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Seven Ways AI Will Change Nuclear Science and Technology


AI has the potential to advance the development of nuclear applications, science and technology. (Image: A. Vargas/IAEA)

Over the past decade, artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved rapidly, becoming increasingly sophisticated and capable of solving ever more complex problems. AI is deployed in sectors as diverse as manufacturing, transportation, finance, education and healthcare. In a similar vein, it has the potential to advance the development of nuclear applications, science and technology. Harnessing its capabilities in the nuclear field can positively contribute to addressing some of today’s most pressing challenges, from food security to climate change.

Here are some ways in which AI has and will continue to benefit the peaceful applications of nuclear technology. These are discussed in more detail in a new IAEA publication, Artificial Intelligence for Accelerating Nuclear Applications, Science and Technology.

1. Human health

AI can contribute to combating diseases. It is already applied to support the diagnosis and treatment of cancer through improved image interpretation and precise tumour contouring, enabling more accurate treatment plans and adaptive radiotherapy — a process tailored to the anatomical characteristics of the individual patient. The IAEA has recently launched a coordinated research project in this area.

AI will also play an important role in the IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative to help experts better understand the impact of zoonotic diseases on human health and predict, assess and contain future outbreaks of such diseases.

2. Food and agriculture

AI tools combined with nuclear technologies can help make food systems more sustainable and climate change resilient, while also addressing food and nutrition insecurity.

Experts deploy AI to process and analyse data to increase crop yields, estimate soil moisture, remediate radioactively contaminated land, detect and predict food fraud events and improve irrigation.

3. Water and the environment

Isotopic methods allow experts to study and track how water moves through different stages of the hydrological cycle and what transformations occur in this cycle due to climate change. Experts already apply AI-based approaches to quickly analyse huge amounts of water-related isotopic data stored in global repositories, such as the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation maintained by the IAEA and the World Meteorological Organization.

Effective and efficient analysis of data facilitated with AI helps scientists understand climate change and its impact on water availability worldwide.

4. Nuclear science and fusion research

Artificial intelligence plays an increasingly important role in nuclear science. AI are used in data analysis, theoretical modelling and experiment design, helping to accelerate fundamental research, for example in the realm of nuclear and atomic data evaluation and compilation, and advancing technological innovation.

A particular area that benefits from the application of AI is fusion research. With its ability to solve large and complex problems, AI can aid experiments and scientific discovery through modelling and simulations. These applications of AI are included in a new five-year IAEA coordinated research project aimed at accelerating fusion research and development.

5. Nuclear power

Nuclear power is a reliable, low carbon source of energy, and it can benefit significantly from the inclusion of AI. By combining digital simulations of real nuclear facilities with AI systems, the industry can optimize complex procedures and improve reactor design, performance and safety. Such optimization can increase the efficiency of operations and reduce maintenance costs.

Machine learning — a process whereby AI learns by analysing large amounts of data — helps to automate tasks and thereby increase reliability and avoid errors. Furthermore, AI has considerable analytical and predictive potential to help monitor power plant processes and detect anomalies.

6. Nuclear security and radiation protection

As more and more countries choose to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and adopt nuclear power programmes, the IAEA works continuously to ensure the protection of people and the environment from the potential harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

AI can contribute to nuclear security and safety in several ways. It can be used in the processing of data from radiation detection systems to enhance the detection and identification of nuclear and other radioactive material. It can be applied to analyse data from physical protection systems to improve the detection of intruders. It can also help spot anomalies that could indicate a cyber-attack on a nuclear facility. Furthermore, in the realm of radiation protection, the integration of AI in safety standards-related software can reinforce the protection of the millions of workers with occupational exposure in medicine, construction, mining, shipping, agriculture and nuclear power.

7. Safeguards

Safeguards are technical verification measures through which the IAEA provides credible assurances that countries are honouring their legal obligations to use nuclear material for peaceful purposes only. The IAEA assesses states’ declared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities and seeks to verify the absence of undeclared ones through measures, such as inspections at nuclear facilities and sites.

Safeguards rely on large amounts of data obtained by various means, such as satellite imagery, environmental sampling, gamma ray spectroscopy and video surveillance. AI can help nuclear inspectors and safeguard analysts with the analysis of these data. Machine learning methods have already been used to detect outliers in large datasets and assist in verifying spent fuel and analysing surveillance recordings. AI is expected to further improve the efficiency of safeguards implementation by reducing the number of repetitive tasks performed by inspectors.

The way forward

The IAEA provides interdisciplinary fora for professionals to discuss and foster collaboration on the use of AI in nuclear applications, science and technology and is committed to sharing knowledge and forging partnerships through its AI for Atoms platform. As part of this initiative, the IAEA cooperates with the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Interagency Working Group on AI and almost 40 other UN organizations to provide a solid foundation for accelerated sustainable development with AI.

The AI for Good is a year-round digital platform of the United Nations system, where AI innovators and problem owners learn, discuss and connect to identify practical AI solutions to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

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