Chalk River in 2000, but it soon became apparent that they both suffered from serious safety problems associated with shoddy workmanship. As a result the facilities have never been granted full operational licences by the Canadian nuclear regulator.

AECL has also had safety problems with the 50-year old NRU, which had to be shutdown unexpectedly for about a month in 2007, leading to an international shortage of medical isotopes.

In the case of NRU, the Canadian government stepped in to restart the reactor — overruling its own regulator. AECL may be gambling that its move to scrap MAPLE may cause the government to pressure the regulator into approving the reactors.

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