Increasingly, more people are discovering the benefits of nuclear energy as an essential factor in the fight against climate change. But nuclear is much more than just electricity. Nuclear technology has other benefits that are not as well-known but have been important in the fight against COVID-19.
The industry’s wealth of material and human resources has been put to work to help Canada respond to the pandemic. Canada’s nuclear industry is home to some of the most incredible laboratories, equipment, and brain power. The industry is working collaboratively and has pivoted to redeploy R&D efforts, as well as rallying to donate protective equipment for frontline workers and maintain critical supply of isotopes to sterilize medical equipment.
Nuclear isotopes are used for imaging and therapies for a wide variety of medical conditions. There are over 40 million nuclear medicine procedures conducted each year — 36 million are diagnostic and four million are therapies.
Canada is a major supplier of the isotope Cobalt-60, which emits gamma rays essential for cancer treatments as well as for sterilization of medical devices. It is used in irradiation to sterilize items such as gowns, syringes, gloves and scalpels.
COVID-19 has increased the need for such protective items for front-line health care workers, making Canada’s Colbalt-60 supply an important asset in the global battle against the pandemic.
Close to 50 per cent of the world’s Cobalt-60 is supplied by Ontario’s nuclear reactors operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Bruce Power. And 40 per cent of the world’s single-use medical devices and equipment are irradiated and sterilized using Cobalt-60.Once it is “harvested” from reactors, Cobalt-60 is sent to Nordion in Ottawa, Ontario, where it is processed and shipped to 40 countries around the world for the sterilization of single use medical devices. Cobalt-60 allows sterilization of medical equipment within a day whereas other methods can take up to two weeks. This saves valuable time, especially when clean and safe medical supplies are urgently needed.
Bruce Power, which operates the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Tiverton, Ontario, harvested enough Cobalt-60 to sterilize 13 billion pairs of gloves in March. In September, they are planning a second harvest and they expect it will produce enough to sterilize 11 billion pairs of gloves. Cobalt-60 is also extracted from reactors at OPG’s Pickering Nuclear plant. Plans are underway to expand Cobalt-60 production to OPG’s Darlington Nuclear to ensure a steady supply as operations at Pickering wind down in 2024.
In addition, nuclear medicine services have been maintained, in particular for cancer patients, throughout the pandemic. People are still being diagnosed and treated for a variety of cancers.
Outside of Canada, radiation therapy is being considered as treatment for COVID-19. Around the world, there are at least a dozen clinical trials underway using low-dose radiation therapy targeting the lungs of COVID-19 patients. Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat cancer but not other medical conditions.
The most severe COVID-19 cases create an inflammatory response to the infection in the lung tissues. Researchers are examining how targeted low-dose radiation to the lungs can be used to fight the inflammation of patients who require ventilators.
This treatment would be used for patients in the most critical conditions, who are unable to access or have been unsuccessful with other therapies or treatments. A small but promising study at Emory University in Atlanta found that patients treated with radiation therapy recovered faster and were discharged from hospital sooner than those not treated.
Nuclear medicine is not the only way nuclear technology has contributed to the fight against COVID-19. Nuclear companies and employees in Canada have stepped forward to provide innovative solutions to deliver much-needed equipment. Members of the nuclear community have mobilized its scientists, engineers and facilities to provide expertise as part of a team developing a ventilator model that is easy-to-produce, using off-the-shelf, easily accessible parts.
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) in Chalk River, Ontario, is part of an international consortium working with one of Canada’s Nobel Prize-winning researchers, Dr. Art McDonald, and scientists from TRIUMF and SNOLAB to develop a ventilator model that can be constructed quickly and reliably.
Within six weeks of being conceived, the Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM) project shifted to production after the United States Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) declared that the MVM fell within the scope of the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for ventilators.
Employees at CNL and OPG used 3-D printing technology normally used to produce components for the nuclear industry to produce thousands of much-needed face shields for frontline workers at hospitals and long-term care homes.
Another industry initiative is the Retooling Economic Recovery Council. This was created to leverage Bruce Power’s supply chain which is normally assisting in its refurbishment project to fight COVID-19. In its first three weeks, the Council distributed and donated 1.3 million pieces of personal protective equipment
Overall, the Canadian nuclear industry has donated more than 2.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment to front-line workers, contributed more than $5.1 million to local community agencies and has provided $1.4 million in food-bank donations.
We stand at a moment in time where industries across the world must be agile and creative in seeking ways to help fight back in this crisis. It’s a time for collaborative innovation. The nuclear industry is committed to continue its work with academic, medical and government partners to explore additional ways we can help find solutions and drive medical innovation to combat COVID-19 and other pandemics in the future.
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