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Canadian Nuclear Laboratories turns to innovation to help Canada combat COVID-19

The Canadian nuclear industry has responded to the current COVID-19 crisis both directly and indirectly. Laboratories, utilities, and the nuclear supply chain are supporting local health authorities by providing gloves, masks, protective clothing, and equipment that is urgently needed on the front lines. Beyond the supply of these materials — the industry is also applying its expertise and ability to innovate to help Canada and the world meet this challenge. This profile is part of a series on how CNA members are giving back.
May 1, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, scientists, engineers and technical experts at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) recognized they had a role to play to help Canada effectively respond to the crisis.

As Canada’s national nuclear laboratory, CNL is home to unique and innovative facilities, laboratories, equipment and expertise. While CNL’s work isn’t directly related to infectious diseases, these resources and talents are adaptable. They are being redirected to join the fight against COVID-19. CNL is applying its depth of expertise in design, engineering, construction, containment and decontamination in the fight against this pandemic.

“CNL has a long and proud history in the development of innovative tools and technologies that have improved the health and well-being of Canadians and people around the world,” wrote Joe McBrearty, CNL’s president and CEO, in a note to employees. “This pandemic is another challenge where we can turn to innovation, creativity and the ingenuity of our staff to help make a difference in people’s lives.”

The company started by creating a web portal and inviting employees and retirees to share ideas on how CNL could help Canada fight and recover from the pandemic. “In less than 24 hours, we fielded over 150 ideas and suggestions from staff and alumni, and efforts are underway to mobilize on the opportunities we can move forward on,” CNL shared on its Facebook page on March 25.

CNL launched taskforces to analyze the ideas and deliver the solutions to the federal government, agencies and the health-care officials who need them. CNL is also reaching out to organizations within its local communities to determine where it could help in their response efforts.

Among the staff who answered the call was a team of employees from CNL’s Science and Technology, and Engineering departments. While CNL normally uses 3-D printers to make components for the nuclear industry, they shifted production to make face shields for overstretched health-care workers battling COVID-19 on the front lines.

“The call-to-action put out by our own executive really set the tone to think about how we could put CNL’s assets to work,” explained Scott Read, a research and development officer at CNL who worked on the project. “We realized that we shouldn’t wait for the health-care system to tell us they need more personal protective equipment before we start manufacturing them. After a quick Skype chat with our manager to discuss the feasibility and urgency, we were on our way to producing our first face shield prototype.”

CNL wasn’t alone in its belief that it could help confront COVID-19. Leading members of the international research community also turned to the company for support. For example, Nobel laureate Dr. Art MacDonald contacted CNL and other national and international laboratories to help develop a low-cost ventilator that could be constructed using off-the-shelf, easily accessible parts. The project has received major coverage from national media outlets and even caught the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The laboratory has also designed and constructed:

  • a low-cost, negative-pressure, isolation room that hospitals could use to protect front-line workers;
  • a decontamination tent that could serve as a safe area for health-care workers to change out of their protective equipment;
  • a prototype structure that could be used to facilitate drive-through testing; and
  • a prototype piece of equipment that can sterilize personal protective equipment using ultraviolet technology, which was done with external experts at Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada and Sanuvox Technologies.

CNL has also donated thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment and supplies — including N95 masks, lab coats, face shields, hand sanitizer, nitrile gloves, lab coats and Tyvek suits — to local hospitals, health-care and community organizations, and seniors centres in its communities across Canada.

It is also helping to coordinate the distribution of donated supplies across local food banks. The Canadian National Energy Alliance – the consortium of SNC-Lavalin, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. and Fluor Corporation that oversees CNL operations — has graciously donated $70,000 to local food banks.

“I’m amazed at the way our employees have stepped up to help fight COVID-19 and all that we’ve been able to accomplish in just a few short weeks,” McBrearty said. “CNL is home to some of the smartest, most talented and hard-working people in Canada, and the country is fortunate to have this resource. I couldn’t be prouder of the way our employees have responded to this pandemic.”

Visit CNL’s Facebook page for a full and up-to-date list of their pandemic response activities.

Tell us your story

If you are a CNA member supporting the COVID-19 crisis response, please contact the CNA so we can spotlight your efforts.