Agency is putting the atom to work in the name of development
by JACK FREEMAN © Earth Times News Service
VIENNA--Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) started out in 1957 as a watchdog unit to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, today the agency spends at least as much of its budget on a very different priority: assisting development projects in poor countries.
"There are a lot of nuclear techniques," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei recently told The Earth Times, "which are used in every field of human activity to improve life, to combat disease, to alleviate poverty. And we are active in many of these areas: We run a program of around $100 million a year of these development activities."
ElBaradei added: "We try to integrate our activities as part of the national development priorities. And we try to make sure that what we do is a priority for the country, that it's part of their national development plan and that the country is committed to these priorities."
Some of the programs sponsored by the agency are aimed at solving fundamental environmental problems that are impeding development. Others focus on health goals, agricultural improvement or other aspects of development. Still others involve scientific training and technology transfer. What they all have in common is the use of some nuclear-related technology.
Over the years the agency's efforts have produced some spectacular success stories:
- In Zanzibar the tsetse fly, which spreads sleeping sickness among humans and other deadly diseases among cattle herds, has been eliminated by a program that distributed swarms of male tsetse flies made sterile by radiation. Unlike most other forms of pest control, this method poses no added risks to the environment or to human or animal health. A similar approach is currently being tested to eliminate the tsetse fly from the Great Rift Valley.
- In Zimbabwe, farmers are growing bumper crops of soybeans because seeds inoculated with a special strain of Rhizobia bacteria fertilize themselves and grow more robustly than old-fashioned seeds. Development of the specialized strain of the bacteria was made possible by radioactive isotope tracer technology. A similar program is now being tested in Bangladesh.
- In Senegal, health workers have scored a victory over child malnutrition by using isotope tracer technology to measure the effectiveness of the food supplement program and its impact on health. The technology enabled them to measure how much breast milk a baby is taking and the nutrients that are being transferred.
- In Sri Lanka, a human tissue bank has been set up to provide many kinds of tissue for grafts to help patients suffering from degenerative diseases and congenital defects, burns, fractures and other forms of trauma. Tissues used for grafting must be sterilized, and that is achieved by the use of radiation.
The list goes on and on. Nuclear technologies are being put to use in many different countries to maximize water resources, to eliminate screwworms and other pests, to solve a wide range of problems impacting on the development process. According to Alexandra Volkoff, Director of IAEA's Division of Planning, Coordination and Evaluation, the agency works with its individual member states to design each technical cooperation program.
"We deal only with countries that request our aid," she said. "We don't want to push anything on anybody." She continued: "We're demand-driven, but it's an informed demand. We try to help assess development problems in the country, but we have to know what's on the menu."
In the Middle East, she said, the agency working with Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority on a coordinated project to reduce the impact of fruit flies, which cause millions of dollars in food losses every year.
She added that the agency works in cooperation with other units within the United Nations System, such as the World Health Organization and Unicef, to use nuclear technology to combat malaria and tuberculosis, to improve child nutrition. It works with the World Bank on water projects and the Food and Agriculture Organization. "We help to optimize the investment of others," she said.
Volkoff stressed that only a tiny portion of the agency's technical cooperation budget--just 4.1 percent--goes toward nuclear power programs.
Much of the agency's technical cooperation program comes under the heading of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC), which is based on South-South cooperation. "This is very important to us," she said, "getting countries to help each other. We're small but we work well with others."