Nuclear Technologies Solving Problems
There are numerous ways in which nuclear technologies are being applied to solve everyday problems, from hunger and poverty in the Third World to treatment of complex forms of cancer. Below are some examples of how the IAEA carries out its mandate through co-operation with governments and a multiplicity of organizations throughout the world.
Meeting Basic Human Needs
Many developing countries face enormous obstacles in meeting people's demand for food. Projected needs in Africa, for example, will require a tripling of the current agricultural output over just three decades. The IAEA and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set up a Joint Division that addresses this food and agricultural challenge. The Joint Division seeks to improve food security and living standards in Member States by enhancing their capacity to use nuclear technology in improving crop and livestock productivity, food safety and overall quality.
More Fertile Fields
Among the key obstacles limiting food output in many developing countries are poor soils and improper agricultural practices — including water management. One way to improve soil fertility is to stimulate "biological nitrogen fixation—by treating seeds with special bacteria that allow a plant to produce its own fertilizer on its roots. Through extensive research and field testing in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, a method for measuring nitrogen fixed to the plants from the atmosphere has been perfected with IAEA and FAO know-how. Using this technique, more efficient nitrogen fixing legumes (such as soybeans, peanuts and lentils) with higher yield and protein content have been selected and provided to farmers. Biofertilizers are not only helping farmers to produce more food, they also allow cash-poor countries to save on the high cost of imported mineral fertilizers.
Water is another important factor limiting crop production. The Joint Division is helping some Member States to cope with seasonal and annual water variations by introducing the use of neutron probes. These special instruments measure and monitor water content in the soil in a reliable, non-destructive way, while saving time, effort and money. The Agency is supporting field research in developing countries on applying these techniques to optimize the use of scarce water resources for higher crop yields.
More Abundant Food Crops
Most agricultural crops grown today have been improved by man to increase output and hardiness. Mutation breeding and, more recently, in vitro and molecular techniques, are often used to enhance plant productivity in adverse conditions. With assistance from the IAEA and FAO, such crop enhancing techniques are used to improve disease resistance, drought tolerance, yield potential and other desirable characteristics. Worldwide, more than 1,800 mutant cultivars of crop and ornamental plants have been released to farmers over the past 35 years. Roughly twelve percent of all agricultural land in China is cultivated with new strains of rice, wheat, corn, and cotton that were developed through radiation mutation techniques.
Perú is applying nuclear techniques to breed new high-yielding grain varieties with built-in stress resistance suitable to highland cultivation. A mutant of barley, UNA-La Molina, began field testing in mid-1996 and is now being multiplied at several sites.
Improving Animal Productivity and Health
Livestock plays a vital role in the livelihoods of rural people in most developing countries. But due to diseases and undernutrition, their productivity is often much lower than in industrial countries. IAEA and FAO have developed many methods to effectively address this problem using nuclear technology. For example, isotopes have been used to examine the utilization of feeds by ruminants and to develop more cost-effective feeding strategies. Measurements of animal hormones by radioimmunoassay (RIA) have given a better understanding of the reproductive physiology of livestock. Already, the IAEA and FAO have established RIA laboratories to evaluate animal steroid hormones in 60 countries. Applying these techniques, one dairy cooperative in Mexico has increased milk production from 4.5 to 7.2 liters per cow per day, representing a 63 percent increase, or ten million liters of milk per year.
Nuclear and related techniques contribute greatly to improving livestock productivity and food security through improved management of feed resources, reproduction and diseases.
Eradicating Insect Pests
Insects can have a devastating effect on crop production. They can also transmit diseases that destroy crops and kill livestock and people. Despite yearly pesticide applications costing over US$ 25 billion, pests reduce world food production by an estimated 25 percent to 35 percent. Moreover, heavy reliance on pesticides raises environmental concerns and problems of pest adaptation and resistance. Hence, minimizing insecticide use in partner countries through the application of environmentally friendly nuclear techniques is a priority objective.
One proven method of pest control is the "Sterile Insect Technique" (SIT), in which male insects are exposed to precise doses of gamma radiation. The radiation induces sterility but does not affect the insect's ability to fly, compete in the food chain or mate. The treated insects are released across wide areas, but are unable to reproduce, thus causing a fall in population and eventually eradication. SIT for specific pests has been developed and refined at the IAEA's Seibersdorf Laboratories in Austria. Moreover, techniques for mass rearing of fruit flies and tsetse flies have been successfully transferred to a number of countries. SIT campaigns eradicated the New World Screwworm from Mexico and Libya, as well as the islands of Puerto Rico and Curaçao. SIT also has been used in projects to eradicate the Mediterranean fruitfly in Mexico and California. Eradication of this fly in part of Chile, with assistance from the IAEA and FAO, has given a major boost to a multi-billion dollar fruit and vegetable export industry.
An IAEA Model Project is applying SIT to eradicate the tsetse fly on Zanzibar island, off the coast of Tanzania. After almost three years of weekly sterile fly releases, the last wild fly was captured in September 1996.
Preserving the harvest
Up to 40 percent of all food produced in some developing countries is lost to insects, rodents, bacteria and mold. One effective and safe method for preserving food is irradiation by controlled exposure to ionizing energy. By the end of 1996, over 40 countries had approved at least one irradiated food item for human consumption. Irradiation is being routinely used to ensure the hygienic quality of spices and dried vegetable seasonings; the estimated volume of such produce was 60, 000 tones in 1996. Food processed by this technology is not in any way made radioactive. The IAEA is collaborating with FAO and WHO in worldwide efforts to harmonize regulation of irradiated foods and to identify irradiated products for consumers.
Advancing Life Sciences
Nuclear Contributions to Medicine
Nuclear technologies are employed in numerous ways in the medical field. Simple X-rays are frequently used as a diagnostic tool, but many other nuclear techniques are available. In developing countries, Agency assistance emphasizes preventive medicine — early detection of hepatitis and neonatal hypothyroidism; accurate evaluation of nutritional deficiencies; and timely diagnosis of common genetic (hereditary) diseases. In 1996, some 150,000 people in ten Asian countries, most belonging to high risk groups, were screened for hepatitis B infection and the incidence was found to be 5.75 percent.
Chemical compounds labeled with short-lived radioactive isotopes are useful for diagnostic purposes, especially to study how well an organ is functioning. Other diagnostic techniques, in which biological samples taken from patients are analyzed using radiochemicals in the laboratory, reduce risk even further. IAEA's regional co-operative agreement for Asia and the Pacific (RCA) is promoting the production and use of bulk reagents for RIA, thus significantly reducing the cost of thyroid hormone testing.
Safer Medical Supplies
Disinfection of medical supplies, such as hypodermic syringes, is essential for better health standards worldwide. The IAEA is introducing radioisotope sterilizers to decontaminate prepacked medical supplies in many countries. An IAEA CRP in the Asia/Pacific region is improving disinfection quality control through a stringent set of technical procedures. The Agency has also developed a code of practice for the radiation sterilization of disposable medical supplies.
Effective Cancer Treatment
Radiation techniques are being adapted to treating cancer in the developing world, where hospital resources are often limited. One technique treats advanced cervical cancer — the most common female cancer in Africa, South America and Asia. IAEA-sponsored research and regional projects are improving the number of cures of this potentially lethal cancer by optimizing the limited equipment and personnel resources.
Globally, one out of every three cancer patients receive radiation treatments. But such treatment may be ineffective if the dose is too low, or harmful if the dose is too high. Therefore, accurate dosimetry — the measurement of radiation doses — is a key field of concern for the IAEA. The Agency and participating institutes have established a network of Secondary Standard Dosimetry Laboratories (SSDLs) to increase the number of facilities maintaining accurate standard measurement instruments. For countries without operational SSDLs, the IAEA's laboratory at Seibersdorf provides calibration services upon request.
Improved Nutrition and Well-being
The Agency is introducing isotope techniques to assess human body composition, nutrient intake and vitamin and mineral absorption in numerous developing countries. Such methods are ideal for determining the success of food supplementation programmes aimed at combating malnutrition. Further emphasis is being placed on using isotopic nutritional evaluations as a success indicator in national development programmes. Isotopic tools are also being used to monitor infant growth, measure the effectiveness of breast-feeding and develop nutritious complementary foods.
Nuclear techniques can also be used to assess human exposure to air pollution and other environmental contaminants that affect health. The Agency's work centres on co-ordinating research work in the field and providing technical advice and training. It also supports Member States by providing certified reference materials available, which are needed to check the accuracy of measurements.
Benefitting from the Physical Sciences
Sound Water Management
Water is rapidly becoming one of the earth's most precious resources: global demand for fresh water is doubling every 21 years, according to the FAO. Across the world today, renewable water resources per capita are roughly half what they were in 1960. This amount is expected to drop by half again by the year 2025. If water resources are not prudently managed, they could become a burden on economic growth and a grave danger to human health and the environment.
Isotope techniques can greatly assist in the development and management of water resources. An IAEA Model Project in Venezuela has helped locate and exploit 50 new wells for the city of Caracas, thus reducing the water supply deficit by 25 million liters per day. Another Model Project in Africa is identifying renewable and non-renewable resources beneath Egypt's desert, and using isotope data to assess groundwater resources around Dakar, Senegal, a rapidly growing city which suffers from a severe water shortage.
Radioisotopes and radiation are tremendously important in modern industry. The Agency is assisting developing-country industries with numerous applications: radiation processing for manufacturing; non-destructive testing for quality control; and tracer technology for problem analysis. Nuclear methods, provided by IAEA, are helping to check the security of welds in Cameroon's new 1,000 mile pipeline transporting oil to the coast. The Agency also advises Member States about new scientific techniques and helps to develop national capabilities to support safe and effective nuclear applications. There are numerous advantages including energy savings, improved product quality and reduction of harmful emissions.
Addressing Urban Challenges
Many large cities face the problem of disposing of their sewage. Some adopt the "solution" of dumping sludge into the ocean. But Argentina's sixth biggest city, Tucuman, lying far inland, had to find a more ecological formula. Drawing on expertise from its mature nuclear industry, Argentina is addressing the problem by irradiating the city's sludge. With assistance from IAEA, a gamma irradiator now decontaminates 180 cubic meters of sludge per day, which then serves as a fertilizer for crop production.
Supporting Research Reactors
Research reactors help to meet national demands for nuclear materials in medicine, agriculture and industry. Today, some 274 research, test and training reactors are operating in 59 Member States and organizations, including 82 in 39 developing countries. Efficient operation and effective utilization of these reactors is of prime importance in meeting developmental needs. Similarly, particle accelerators have been put to use in many countries to produce high quality medical isotopes and for highly sensitive analyses through IAEA assistance.
IAEA Laboratories and Associated Facilities
Marine Environment Laboratory
More than 1 billion people depend on fish as their sole source of protein, and more than 60 percent of the world's population live in coastal zones. The IAEA has the only marine laboratory within the United Nations system — the Marine Environment Laboratory (MEL) in Monaco — which applies nuclear and isotopic techniques to improve scientific understanding of oceans and seas. Among its many investigations, MEL has helped to assess the impact of radioactive waste dumping in the Arctic Seas, the marine effects from the Gulf War, Chernobyl radioactivity in the oceans and pesticide run-off and toxicity in coastal fisheries. MEL is a leading worldwide centre for data quality assurance for all kinds of chemical contaminants, both nuclear and non-nuclear.
MEL focuses on developing new, more cost-effective laboratory methods for monitoring, studying and protecting the marine environment. It is developing rapid mapping techniques for use in emergency responses to marine disasters, as well as routine surveillance and mineral prospecting. MEL also responds to requests for technical and experimental assistance from other UN agencies — such as the multilateral initiative to save the Black Sea from severe pollution.
IAEA's Seibersdorf Laboratories in Austria help to implement the Joint IAEA/FAO programme in food and agriculture, as well as IAEA activities in human health, environmental and earth sciences, radiation protection and safeguards. They provide scientific services including quality control, and chemical and radiochemical analyses for CRPs and Technical Co-operation (TC) activities. The Laboratories train scientists from developing countries and transfer nuclear and related techniques essential for both IAEA and national projects. They also collaborate with laboratories in developing countries which serve as focal points for national and regional programmes in the nuclear field. The Agency has an Isotope Hydrology Laboratory at its headquarters in Vienna to support water resource management and geothermal energy programmes as well.
A Centre for Physics
Located in Trieste, Italy, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) is a key institution for the exchange and transfer of advanced scientific knowledge and skills. It is active in many fields including fundamental and condensed matter physics, mathematics, physics and the environment and other disciplines. Nearly 4000 scientists participate in research and training activities carried out at the Centre each year; more than half come from developing countries. ICTP operates with funding from the Italian government, UNESCO, which administers it, and the IAEA.