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Nuclear Technology: Serving Sustainable Development

Vienna, Austria

 Algiers, Algeria

Science and technology are driving forces for human progress, and play key roles in development. When development needs remain unaddressed, the resulting misery often leads to conflicts and violence, which in turn further affect development efforts and impact on regional and global stability.

But even with globalization, many developing countries still receive scant benefit from recent advances in science and technology. This is because investment in science and technology normally follows the marketplace. As a result, technology development has mostly been catering to the needs of developed countries, thereby only serving to widen the gap between developed and developing countries.

Capacity building in science and technology is a prerequisite for addressing national and global challenges associated with basic human needs: the right to food, water, energy, healthcare, housing and education.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency, our cooperation and expertise in the use of nuclear science and technology for development is available to all our Member States. Today I would like to review some of our activities in Africa, and discuss measures that States of the region should take, with Agency assistance, to ensure that these activities are of maximum benefit.

The Overview

At present, 38 African countries are Member States of the IAEA. Since 1997, Africa´s membership has increased by 11 - a trend that I welcome.

The IAEA´s assistance to Africa covers a broad range of applications of nuclear science, radiation and isotope technologies, and nuclear energy. Areas of assistance include the management of groundwater resources, crop improvement, combating the tsetse fly and other pests, treatment of cancer and control of communicable diseases, nutritional intervention, industrial productivity, environmental protection, and the use of nuclear power. In all these areas, IAEA assistance includes capacity building through human resource development and the build-up of infrastructure to ensure the use of nuclear technology in a safe, secure and peaceful manner. Nearly all of the IAEA´s development activities in Africa support in some way the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and are also of direct relevance to the priority programmes of NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa´s Development.

Last year our national and regional activities and projects in Africa consisted of human resource development, expert assistance and procurement of equipment, in areas of priority identified by the recipient countries.

To make our cooperation more effective, we continue to promote TCDC - technical cooperation among developing countries. In Africa, TCDC is driven in particular by AFRA, the Intergovernmental African Regional Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology, which has today a membership of 26 African countries. Through AFRA, members work together to maximize the utilization of the available nuclear infrastructure and expertise in Africa, with a view to achieving regional self-sufficiency in peaceful applications of nuclear technology.

Time will not permit me to discuss all of our activities, but I would like to discuss a few in more detail.

Nuclear Applications

Groundwater Management: Using Science to Manage Africa´s Aquifers Sustainably
Let me begin with groundwater management. In Africa, inadequate access to water is considered both a cause and consequence of poverty. Rational water resource management is a major goal in the context of sustainable development, and especially crucial in a region of scarcity.

The IAEA offers isotope hydrology as a tool in managing water resources. Because water naturally contains different isotopes, isotopic dating can be used to estimate the origins and movement of water within the hydrological cycle, and thus to determine the availability and capacity of underground aquifers and other water resources. Assistance in recent years has helped many African Member States achieve quantifiable estimates of their ground and surface water resources, and to develop national strategies for managing these resources.

In partnership with other organizations, the IAEA has paid particular attention to sub-regional initiatives to manage trans-boundary groundwater resources. One example involves the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, shared by Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan. The IAEA is the Executing Agency for the project, funded by the Global Environment Facility. The Agency also has projects focused on the Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System shared by Algeria, Libya and Tunisia; and the Iullemeden Aquifer System shared by Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

The equitable sharing of water resources can be complex. For example, from 2003 to 2006, the IAEA supported Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in carrying out sampling campaigns to understand the water balance of Lake Victoria. Based on the interim results of this project, these countries and three others - Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan - have agreed to cooperatively expand the project to enhance the equitable utilization of key areas of the Nile Basin.

Food Security: Enhancing Crop Productivity, Pest Control and Livestock Health
Food security is among the most challenging problems facing Africa. Boosting agricultural production requires genetically enhanced crop varieties, increased soil fertility, better soil and water management and improved crop protection practices. The objective is not only to increase food production, but also to sustain it while preserving the environment.

Under an AFRA regional project, several countries are using nuclear techniques in mutation breeding and biotechnology to develop enhanced varieties of crops. Since 2001, building on the achievements of national TC projects, six new varieties have been officially released - crops with higher yield, improved nutrition, and/or more hardy characteristics for harsh environments. This includes new varieties of sesame in Egypt, cassava in Ghana, wheat in Kenya, banana in Sudan, and finger millet and cotton in Zambia.

A nuclear technique with wide applicability in pest control is the sterile insect technique (SIT). In this technique, radiation is used to sterilize otherwise healthy insects, which are then released to the environment to mate without producing offspring - thus controlling and gradually eradicating the pest population. SIT has been used successfully for different pests in different regions.

SIT is one of the methods being used to combat the tsetse fly in Africa. Trypanosomosis, the disease carried by this fly, is considered a major constraint to sustainable development in many parts of Africa. It affects both humans and livestock, and thereby also impedes agricultural productivity. SIT was used to successfully eradicate the tsetse fly from Zanzibar during a 1994–1997 campaign. The creation of tsetse-free zones in selected areas is the primary objective of PATTEC, the Pan-African Tsetse and Trypanosomosis Eradication Campaign of the African Union. The IAEA contributes training, expert services and equipment to PATTEC through both regional and national projects.

In 2004, six of the countries working with PATTEC - Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Uganda - secured a loan of about $80 million from the African Development Bank (ADB) to tackle the tsetse and trypanosomosis problem. The approved approach aims to integrate suppression, control and eradication technologies, including the use of SIT at the appropriate stage.

Human Health: Combating Malnutrition, Communicable Diseases and Cancer
In many parts of Africa, health services are still inadequate and health indicators are well below the world’s average. The health sector is beset with major problems such as the prevalence of malnutrition and the high incidence of communicable diseases, as well as by the increasing incidence of cancer.

The IAEA assists countries in using nuclear and isotopic techniques to assess immune responses of individuals infected by various diseases, to monitor the emergence of drug resistance, and to evaluate the effectiveness of nutrition intervention strategies. Current Agency projects in Africa support applying these techniques to national and regional efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. For example, under a regional project, the IAEA is assisting five countries (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda) that have initiated HIV/AIDS vaccine studies under a programme supported by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Cancer is on the rise in developing countries. By the year 2020, out of a projected 260 million cancer cases worldwide, approximately 150 million will be in developing countries. Although cancer prevention is the single most cost-effective strategy in many poor countries, comprehensive early detection and diagnosis of cancer - and especially its treatment by radiotherapy - remain a vital necessity.

For almost three decades, the IAEA has been providing developing countries with radiation technology and training to diagnose, treat and palliate cancer. In the last five years, six new radiotherapy and nuclear medicine centres were established in Africa with significant IAEA assistance. However the needs in Africa and other regions are much beyond the Agency available resources. Out of 53 African countries, only 25 have functional radiotherapy facilities.

The Agency has established the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT), to assist developing countries in integrating radiotherapy into the broader framework of cancer prevention and control. Over the past year, PACT has built strategic relationships with the leading organizations in the field of cancer control and research, in order to assist Member States with comprehensive cancer control programmes. Collaborative efforts are now underway to create model demonstration sites for cancer control, including one in the United Republic of Tanzania. These sites will be used to attract additional donors, by raising the profile of cancer as a major health concern.

The Agency has also created the “"IAEA Nobel Cancer and Nutrition Fund" to support training for better cancer management and childhood nutrition in Africa and in other developing regions of the world.

Nuclear Power

Energy is essential for development. Nearly every aspect of development requires reliable access to modern energy sources.

The Global Energy Imbalance
In this context, it is important to consider the global energy imbalance. Today, 1.6 billion people in the world are without access to electricity, and 2.4 billion rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating because they have no access to modern fuels.

In Africa, the annual consumption of electricity is on average about 500 kilowatt-hours per capita. For some countries, the annual consumption rate is as low as 50 kilowatt-hours per capita.

To put this in perspective: the developed countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on average, consume electricity at an annual rate of 8600 kilowatt-hours per capita. This is roughly 17 times higher than the African average, and about 170 times higher than some African countries.

Rising Expectations for Nuclear Power
In recent years we have seen rising expectations regarding the role of nuclear power as a source of electricity. This rise is driven by a number of factors. The rapid growth in global energy demand is putting a premium on all energy sources. Climate change concerns have highlighted the advantages of nuclear power in terms of its minimal greenhouse gas emissions. And the sustained nuclear safety and productivity record over the past twenty years has made nuclear operating costs relatively low and stable.

There are currently 442 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries. These reactors supply about 16 per cent of the world´s electricity. This percentage has been roughly stable since 1986.

To date, the use of nuclear power has been concentrated in industrialized countries. In terms of new construction, however, the pattern is different. Of the 29 new reactors under construction, 16 are in developing countries.

With only two power reactors in the entire continent, at Koeberg near Cape Town, nuclear power makes up only a small part of Africa´s energy supply. But South Africa has plans to increase its nuclear generating capacity, and a number of other African countries - such as Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria - have been expressing interest in nuclear power for both electricity production and the desalination of seawater.

Technological Innovation
Many developing countries have been particularly interested in efforts to develop small and medium-size reactor designs. These designs allow a more incremental investment than is required for a big reactor, and provide a better match to grid capacity in many developing countries. They are more easily adapted to co-generation applications such as electricity production and seawater desalination. Many countries, including South Africa, are currently working on developing new reactor designs in this size range, which may well be in high demand.

The future of nuclear power will be shaped in part by continued technological innovation - the development of new reactor and fuel cycle technologies. Current nuclear R&D projects are focused on enhancing nuclear safety, reducing proliferation risks, minimizing waste generation and improving economic performance. The IAEA´s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) works to ensure that the future needs of all countries, in particular developing countries, are understood and taken into account when innovative nuclear systems are evaluated and developed.

Capacity Building

A good part of the IAEA´s efforts are focused on assisting Member States in building their capacity to use nuclear technologies effectively and in a sustainable manner. Let me briefly mention a few areas of current focus.

Infrastructure Considerations for Nuclear Power
As a sophisticated technology, nuclear power requires a correspondingly sophisticated infrastructure - well beyond the infrastructure needed for other nuclear applications. This "infrastructure" includes many components - from industrial infrastructure such as manufacturing facilities, to complex legal and regulatory frameworks, to expanded institutional measures to ensure safety and security, to the necessary human and financial resources. This requires careful planning, preparation and investment over a 10 to 15 year period.

When it comes to new nuclear power infrastructure, there are three important questions. How much and what sort of infrastructure is needed? What is the desired timing for acquiring it? And should this infrastructure be shared with neighbouring countries?

The IAEA has recently prepared a number of guidance documents on the infrastructure and other considerations for countries planning to launch a nuclear power programme. We also stand ready to provide expert assistance in this area if requested.

Utilization of Research Reactors
A second area involves the utilization of research reactors. Research reactors are essential tools for building capacity in nuclear science and technology - through training, materials testing, and the production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry. For many countries, research reactors are one of the core elements of nuclear infrastructure.

Currently in Africa there are 10 research reactors. A recent IAEA assessment showed that in Africa, as in some other regions, these research reactors are not evenly utilized. Some countries are using their research reactors heavily - and in fact may have desired projects they cannot undertake -while others have state-of-the-art research reactor capacities that are severely under-utilized. Through cooperative strategic planning to identify appropriate applications, research projects and "customer" arrangements, these under-utilized facilities could contribute to the development of their respective countries and the region. The Agency has been working with African Member States on the development of national plans to improve research reactor utilization, including through cooperative regional efforts.

Investing in Human Resources
A third area is the need for greater investment in human resources. The sustainable use of nuclear energy and its applications depends heavily on the availability of qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Many African countries still have insufficient training capabilities in nuclear fields, and are experiencing problems with high staff turnover and shortage of specialized professionals in key areas.

For this reason, human resource development continues to be a primary area of IAEA focus in Africa. In the last 10 years, over 3000 fellowships and scientific visits in nuclear fields were completed under the Agency´s programme in Africa. We are also working regionally to strengthen the teaching of nuclear techniques important for development in institutions of higher learning. And through AFRA, we are working to improve the use of information and communication technologies to support long distance training.

Energy Assessment
The IAEA also works to strengthen the capacity of Member States to manage their development of the energy sector, with the goal of promoting sustainable use of natural resources and increasing access to affordable energy services. A key aspect of this effort is our energy assessment services. Through these services, the Agency develops and transfers energy planning models tailored to each country’s special circumstances. We train local experts - to forecast energy demand, to identify least-cost options for electricity system expansion, to quantify environmental impacts, to evaluate the potential for diversifying energy sources, and to bring these and other factors together into a national decision making process. IAEA energy planning tools are now used in more than 100 countries around the world.

To date, IAEA energy assessment services have been carried out in 19 African countries. A good example is here in Algeria, where a series of activities was carried out through most of 2006 - including training, expert assistance, and the transfer of an IAEA software model for energy demand analysis and projections - to build national capacity in energy planning.

In 2005, AFRA Member States requested IAEA assistance for the design and formulation of a large-scale African project in energy assessment. The project work plan has been finalized and we expect that NEPAD, the African Energy Commission (AFREC) and UNIDO will join as well. The project aims to support efforts of AFRA Member States in elaborating their national energy strategies and strengthening institutional capability for energy planning.

Safety, Security and Non-Proliferation

As with any advanced technology, nuclear technology - both relating to nuclear power and other nuclear applications - offers great benefits, but also involves risks. For these technologies to remain viable as tools of development, they must be used safely, securely, and exclusively for peaceful purposes. In this context, let me briefly mention a number of the concerns about nuclear power, and discuss how they are being addressed.

Nuclear Safety
First, consider nuclear safety. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was clearly a setback to nuclear power. Many lives were lost. Thousands suffered major health impacts, and there were significant environmental and social impacts. The accident was the result of less than optimal reactor design, compounded by gross safety mismanagement. But ironically, this event also prompted major improvements in the approach to nuclear safety worldwide.

A key change was the development of a so-called international "nuclear safety regime". The IAEA updated its body of safety standards to reflect best industry practices. International conventions were put in place, creating legally binding norms to enhance the safety of nuclear activities. And, importantly, the IAEA created an international network to conduct peer reviews, compare safety practices, and exchange operating information to improve safety performance.

In these and other ways, the international nuclear safety regime has been demonstrating its effectiveness for two decades. But as nuclear power technology continues to spread to new countries, it is essential that existing safety standards, operational practices and regulatory oversight are adapted - and in some cases strengthened - to ensure enhanced levels of safety into the future.

One important area of safety is radiation protection. Radioactive sources are used in almost every country for peaceful applications in medicine, industry, research and education. But an essential prerequisite for the sustainable use of these sources - or of any nuclear technology - is the basic infrastructure needed to protect radiation workers, the public at large and the environment from the associated hazards. This is a national responsibility which requires continued and adequate support and commitment. The IAEA has therefore put considerable emphasis on helping Member States to improve their radiation protection infrastructure - the establishment of legislative and regulatory frameworks and oversight bodies, the implementation of basic radiation safety standards, and the safe conditioning and disposal of radioactive sources. Through a regional programme, the Agency has been working towards a more unified approach to safety standards and associated practices, including strengthening national and regional capabilities for responding to radiological emergencies. This has also contributed to a more reliable inventory of radiation sources in African Member States, reducing the risk of their misuse for malevolent purposes.

Nuclear Security
Nuclear security has also become a major concern in recent years. The indiscriminate attacks by extremist groups in many regions has led to the re-evaluation of security in every industrial sector, including the nuclear sector. In the past five years, the IAEA has worked on every continent to help countries better secure their nuclear material and radiological sources and their associated facilities and transports, and to enhance measures to detect and respond to the increasing challenge of illicit trafficking.

The Agency has worked with its African Member States to enhance nuclear security by improving controls, upgrading physical protection, improving detection equipment, providing emergency assistance, and training staff. Much of the assistance is being provided under the auspices of the regional AFRA project. The Agency has recently held regional training courses on combating illicit trafficking in Senegal, Ghana, Algeria and Kenya. These are complemented by national training courses. A regional training course on the physical protection of research reactors was recently held in Tripoli, and a regional training course on the security of sources was held in Tunisia. The Agency has also been able to help in capacity building by donating detection equipment to several States, and has helped in risk reduction by assisting States in Africa to recover radioactive sources.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation
A final concern relates to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the same time that we are seeing rising expectations for nuclear power, we are equally witnessing increasing concerns regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons - and with it, the increased danger of an intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons that could end life as we know it.

The IAEA plays an important role in this regard. Under safeguards agreements concluded under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), we inspect countries to verify that their nuclear programmes are peaceful.

However, the extent of the Agency´s authority remains uneven from country to country. Safeguards agreements are now in force in the vast majority of States Party to the NPT, and many States have brought into force the "additional protocol", which is essential in order for the Agency to provide assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear activities. But 30 States - including 23 African States - still have not fulfilled their legal obligation to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements; and over 100 States - including 42 African States - have yet to bring an additional protocol into force.

In addition to the NPT, the Treaty of Pelindaba, which seeks to establish Africa as a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, was concluded in 1996. This treaty would prohibit not only the possession but also the stationing of nuclear weapons throughout Africa. As such, it would enhance regional peace and security, and encourage the peaceful use of nuclear technology for development. The Pelindaba Treaty, however, is not yet in force. Despite being opened for signature in April 1996, only 21 States have ratified to date, well short of the 28 ratifications required to bring the Treaty into force.

In addition to non-proliferation, it is also important to make progress on the second leg of the NPT - namely, the commitment by the nuclear weapon States to proceed in good faith towards complete nuclear disarmament. We should always remember that the goal of the NPT is a world free of nuclear weapons. But over 35 years after its entry into force, we still have nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, we still have 27 000 warheads in existence, and we still have more than 30 countries that are members of alliances that rely on nuclear weapons as part of their security structure. It is becoming more and more clear that a continuation of the status quo will render the nuclear non-proliferation regime dysfunctional.

It is crucial therefore that we start to move forward - certainly on the non-proliferation front, but with equal force on the disarmament front - and simultaneously to build an effective system of collective security that does not rely on nuclear weapons in any way.

Such a system of collective security would seek, inter alia, to achieve sustainable development for all countries. It would focus on human security and the right of every human being to live in dignity, freedom and peace. It would engage in sustained negotiations to resolve longstanding conflicts, such as those that now plague the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, South Asia and parts of Africa. It would increase the effectiveness of the United Nations, as well as regional organizations, in the prevention and settlement of conflicts through peaceful means. Above all, such a system would seek to be equitable and inclusive, by emphasizing our common humanity and shared values.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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