Eight Laboratories, Eight Stories of Success in Development

Notable Achievements of IAEA Nuclear Applications Laboratories in Seibersdorf

Lectures and hands-on demonstration at the Gamma Laboratory in Seibersdorf in connection with the Regional Training Course on Acceptance Test of Dual Head Cameras, 15-19 October 2012, Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo: K. Nikolic/IAEA)

For over half a century, the IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf have helped many countries in using and adapting nuclear technologies to promote development. There are eight nuclear application laboratories housed in one premise within the Seibersdorf Forschungszentrum (or research facility). Together they support and implement programmes that leverage on the benefits of using isotopic and nuclear techniques to address key challenges in food and agriculture, water, human health, and environmental monitoring.

So whatever the challenge may be - safety in radiation therapy; soil and water use efficiency; pest control and containment; healthier crops, animal productivity, food safety, or precise measurements - scientists at the IAEA Seibersdorf Laboratories lend a helping hand. For over fifty years, these scientists have worked together with national counterparts on a variety of nuclear techniques and applications that promote development all around the world.

There have been numerous successes throughout the years. Eight of the laboratories' most notable achievements are listed below:

1. Better Fruit Without Mediterranean Fruit Fly

The Sterile Insect Techniques (SIT) has become almost synonymous with the name of the Insect Pest Control Laboratory in Seibersdorf. The laboratory has successfully used SIT to eradicate the tsetse fly from Zanzibar. It did this by developing new methods for rearing, feeding, sterilizing and releasing the male flies.

SIT is a type of "birth control" in which radiation-sterilized males are released to mate with wild female insects of the pest population. These female insects will lay infertile eggs that cannot hatch to produce offspring. Over time, the insect pest population in the area decreases. The suppression of the pest population can be achieved, with much less or no pesticides.

Today, SIT is used in combination with other organic techniques to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, with subsequent economic benefits. Because of the price pressure in the trade in fruit and vegetables, countries have to be able to assure the best quality to remain active on the global market. Many countries will not accept imports from countries where the Mediterranean fruit fly is present. By using SIT and building local mass rearing facilities to control the fly, countries have benefited from billions of dollars in trade.

2. The Right Drop of Water for Agriculture

How much water does a plant need and how can we determine that amount? The IAEA Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Laboratory at Seibersdorf found the right tool for answering these questions: isotopes. So how does this technique work? Water that directly reaches a plant's roots through a technique called drip irrigation is one of the most efficient ways to save water and increase harvest at the same time. Lab scientists use a small instrument known as a neutron probe to measure the soil water and find out when and where the plant needs water. The drip irrigation technique has been used effectively to boost agricultural productivity in water-deficient farms in Kenya.

3. Accurate Dose for Safer Cancer Treatment

When it comes to radiation therapy, a 5% change in radiation dose can spell the difference between life and death. This is why the IAEA/World Health Organization postal audit programme is so important. The programme enables hospitals to check their dosimetry practices free of charge. The IAEA's Dosimetry Laboratory sends small devices known as thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLDs) to participating clinics around the world. The devices then absorb the same amount of radiation that the patient receives. It is then sent back to the IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf, where the scientists analyze the TLD to determine whether the right amount of radiation had been administered. To date, over 1&mbsp;900 hospitals in 130 countries benefit from this service that is making radiation therapy safer and more accurate.

4. Pesticide-Free Lakes and Food in Colombia

Lago de Tota in Colombia is surrounded by large areas of fertile land where small farmers cultivate vegetables. However, their use of pesticides is dangerous to people and the environment: the rain flushes the pesticides into the lake and the area gets contaminated. The Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory supported a regional project to assess the impact of pesticide contamination. Through isotopic techniques, the researchers predicted which pesticides were most likely to contaminate the groundwater or the lake. Now, farmers only use the less dangerous pesticides and the contamination of the area has decreased considerably.

5. Salt-Tolerant Rice Helps Vietnam Adapt to Climate Change

Climate change brought an unexpected problem for the rice farmers in Vietnam: salt. The increased flooding led to a surge of salt along the coastal areas of the Mekong Delta, the primary rice growing area of the country. The Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf helped the farmers find and cultivate salt-tolerant rice varieties. By irradiating the seeds of the Vietnamese rice, the scientists were able to identify rice varieties that have the exact characteristics needed. If left to nature, these varieties would develop in millions of years. The scientists were able to speed up the process to just a few minutes. The success of the project is now visible on the fertile rice fields in Vietnam.

6. Unveiling the Mystery Behind World's Greatest Art Treasures

When the Saliera sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini was stolen in 2003 from the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, it took the best detectives to recover it. However, after its retrieval, the museum employees had to make sure that it had not been damaged. This was only possible with a portable device that uses electromagnetic radiation to analyse the sculpture, developed by the Nuclear Spectometry and Applications Laboratory in Seibersdorf. The device is known as a portable fluorescence spectrometer. It can also be used to effectively track environmental pollution.

7. Connection Between Healing Spas and Radiation

For many years, people believed that more time in a healing spa would be beneficial to their health. Now, scientists have discovered that this is not the case. The healing powers of the water often came from the radioactive radon gas present in the water and in the surrounding caves. Today, patients are only allowed to stay in the water for a limited amount of time, in order to benefit from the healing effects without being overexposed to radiation. This was possible through the work of the Terrestrial Environment Laboratory in Seibersdorf that set the standard of the level of radioactivity that exists naturally in the world. This information allowed researchers to determine the effect of contamination or overexposure.

8. A World Free From Rinderpest

Rinderpest, the plague that affected thousands of cattle and endangered the livelihoods of farmers worldwide was declared eradicated in 2011. This achievement wouldn't have been possible without the active assistance of the Animal Production and Health Laboratory in Seibersdorf. The scientists at this laboratory developed improved tools to monitor the efficiency of the vaccination efforts. This nuclear related technology - the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay or ELISA - allowed for rapid diagnosis and cost-efficiency. It proved to be the "missing piece" in global efforts to control the disease. The availability of ELISA and other specific and sensitive diagnostic tests enable scientist to quickly control the next outbreak of rinderpest, which then led to its eventual eradication. Today, this technique is being considered for use in the control of other transbounday animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever.

"The eight nuclear applications laboratories in Seibersdorf are doing pioneering work related to human and animal health, food security and safety, agriculture and environmental monitoring," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in his statement to the 56th General Conference in September 2012.

But, after more than 50 years of service, laboratory space is now severely limited and the equipment is not well adapted to present needs.

"It is time to bring the nuclear applications laboratories up to the latest international standards," Mr. Amano stressed. "My goal is to carry out a complete modernization within a few years so these laboratories can offer even better services to our Member States."

For more information on the eight nuclear applications laboratories, please visit the Website of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Last update: 11 November 2014