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IAEA-EL Director's Word

NAEL's Director
OSBORN David

The long-term health and resilience of the natural environment is the cornerstone upon which all development ultimately depends and the sustainability touchstone against which it must be judged. Why? It is because healthy and resilient natural systems (i.e. ecosystems), provide humanity with foundational benefits and services such as fresh air, clean water, nutrient recycling, pollination and food supplies, construction materials, energy, medicine, recreation and aesthetics. Ecosystems have provided these “services” for millennia, yet too frequently they are poorly understood, undervalued or ignored at great cost to humanity. To ensure peace, health and prosperity for both the current generation and those to come, there is an urgent need for collaborative and targeted responses to key man-made pressures, such as pollution, unsustainable extraction of living resources, and climate change.

In this context the IAEA’s Environment Laboratories in Monaco and Seibersdorf, Austria, in partnership with several collaborating centres around the globe, are unique in the UN system. Through the use and promotion of nuclear and isotopic techniques, the Environment Laboratories play a major role in the journey towards sustainable development, both on land and at sea. Responding to requests for technical assistance from Member States and other UN agencies, the Environment Laboratories provide a better understanding of the environment through applied collaborative research, training courses, technical cooperation projects and analytical quality support services for radioactive and non-radioactive contaminants in the environment. Through its environmental programme the IAEA promotes a holistic and integrated approach to the study, monitoring and protection of marine, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems.

In brief, there are four interrelated dimensions to the work of the IAEA’s Environment Laboratories:

1. Environmental monitoring and remediation

Globally the levels of artificial radionuclides in the environment continue to decline, however areas with higher natural or artificial radioactivity, heavy metal or organic contamination are frequently the focus of monitoring and remediation programmes by Member States. In some regions of the world multilateral approaches are needed due to the trans-boundary nature of pollution. The Environment Laboratories support Member States and regional organisations by providing (on their request) independent environmental assessments, as well as support or advice on their respective programmes. Guidance is also provided on remediation strategies and practices for legacy sites to mitigate consequences of past contamination events. The Environment Laboratories continuously updates its capability to provide timely assessments for any future environmental contamination event and provides methodological, analytical quality, and coordination support to institutes and networks of monitoring laboratories.

2. Environmental forensics

Natural systems are intricate and complex. This complexity generally results in resilience to change, however as pressures mount, resilience is progressively diminished. Each additional change or pressure on an ecosystem, however small, further diminishes resilience and may result in a domino effect of changes across space and time far greater than originally thought. A key role of the Environment Laboratories is to equip new generations of scientists with the knowledge and training necessary to unravel that complexity and to better understand threats to the environment through the unique diagnostic power of isotopes. Our experience shows that almost all major pollution problems, as well as other key environmental threats, can be effectively investigated using nuclear and isotopic techniques. These techniques offer the diagnostic and dynamic information needed to identify the source of contaminants, their history of accumulation in different environmental compartments, their environmental pathways and impacts. Such information is needed to make targeted and cost-effective mitigation and/or adaptation decisions.

3. Environmental forecasting

The potential of isotopic techniques to study current and potential changes in Earth’s climate, and related phenomena such as ocean acidification, has been extensively exploited in recent years by scientists investigating ocean currents, water masses, and the ocean as a sink for carbon. Past ice ages, present-day warming trends and other phenomena have been tracked through their isotopic signatures in the coral bands and in microfossils of deep-sea sediments. The Environment Laboratories collaborate with international organizations active in these and other fields, and who are dedicated to understanding and helping to preserve the marine environment, while improving awareness of threats under different climate scenarios. In this context, the Environment Laboratories are proud to host and operate the Ocean Acidification - International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC). Stable isotopic signatures of atmospheric carbon dioxide are used to trace the impact of fossil fuel burning on raising CO2 levels. The Environment Laboratories provide support to such work by collaboration with highly specialized monitoring laboratories in the area of standardization.

4. Environmental solutions

Building on the three dimensions of our work listed above, i.e. monitoring, forensics and forecasting, the Environment Laboratories participate in collaborative partnerships to link robust science with the development of solution-focussed policies. As a respected science-based institution in the UN family, the IAEA’s Environment Laboratories play an important role in raising awareness of the threats facing the natural environment, and communicating the applications of ground-breaking science to real challenges faced by governments, industry and communities.

Key to sustainable development is sustained and determined collaboration, and in this regard the Environment Laboratories are extremely grateful for the ongoing support of IAEA Member States. We will continue the long established practice of providing Member States with improved knowledge and reliable data about the natural environment, while looking forward to both the challenges and the opportunities facing future generations. This sustained collaboration will improve global understanding of the environment and make a significant contribution to the preservation its health and resilience for future generations.