Focus Environment

Ana Marĺa Cetto and and Werner Burkart

In a world facing severe environmental challenges, nuclear technology can help make the most of natural resources while preserving the environment. An interdepartmental group has been set up to coordinate the multi-faceted efforts of the IAEA in this area.

The sustainability of the Earth's environment has become one of the greatest challenges of our age. An expanding human footprint caused by a growing population, and changes in consumption patterns place undue strain on the planet's ecosystems, as well as its natural resources.

A growing cause for alarm, statistics divulged by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) project a global population of over nine billion by 2050, with commensurate increases in the demand for food, water, energy and other natural resources.

The figures on population growth tie in with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a UN study involving over 1,350 experts worldwide, detailing the severity of the challenges facing humanity: rising demand for energy, climate change, shortage of water supply, desertification, threats to land resources and stress on the marine environment and its natural resources. Other problem areas include rising volumes of polluting waste and worsening air pollution.

Within this dire scenario, human ingenuity and progress, however, offer reasons for optimism. For each of the threats listed by the Millennium Assessment, state-of-the-art nuclear technology can contribute solutions, and, in some cases, offer immediate answers.

As the world evaluates energy sources that would ease our reliance on fossil fuels, an increasing number of countries all over the world are now looking at the nuclear power option. In addition, other technology that is nuclear is essential in assessing, mitigating and predicting environmental impact.

On a practical level, nuclear techniques can help to track water sources and movement for better management of the resource. In the area of land management, nuclear technology can help to quantify the amount of nitrogen fixation, a process whereby atmospheric nitrogen is converted to fertiliser nitrogen in the root nodules of certain plant species -- clover, alfafa, beans, peas and peanuts -- thus minimizing the need for costly chemical fertilisers.

Nuclear technology can help measure rates of uptake, storage and cycling of water and nutrients in a cropping or livestock grazing system, putting in place management practices that enhance the conservation and management of land and its constituents for food security and environmental sustainability.

The IAEA has an extensive number of programmes that relate directly or indirectly to the environment. Taking stock of the broad experience accumulated in this area, the IAEA created a dedicated Focus Group on the Environment (FGE) that looked into these issues with the goal of consolidating the Agency's environment portfolio as an interdepartmental activity in the context of its medium term strategy to 2011.

The IAEA and the Environment

The scope of the IAEA's involvement in the environmental sphere lies in the sustainable use and management of natural resources, and the protection and understanding of the environment through nuclear technology. The FGE articulated it into three main goals, intended to guide the planning and formulation of the Agency's regular and technical cooperation programmes. The three goals are:

  1. Protecting humans and ecosystems from ionizing radiation;

  2. Optimizing the environmental impact of nuclear technology; and

  3. Facilitating the sustainable use and management of natural resources.

  4. An Interdepartmental group has now been established to strengthen the IAEA's coordinated efforts towards the achievement of these goals.

Goal I: Protecting Humans and Ecosystems from Ionizing Radiation

The use of nuclear energy has distinct environmental advantages, e.g., the production of energy with reduced CO2 emission. A central challenge is to ensure that the use of nuclear energy and other nuclear applications does not result in unacceptable hazards to man and the environment. Nuclear energy, nuclear applications and naturally occurring radioactive material can have an adverse and undesirable impact and IAEA's programmes address this issue at several levels.

The IAEA is actively involved in ensuring the proper operation, closing and decommissioning of nuclear facilities (such as reactors, fuel cycle facilities, mines and ore processing plants) and the proper handling of other radioactive materials, thereby limiting the release of radioactivity into the environment.

Another area of engagement for the IAEA is the proper management of radioactive waste and remediation of contaminated sites. Radioactive contamination of the environment has occurred as a result of both peaceful and military applications of nuclear energy, and needs timely and effective management.

To this end, accurate assessment of radioactive contamination is required while methods/technologies can be made available to Member States to minimize any environmental impact from residues and wastes.

The IAEA is also involved in studying the underlying processes that determine the transfer of radioactive material through the environment and the effect of radiation on man and the environment.

Goal II: Optimizing the overall environmental impact of nuclear technology

The use of nuclear technology in a large number of applications can be pivotal in addressing developmental and environmental needs. However, the environmental advantages and disadvantages of using nuclear applications over non-nuclear technologies also need to be taken into account, and the IAEA's programme addresses this issue too.

At one level, the IAEA facilitates the sustainable use of nuclear power for electricity generation and other applications, including the generation of hydrogen and desalination of sea water. The IAEA, however, also helps assess the overall balance between the negative environmental impact that stems from the use of nuclear technology (such as the use of large volumes of water to cool nuclear power plants, pollution derived from the mining of ores, etc.) versus factors that can be seen as benefiting the environment (e.g., lower emissions of CO2 through the use of nuclear power plants).

GOAL III: Facilitating the sustainable use and management of natural resources

The IAEA's work seeks to ensure that, when applicable, nuclear techniques are used to improve the management of natural resources and to provide a better scientific understanding of environmental processes.

For example, radioactive and stable isotopes can be used to facilitate the sustainable use and management of natural resources. The use of isotopes can also improve the understanding of natural or man-made systems enabling, amongst other things, the prediction of future global trends from past occurrences, or the global assessment of resources. The number of applications in this area is truly extensive, and the IAEA's programmes relate to this goal through the application of nuclear methods for:

  1. the monitoring, assessment and protection of air quality;

  2. reducing the threats to water resources;

  3. increasing the productivity of land (e.g., for agriculture purposes and for the extraction of raw materials for industry);

  4. reducing the use of chemicals for agriculture and forestry resources;

  5. the sustainable generation of energy (e.g., geothermal energy, hydropower, etc.) for electricity;

  6. improving the prediction and understanding of natural phenomena (e.g., predicting climate change and modelling of carbon fluxes); and

  7. managing the marine environment.


Modern society is caught between two urgent demands: to cater to the needs of a growing and aging population, while preserving the earth's resources and its environment for future generations. At a time when public concern about the environment reaches unprecedented levels, to push back the looming spectres of environmental degradation and climate change requires integrated solutions that tie energy, natural resources and human health.

As part of these solutions, nuclear technologies are crucial components in increasing the world's production of food and energy, as well as in managing existing natural resources with minimum environmental impact. To this end, the IAEA, in collaboration with other partners, has a special role to play in ensuring that the needs of its Member States are met without compromising the future of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Ana Marĺa Cetto and Werner Burkart are Deputy Directors General of the IAEA.