OTTAWA Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper lashed out at the country's nuclear regulator on Tuesday for refusing to allow the reopening of a reactor that makes crucial radioisotopes for cancer tests.
The Chalk River reactor -- which supplies more than two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes -- was shut down in November. The operator, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, says it will not be back to full output until early to mid-January.
AECL, a government-owned nuclear technology company originally expected the reactor to be back at normal production by mid-December.
The Conservative government is under growing pressure to solve the problem but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says the reactor will stay closed until a raft of safety issues are resolved.
"The government has independent advice indicating there is no safety concern with the reactor," an infuriated Harper told Parliament, pointing out that the head of the safety commission had been named by the previous Liberal government.
"The continuing actions of the Liberal-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians ... it is in the pubic interest to get this reactor back on line."
Chalk River produces medical isotopes for Canadian health care company MDS Inc and its MDS Nordion division, which is responsible for about 50 percent of world supply.
When injected into the body, the isotopes give off radiation that can be imaged with a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.
The Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine has estimated that about 50,000 Canadians and 160,000 Americans would be forced to have their tests postponed for each month the reactor remains shut down.
The government is trying to push through legislation to allow the reactor to reopen for 120 days. To do so, it needs agreement from all parties but the official opposition Liberals said such a move was irresponsible.
"Why does the government believe that AECL -- which is in flagrant violation of its license -- is competent to decide whether the reactor is safe to operate?" asked deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
"Since when is the prime minister of Canada an expert on nuclear safety?" he added to laughter.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson)