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Looking Toward a Sustainable Future: IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology Concludes

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Participants at the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology saw nuclear science in action at exhibits such as this one on ocean acidification and its impact on marine life like coral. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The contribution of nuclear science and technology to meeting global socio-economic needs was fully recognized at the first-ever ministerial-level IAEA conference held on this topic last month. Promoting further nuclear technology applications for national development priorities and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was among the main commitments agreed upon.

The three-day conference attracted more than 1000 participants, including 54 ministers from 137 countries and representatives from 15 international organizations. Eight panels and more than 30 presentations covered the latest advances in nuclear science and technology and ways to expand their use worldwide.

Discussions underscored the importance of innovation and gender inclusiveness, as well as collaboration with the IAEA to include nuclear science and technology in development plans. The outcome document of the conference — a ministerial declaration — charted out next steps for action and commitments to further cooperation for realizing the potential of nuclear science.

Improving lives and fighting climate change

More than 40 speakers addressed the conference through four main sessions. In the first and second sessions, panelists discussed nuclear science and technology and their role in improving quality of life in areas such as food security, health care, water and natural resource management and industry, among others, as well as their role in tackling climate change.

“One of our greatest challenges over the next decades is producing more food for a rapidly growing population, while using fewer resources, protecting our livestock and crops and preserving our natural resources,” said Berhe Tekola, Director of the Division of Animal Production and Health at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “Nuclear technology has been instrumental to increasing crop yields, protecting crops from damaging insect pests and diseases, and improving food safety.”

Speakers highlighted how nuclear and isotopic techniques can help to manage natural resources such as water and soil, and reduce the burden of pollutants and hazards that threaten people and the environment. They also illustrated how these techniques can help to shed light on the link between nutrition and diseases, and the many cutting-edge uses of radiation medicine for early diagnosis and treatment of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular conditions and dementia. The importance of nuclear technologies, such as radiotracers and non-destructive testing, for safety and high-performance efficiency in industry was also discussed along with methods for ensuring buildings and infrastructural integrity.

Two panel discussions focused on climate change and the diverse ways nuclear technology can help to support policies and strategies for monitoring, mitigating and adapting to its effects. They outlined its use in studying environmental changes to ecosystems, such as ocean acidification; adapting to new climate realities through approaches such as climate-smart agriculture, plant mutation breeding and the sterile insect technique (SIT); and mitigating climate change with the help of nuclear power and new agricultural methods.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (right) along with co-chairs Ambassador Mitsuru Kitano, Resident Representative of Japan (middle) and Ambassador Alejandro Solano Ortiz, Resident Representative of Costa Rica (left) during the closing session of the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Sustaining, enabling, empowering for the future

The third session emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in the scientific and technological sectors, which remain male-dominated. In addressing barriers faced by women in science, presenters underlined how institutional change requires thorough analysis of data and policies, which can reveal unintended biases at many unexpected levels.

Change is not just about equity but also effectiveness and outcomes, said Adi Paterson, CEO of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). “Embrace cultural change rather than see it as a threat. You are a better organization if you draw on a wider range of talent.”

A panel discussion on capacity building underscored that sustaining the use of nuclear technology worldwide also requires incorporating educational systems into the nuclear sector and involving young professionals from the start of their careers. They highlighted the importance of capacity building and ensuring safety in all things nuclear, and how engaging with private stakeholders can contribute to a wider dissemination of nuclear technology globally.

Education, training and adapting institutional infrastructure to include all segments of society, especially women and youth, in the use of nuclear science and technology can help pave the way for sustainable development, explained presenters during the final session on the way forward.

They discussed how the timely and necessary modernization of the IAEA’s laboratories will help countries continue to adapt existing nuclear applications to the fast-evolving global needs. They underlined how large multinational projects can help to bring the benefits of cutting-edge technology to more people around the world. The speakers called for continued collaboration with the IAEA across countries and with private and public organizations, to continue to help foster scientific advances and innovation.

Bringing nuclear science to life

A unique addition to the conference was the first-ever TEDx event hosted by the IAEA. A TEDx is a widely-recognized style of event showcasing short talks on well-informed ideas with the aim of sparking people’s curiosity and deepening their knowledge while encouraging engagement and idea sharing among local and global communities online and offline.

Entitled ‘Science, Not Fiction, the TEDx featured seven talks on how science, technology and innovation, including nuclear, can help solve pressing global challenges such as the world’s energy crisis. The event featured speakers, such as Melanie Windridge, a plasma physicist, author and science communicator, and Thabang Mabapa, a social entrepreneur, chemical engineer and founder of Selokong sa Dimelana, a company that processes castor seeds for biodiesel purposes as an alternative to other fuels.  

Seven speakers at the IAEA's first-ever TEDx event, 'Science, Not Fiction', talked about how science, technology and innovation, including nuclear, can help solve global problems. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Alongside the conference sessions, delegates had the opportunity to attend 14 side events organized by the IAEA and its Member States highlighting countries’ experiences using nuclear science and technology, including an award ceremony for a high school student competition focused on innovative ideas for using nuclear science for sustainable development. The conference also served as a forum for furthering cooperation among countries and the IAEA, including two new IAEA Collaborating Centre agreements signed, respectively, by Argentina and Viet Nam, as well as pledges from Germany, Kenya, South Korea, Kuwait, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States totaling over 2.5 million euros to support the ReNuAL+ project on modernizing IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf.

Hands-on exhibits also showcased the scientific work being done worldwide and at the IAEA’s 12 research laboratories in Seibersdorf and Monaco. Participants had a chance to see jellyfish and coral that help scientists study the ocean, and nets of thousands of live, irradiated fruit flies used as part of the sterile insect technique. They also saw fresh fruits and vegetables developed with plant mutation breeding, as well as examples of nuclear medicine used for treating cancer, and how nuclear science is helping to improve industry.

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