Not just weapons: nuclear science for development

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Over the past decade, the UN’s nuclear energy regulator has helped over 90 developing countries reap the benefits of safe radiation-based technology, reports Marilyn Smith.

As tensions mount over Iran’s nuclear standoff, the risks of radiation-based technologies are surging back into the headlines and onto public agendas. At the centre of the fray, one UN agency carries the unenviable responsibility of regulating one of modern science’s most controversial advances.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is best known as the world’s nuclear watchdog; an intergovernmental body that argues against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and sets international standards for the safety and security of radiation sources.

But its mandate also includes ensuring fair access to nuclear technologies. These already play significant roles throughout society, in areas as diverse as health, nutrition, agriculture and environmental management.

The IAEA is firmly ‘pro’ nuclear – with an emphasis on risk management. Over the past decade, its Department for Technical Cooperation (TC) has helped more than 90 developing nations set up the necessary support mechanisms for managing the risks of radiation-based technologies.

"Radiation-based technologies allow us to gather information and develop solutions that simply can’t be done any other way," says IAEA’s deputy director-general, and head of the TC, Ana María Cetto. "We build capacity in the neediest countries, but safety and security are always a prerequisite for technology transfer."

In the mid-1990s, the TC identified five ‘thematic safety areas’ (see table below) that every member state must satisfy to ensure that people and the environment are protected from potential exposure to radiation. The list demonstrates the extensive safety infrastructure behind every piece of equipment. It also reflects a shift in TC’s strategy.

"In the early days, we functioned in response mode, assessing each country’s capacity to operate the requested equipment," says Cetto. "Now a member state must prove it can manage all aspects of safety and security before it can submit a request."

Without exception, building the safety infrastructure is a major undertaking. On average, it takes six years to form a regulatory framework and infrastructure; training staff and setting up a radiotherapy clinic can take an extra five.

Increasingly, the TC aims to help member states achieve development goals through the use of nuclear technologies. Improving human health is fundamental to social and economic development, but other nuclear technologies are also making vital contributions to development.

"Radiation-based technologies have already proven to be valuable tools for sustainable development in developing countries," says Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS). "They have been particularly useful in efforts to ensure water quality and improve food safety."

Bridging the clinical gap

The IAEA also works closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) on a wide range of human health issues. Nuclear techniques can be used to diagnose and treat diseases, and offer unique ways to assess the efficacy of drugs, and detect particularly harmful organisms.

Ionising radiation can be used, for instance, to accelerate the process of identifying drug-resistant strains of parasites such those that cause tuberculosis and malaria.

Cancer is also a growing concern in developing nations. As life expectancy rises, so does the incidence of cancer and the WHO estimates that by 2015 half of the 15 million new cases each year will be in developing countries.

According to the WHO, at least half of all cancer patients can benefit from radiotherapy. But many cancers considered ‘manageable’ in the West are still a death sentence in the developing world. The problem lies in access to facilities and expertise.

A cancer patient receiving
radiation treatment at
Kandy General Hospital,
Sri Lanka

In most industrialised countries, there is one radiotherapy machine for every 250,000 people. In Ethiopia, there is one for 60 million, while in some other countries in Africa and in Asia the treatment is simply not available.

Developing countries have only a quarter of the radiotherapy facilities needed to deal with the anticipated 2015 cancer caseload. A similar crisis looms in the supply of specialised health professionals.

The TC hopes to rectify this by training medical personnel to international standards, thus protecting patients from exposure to medical radiation and helping to ensure that scarce resources are used efficiently.

Boosting food and agriculture

Intrinsically linked to health are agricultural production, food availability and the nutritional value of foods. Nuclear technologies can make a significant contribution to a country’s food quality and self-sufficiency, and to its ability to compete in export markets.

Irradiating seeds with x-rays or gamma rays accelerates the natural genetic mutation processes that can lead to more desirable characteristics, such as higher yields, increased protein content, or better drought-tolerance. Over the past 30 years, irradiation has been used to develop more than 1,800 crop varieties worldwide, adding billions of dollars to farmers’ incomes each year.

Vietnamese researchers have
used nuclear technologies
to develop new rice varieties

By ‘labelling’ plants with radioactive forms of nitrogen and phosphorous scientists can measure nutrient uptake, measure nutrient turnover in soil, or assess fertiliser quality.

Other nuclear technologies can be used measure nutrient levels in foods or the body’s ability to absorb nutrients — a boon for addressing ‘hidden hunger’. The problem, common across the developing world, is not a lack of food but of the variety of foods needed to supply essential micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Iron deficiency, for example, is responsible for anaemia and impaired mental development in 40 to 60 per cent of children in developing nations.

In Chile, radioisotope techniques were used in 1999 to evaluate a government programme to provide 1.3 million pre-schoolers with food and milk fortified with iron and zinc. Within a year, the incidence of anaemia had dropped from 30 per cent to five per cent.

In nutritional studies such as this, foods containing natural radioactive forms of chemical elements can be tracked through the body using a technique called infrared spectroscopy to see whether nutrients are being absorbed.

Such nuclear techniques are, in fact, the only reliable tools available to determine the absorption, retention or utilisation of nutrients by the human body. Assessing the ‘bio-availability’ of a food’s nutrients – that is, how easily absorbed they are by the body – is a useful way to find out why an individual lacks nutrients, and how to rectify the deficiency through food fortification programmes.

Pest control

Food hygiene is another area where nuclear technologies are having significant impacts. For many years, countries such as Belgium, France, and the United States, have been irradiating raw or partially cooked foods, using a technique similar to that for sterilising medical equipment.

A quick pass through an enclosed chamber — where food is exposed to ionising radiation — eliminates harmful bacteria and pests without altering the chemical or physical properties of the produce. This technique reduces spoilage, making foods easier to store and transport.

Globalisation offers more opportunities for developing countries to participate in food commodities markets. But to do so, they must first meet strict international standards to limit microbial contamination and insect infestation. Food irradiation is opening up opportunities in countries such as Thailand to export local produce and prepared foods.

Over 50 countries use irradiation techniques for one or more food products. It is particularly effective at fighting fruit fly infestations in fresh fruit, many of which are grown in developing regions, and is now being used to ensure the safety of spices and dried vegetable seasonings.

Animal husbandry, too, has benefited from the broader application of nuclear technologies.

In Zanzibar, gamma radiation has been used to sterilise male tsetse flies, which transmit a parasite that causes sleeping sickness in people and can also kill cattle.

A ten-year programme that released the male flies — which can mate but produce no young — has been cited as a major contributor to the Zanzibar’s strong economic growth.

Going with the flow

Beyond its remit in healthcare and agriculture, nuclear technology plays an increasingly important role in one of today’s key sectors — managing water supplies.

Seven Latin American nations — Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Uruguay — are, for instance, analysing the distribution of radioactive forms of hydrogen in the eleven aquifers they are collaboratively managing.

Scientists collecting water
samples in Costa-Rica

The analysis can uncover vital information about how rivers, lakes and underground aquifers are refreshed through rainfall. It can also show the types and sources of any pollutants. This information can then be used to predict the limits of water resources and develop sustainable water management plans.

The TC is helping IAEA member states train water experts and set up laboratories for such analysis. Currently, it assists more than 80 water projects in the developing world.

Keeping it safe

Nuclear commissions, governments and aid agencies across the developing world give credit to the TC for its significant contribution to development goals. But there is still a lot to do.

"In order for these nuclear technologies to take hold across the developing world, two additional factors must be addressed," says Mohamed Hassan.

The first is the need for more capacity building programs in nuclear science, so the least developed countries can acquire a skilled labour force "capable of dealing with the application of nuclear science and technology to real life problems".

Second, Hassan says that "educational programmes must be expanded to help provide the public with the information that they need to have informed opinions about the benefits and risks associated with these technologies."

From the TC perspective, capacity building must cover the entire range of individuals involved in using nuclear technologies: research scientists, medical personnel, industry leaders, legislators, customs officials, and waste managers, to name a few.

Advances in particular countries and regions may be slow, but Ana María Cetto is pleased with overall progress.
"We set out to build national infrastructures for the safe application of proven technologies," she says. "In fact, the TC initiative spawned what one might call a radiation protection ‘super-structure’. The developing world is better positioned to realise the benefits of radiation-based technologies, and better prepared to manage nuclear safety and security."

In the current climate of concern over nuclear risks, the TC’s efforts to expand the application of radiation-based technologies are a timely reminder for the West. The benefits of proven technologies are undeniable. With safety structures now in place, so is the right to access.

Thematic Safety Areas for Radiation Protection
Legislative framework and regulatory infrastructure
  • Draft radiation protection laws and regulations.
  • Establish an independent regulatory authority; empower it to manage notification and registration/authorisation, conduct inspections and enforce legislation.
  • Create an inventory of all radiation sources and facilities.
Occupational exposure control
  • Protect the health and safety of workers through individual and workplace monitoring and dose assessment.
Medical exposure control
  • Control the exposure of patients undergoing diagnosis and/or treatment via radiology, nuclear medicine or radiotherapy.
Public and environmental exposure control
  • Ensure safety of all sources and material, including radioactive waste, to protect human health and avoid contamination of air, soil and water.
Emergency preparedness and response capabilities
  • Train personnel, develop technical capabilities and allocate resources to mitigate the impact of radiological emergencies.

Read more about Technology Transfer in SciDev.Net’s Technology Transfer quick guide.