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Game Changer: Joe McBrearty, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Joe McBrearty, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. Image: CNL.
Game Changers

Game Changer: Joe McBrearty, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories 

Following a long and distinguished career as a senior executive in the United States, where he led operations for 10 U.S. national laboratories and served in extended tours of duty for the U.S. Navy, including time spent as Commanding Officer of the nuclear fast-attack submarine, the USS Dallas, Joe McBrearty moved to Canada to assume the role of President and CEO of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL). As the leader of Canada’s national nuclear laboratory, Mr. McBrearty believes the company is uniquely positioned to solve some of the country’s biggest challenges.  

“Before I joined CNL, I did not appreciate what a significant role that Canada had played in the advancement of nuclear science and technology around the world, whether it is the development of clean energy technologies, the production of medical isotopes, or research related to non-proliferation and national security,” commented McBrearty. “Looking to the future, we are trying to leverage these resources and capabilities to tackle everything from climate change to cancer.”

Joe McBrearty, President and CEO of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories was selected as a Vanguard Game Changer for the October/November issue.

What is your role at your organization today?

As President and CEO, I oversee the day-to-day operations of CNL, which includes Canada’s national nuclear research program, the delivery of major environmental remediation projects, and the modernization of our main campus, the Chalk River Laboratories, which is a $1.2 billion program designed to revitalize the site, replacing old and outdated buildings with new, world-class facilities.

But I am also spearheading transformational changes to improve the company’s research practices, safety performance, security posture, capital program, and waste management activities. And that is what I am truly passionate about in my current role – getting the most out of our people and capabilities to solve the problems that matter to Canadians.

What was your most challenging moment?

Over the course of my career, I have had many challenging moments, but leading CNL through the recent pandemic was certainly new territory for me. I was actually relatively new to the position, and suddenly I found myself navigating a number of complex decisions to protect our staff while still accomplishing our goals as an organization.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by an exceptional and very flexible team who were all willing to make the most of a difficult situation. We shifted a large segment of our workforce to remote operations almost overnight, harnessed our resources to support public officials in the fight against COVID-19, and even increased productivity in some key areas. While it was a very challenging professional experience, the pandemic did accelerate CNL’s transition to more flexible operations and led to other positive changes to the way we conduct work. 

What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?

One of the major projects we are working on here at CNL is research to support the advancement and eventual deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) here in Canada. I spent most of my career working in the nuclear industry in the United States, and a good portion of that time working in close proximity to an SMR when I served in the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, so I am very familiar with the technology. But working in a country with a large, extensive power grid prevented me from really appreciating the true promise of SMRs.

Here in Canada, in a sprawling country with a lot of remote communities and industrial sites, SMRs have the potential to be a transformative technology. In off-grid locations, people generally rely on fossil fuels such as diesel, which release large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. SMRs could not only offer these locations safe and abundant clean energy, but they have a number of other useful applications, whether it is heat to warm houses or public buildings, or energy to desalinate water.

So they can power mine sites and remote communities, but they can also support national security as well. I recently spoke about circumpolar readiness at the Arctic Development Expo, and the role that SMRs could play in helping Canada exert its sovereignty in the far North.  For these reasons and many others, SMRs make perfect sense for Canada, and that is why I am so excited about moving them forward. 

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

What gets me excited is solving the big challenges of our time. CNL is a very talented research organization with a profound history in problem-solving and some of the most unique facilities and capabilities in the world. And part of our most recent transformation is figuring out how to best utilize these resources to Canada’s benefit. 

Whether it is public health, clean energy, environmental remediation, or national security, our work is important to the future of this country. I spoke about SMRs, but we are also developing exciting technologies to fight cancer using a promising new medical isotope, Actinium-225. We are developing technologies and techniques to better protect our borders. And we are carrying out some of the most complex environmental clean-up missions ever undertaken in Canada. All of this work has me fired up.

What is the best advice you received?

Believe in yourself. You will always have doubts about your abilities or decisions, but you must always believe in yourself. With that said, you should also be self-aware – know your strengths, but also your limitations. And always remember that the decisions you make will impact others, whether it is your family, your friends, the company you work for, or the people in your community.

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

Anyone who has served in the Navy knows just how important hard work and discipline are, so that experience has definitely served me very well, and those habits have played a role in my professional success. But there are other good habits that I think are important if you want to be successful as the leader of an organization – surrounding yourself with right people, being open-minded, challenging your own decisions, and most of all, being ambitious in the objectives that you set for yourself. 

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

Over the course of my career, and certainly in my current position at CNL, I have worked with exceptionally innovative people and organizations. When I look around at my colleagues at CNL today, and when I consider my time running the labs in the United States, one of the characteristics that best embodies the innovation mindset is a real openness and commitment to collaboration. That may surprise some people, but it is a key focus of what we are doing right now, and it is often overlooked.

During the pandemic, CNL was asked to participate in a project to quickly develop medical equipment for COVID-19 patients alongside other research organizations in Canada and around the world, and everyone involved in that project played a necessary role in its success. Similarly, through our Canadian Nuclear Research Initiative, we are conducting research for SMR vendors under a cost-sharing model, work that might otherwise not get done. It is this level of commitment to a project, where resources, capabilities, and even intellectual property are shared, that I believe can yield better, more ambitious – and yes, more innovative – results. And there is a real eagerness to collaborate at CNL, which is refreshing.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

One of the things that makes CNL really unique is not only the breadth of expertise that we have within the company – from nuclear physics to waste management, and everything in between – but the work we are doing to penetrate new markets. Nuclear science and technology has applications for almost every industry, whether it is healthcare, defense, security, manufacturing, or even space exploration.

All of these industries face various challenges and problems that need to be solved, and that is what we do best. So, we are working hard to get the word out about all that we have to offer at CNL, so we can support these industries, expand our capabilities and grow our commercial services.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

In general, a lot of people have fixed impressions when they hear the word ‘nuclear,’ and it can be difficult to have meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, whether it is the industry’s safety record, nuclear waste, the many benefits of nuclear research and development, and the opportunities that could exist in the future if we continue to invest in nuclear science and technology.

I personally try to be an open-minded person, and I would encourage anyone who has preconceived notions about this industry to do so as well. I think they would be surprised at the many ways that this sector has positively touched their lives, and how many misconceptions they may have about what is a very safe technology. 

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

As a research organization, we work very hard to nurture a spirit of innovation across the organization. One of the ways that we do that is by empowering our staff to bring their ideas forward, and we recently created mechanisms within the company to encourage employees to submit their research proposals for consideration. I am pleased to say that our employees have thrown themselves into this program, and many of these ideas have gone on to be funded. 

But it is also the nature of what we do as an organization – we are problem solvers. So, our customers often turn to us with challenging problems, and it is on us to solve them. These projects push the boundaries of what we are capable of, and it means that we are constantly growing as an organization, expanding our capabilities to meet the needs of the government and the private sector.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

To borrow your phrase, I believe that SMRs could be a real ‘game changer’ here in Canada, and there is a window of opportunity to seize the moment. To its credit, the Government of Canada has expressed its support through the development of an SMR Action Plan, and the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick have signed an MOU to collaborate on the advancement of SMRs, but there is still a long way to go to get these next-generation reactors to where they can make an impact. At CNL, we are supporting the development of demonstration projects, which will be the next critical step before an eventual deployment. 

In the end, Canada is likely either going to be a developer of this technology or a buyer, and it is my hope that we can reap all the economic benefits that come with producing them here at home. I am very optimistic that that will be the case, and that nuclear energy could once again change the way we power this country. 

What is your parting piece of advice?

I would encourage anyone in a leadership position to really listen to the people who work for you. Your employees are often smarter or more well-informed than you when it comes to a particular subject, and they will have insights that you do not. Diversity of opinion is key to the success of any organization, so seek out and consider the advice of your employees before making any decision, and be open-minded to what they have to say.

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