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Atomic Energy and Environment

» Nuclear Power's Role in Environmental Protection | Nuclear Techniques for Environmental Protection

Nuclear power can be an effective tool in reducing stress on the environment.

Environmental concerns are high on today's political agenda. People's awareness of the planet's precarious health has been reinforced by scientific warnings that quick, vigorous, and sustained action must be taken if we are to preserve the world in which we live.

Public perception and anxiety about acid rain, ozone layer depletion, and the greenhouse effect have been heightened in recent years. Enhanced awareness offers an unprecedented opportunity for members of the world community to make rational, informed decisions in the environmental debate.

Energy, in particular electricity generation, is fundamental to social and economic development. The use of hydropower, coal, oil and gas has helped to stimulate economic growth and raise the standards of living of people worldwide. All major forms of electricity generation, however, have some effect on the environment, frequently with starkly negative results. The burning of fossil fuels, scientists say, can contribute some 50 percent to the warming of the global atmosphere. Man's harnessing of these resources involves risks to the environment, as well as to people involved in activities associated with energy technologies.

The link between energy and the environment is undeniable. The world must therefore carefully examine its energy alternatives, and alternatives must be found to reduce the influence of fossile fuels on the environment, in parallel with conservation efforts. Nuclear energy can claim to be a clean, economical option for the generation of electricity and as one when looking at ways to help relieve stress on the environment.

Conclusions of the 14th Congress of the World Energy Conference in Montreal in late September, 1989 indicate that environmental effects of energy uses and the world's growing demand for electricity are prime reasons warranting a renewed emphasis on nuclear power.

Conservation is a significant, realistic, and necessary element in trying to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation implies both a more efficient and more discriminating use of energy. But, as the former International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Director General Dr. Hans Blix has said, current plans of developing countries foresee a sharp increase in the use of fossil fuels. This means that if we are to succeed in stabilizing and indeed diminishing the greenhouse effect, industrialized countries must make the major effort. Nuclear power can be one effective tool in this vital endeavour. Additionally, ways must be found to allow industrializing nations to play their part without jeopardizing their growth prospects.

Nuclear Power's Role in Environmental Protection

The world community is beginning to realize that no source of energy is risk-free and that environmental considerations must be taken into account.

If the electric energy that was generated from nuclear power last year had instead been produced by coal-fired power plants, it would have given rise to additional emissions of CO2 of about 1600 million tons. This figure is not small compared with the 4000 million tons which the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere recommended as a target for reductions by 2005.

The wastes resulting from the operation of all nuclear power plants last year gave rise to some 7000 tons of spent fuel, a small amount compared to other energy sources. If the electricity had been generated by the combustion of coal, it would have resulted in millions of tons of SO2 and NOX, in addition to the 1600 million tons of CO2, even with the best flue gas cleaning equipment available. Additionally, there would have been some 100,000 tons of poisonous heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, and vanadium. These remain poisonous forever and are not isolated from the biosphere.

The Agency provides assistance to its Member States in nuclear power production and services to assure that nuclear power plants are safely managed and operated. For example:

Radiation and Nuclear Safety Standards

For more than 30 years, the Agency has established international safety standards and guidance on radiation and nuclear safety and assisted Member States in their application nationally to promote the safe use of nuclear technologies in medicine, research, agriculture, industry and energy production. Two complementary sets of documents constitute an internationally recognized frame of reference for safety--the Basic Safety Standards for Radiation Protection and its associated Safety Series publications, and the recently updated Nuclear Safety Standards (NUSS). The NUSS Codes of Practice and supplementary Safety Guides promote a common approach to governmental organization, siting, design, operations, and quality assurance at nuclear power plants.

Operational Nuclear Safety

The Agency has an interactive system of activities available to help ensure that nuclear power plants and research reactors are operated in a safe manner and non-detrimental to human and environmental well-being. The Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) programme provides international expert teams for impartial on-site reviews of safety practices at individual plants. The Assessment of Safety Significant Events Teams (ASSET) programme offers a direct exchange of experience between the operating organization and international experts on causes and corrective actions for incidents occurring at nuclear power plants. The Incident Report System (IRS) facilitates an international exchange of reliable information about safety related incidents at nuclear power plants.

Environmental Risks of Energy Production

Properly viewed, the level of risk nuclear power poses to human health and the environment compares favorably with that of viable energy alternatives. To help provide this perspective, the Agency, together with other organizations, is comparatively assessing the risks of nuclear power production with viable energy alternatives, building up a reliable database on different types of health and environmental impacts posed by the total cycle of the energy system. It has joined with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in assessing the health and environmental risks from energy and other complex industry systems. This assessment represents a pioneering international effort to develop an integrated approach to risk management.

In 1991, it will team with UNEP, WHO, and a host of other organizations to sponsor an international symposium aimed at understanding the environmental and health effects of different means of generating electricity and how this knowledge can be translated into practical policies and practices on electricity and the environment.

Radioactive Waste Management/Disposal

To protect the environment and avoid health hazards, the Agency assists Members States in planning the management and disposal of radioactive wastes. Efforts concentrate on the control, containment, and isolation of such wastes from the biosphere. Practical assistance, guidelines for safety assessment procedures, publications, symposia, and training are provided in radioactive waste management.

The IAEA publishes safety standards on radioactive waste management and disposal. A new safety standard released in 1989 reflects an international concensus on the safety principles and technical criteria for the underground disposal of high-level radioactive wastes.

The Waste Management Advisory Programme (WAMAP) assists Member States through advisory missions by teams of experts to establish regulations, develop a regulatory framework for licensing and inspection, analyse problems and select solutions, and design, construct, and operate waste management facilities.

Nuclear Techniques for Environmental Protection

The practical contributions of nuclear energy and the IAEA's activities to enhance environmentally sound and sustainable international development have gained wide recognition in the global community. The use of nuclear techniques in fields such as agriculture, industry, and research supports environmental objectives. The following are some examples of IAEA activities in these areas:

Soil Fertility and Crop Production

Nitrogen fertilizers are used widely to increase agricultural production. Many fertilizers, however, can harm the environment. Nuclear techniques are used to trace fertilizers to determine the best form, timing, and placement to avoid waste and to reduce its movement into the environment. Others are used to detect, measure, and track fertilizer-supplied nutrients in soil and plants, determine the availability of soil moisture, and study and promote the natural process of nitrogen fixation.


Agricultural production requires an adequate supply of water in soils. Neutron moisture gauges are used to improve traditional irrigation methods to cut total water use by some 40 percent. Different practices to increase water conservation in rain-fed areas have been tested and have resulted in immediate practical application.

Plant Breeding

Nuclear techniques are used to develop new strains of important food crops. These new varieties of species such as rice, wheat, and soybean, may have a better resistance to disease, be of a higher product quality, or have a higher yield.

Pest control

The Agency's studies and applications of the sterile insect technique to control and eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly and the tsetse fly within certain geographical areas have produced significant successes, thereby helping to reduce the use of insecticides.


To reduce damage to the ecosystem, the release of active pesticide compounds over time can be improved to decrease the quantities used by farmers. Nuclear techniques also track the residues of pesticides in the environment.


Techniques using "environmental" isotopes are among those that meteorologists, hydrologists, and hydrogeologists use in the study of water. Study of the isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in water, or of elements contained in dissolved salts which have the same behaviour as water, enable exact recording of phenomena affecting the occurrence and movement of water in all its forms.

The Amazon Project

Nuclear techniques play a key role in investigating the environmental consequences of the clearing of tropical rainforests. Because of their sensitivity, stable isotopes can measure small changes over short time periods and environmental and ecological changes caused by relatively small cleared areas and basins. They provide data on vapour movements, stream flow, sedimentation, water quality, plant productivity, and soil changes. Using such techniques, the Amazon Project, which the IAEA participates in, is expected to yield information that will lead to the development of methods for optimizing plant nutrition and fertilizer utilization. Nuclear techniques also are used to study the nutritional and water cycles in the region demonstrating climate changes and fragility of the ecology in the region. Ultimately, it should have a decisive impact on the ecological management of the region.

Research and Development

The Agency's Laboratory at Seibersdorf provides research and scientific support to developing countries at their request. It provides training and laboratory services to scientists in areas such as analytical techniques for radioisotope measurements and the use of nuclear techniques for the determination of non-radioactive pollutants. Training in the use of isotope and nuclear techniques for the assessment of pesticide residues, studies of soil/water problems and entomology has provided expertise to thousands of scientists from developing countries over the years.

The Agency's Laboratory at Monaco carries out studies of radioactivity in the marine environment, collaborating with oceanographic institutes worldwide and conducting projects in co-operation with the UN Environment Program (UNEP), for example.

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics, in Trieste, helps foster advanced study and research in physical and mathematical sciences serving as an international forum for scientific contacts among scientists and providing facilities for research. It holds courses on solar energy, ecological modelling, and atmospheric and ocean sciences, all of which are of direct relevance to scientists in developing countries working in areas related to the environment.

Environmental Pollution

The use of isotopes and the development of analytical tools, including tracer methods, neutron activation analysis, X-ray fluorescence and atomic absorption spectrometry, have added to the techniques available for the study and detection of environmental pollutants such as pesticides and toxic metals.

These tools have become standard methods for assessing water and mineral resources. The use of nuclear techniques to help solve pollution problems is well known and is an important contribution to the concept of sustainable development.

Environmental Monitoring and Impact Assessment

The Agency collects, analyses, and publishes information on radioisotopes in the environment. A number of safety standards, guides, recommendations, procedures data and relevant technical reports have been published over the years. Such environmental monitoring includes surveillance and checking for compliance with authorized procedures, as well as monitoring for research purposes, such as collecting information relevant to assessing the behaviour and pathways of radionuclides in the environment.

Radiological assessment models are used widely for environmental safety at nuclear facilities. The Agency is working with an expanding network of researchers worldwide to validate long-range transport models for atmospheric pollutants and to validate models for the transfer of radionuclides in terrestrial, urban, and aquatic environments.

Radiation Processing

The Agency supports research and development activities in the use of electron beam irradiation to clean flue gases originating from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Radiation processing of urban waste sludges is also under investigation to kill pathogens and facilitate disposal or recycling of waste products.

Emergency Preparedness

The IAEA Emergency Response System can respond rapidly to nuclear or radiological emergencies, informing national authorities about accidents and coordinating assistance that Member States, the IAEA and other international organizations could provide to mitigate environmental and health impacts. To complement national efforts, the Agency provides technical guidance and assistance to Member States for effective emergency preparedness at nuclear facilities.