Tag Archives: IAEA

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Nuclear Science: Mapping Out Red Tide

Seafood lovers could one day find their plates dry thanks to climate change. Findings reported on by the Marine Stewardship Council indicate that increasing greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by our world’s ocean are causing them to heat up and become more acidic. These changes threaten the very habitats that fish and other marine organisms like shellfish need to survive.

Coral habitat destruction, rising sea levels and red tides are just a few examples of ocean degradation due to climate change. Red tide or colonies of harmful algae blooms (HABs) is nothing new to coastal communities. This phenomenon has been documented for centuries, however it is only recently that researchers are investigating how changes to our ocean environment could be impacting this coastal occurrence.

This is where nuclear science comes in.​ Scientists with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Environmental Laboratories in Monaco are using a nuclear technique known as receptor binding assay (RBA) to help better detect and map these harmful algae bloom outbreaks (HABs) to help protect human populations.

RBA works like this. In each sample, toxins and radiotracers or radioactive isotopes compete to bind to receptors or cells within the sample. How the isotopes behave tells scientists how much toxicity is present in the sample.

Red tides are transported by wind and ocean currents and are usually found close to the shoreline.  Ocean warming due to the absorption of greenhouse gases brought about by climate change has resulted in these toxic blooms become more frequent and more severe.

As the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed out, “recent research suggests that the impacts of climate change may promote the growth and dominance of harmful algal blooms through a variety of mechanisms including warmer water temperatures, changes in salinity, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, changes in rainfall patterns, intensifying of coastal upwelling and sea level rise.”

Red Tide outbreaks can be devastating to the aquaculture economies of developed and developing countries alike. A red tide outbreak that affected Luzon Island, Philippines in 2006 which had adverse impacts on the nearly 12,000 families that rely on shellfish to make their living.  When these toxic plants enter the food web they can kill off large numbers of fish and marine life. The US National Library Institutes of Medicine and Health discovered high levels of toxins in dead manatees and dolphins following a red tide outbreak.

However, the impacts of red tide are not limited to marine life. HABs can also cause illnesses in humans, mainly affecting the nervous system. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when people consume shellfish that contain red tide toxins. Ingesting infected shellfish can impact the nervous system and cause dizziness or difficulty swallowing. In extreme cases, it can lead to death.

While science may not be able to stop red tide outbreaks, a method known as receptor binding assay (RBA) can help to better detect and map out these harmful algae bloom outbreaks, taking a step towards health protection of both marine environments and human populations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in partnership with International Oceanographic Commission of ​UNESCO is working with approximately 40 countries is transferring the knowledge of nuclear technology to stop the effects of red tides on human population, making seafood safer thanks to nuclear science.

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Nuclear Science: Preventing Future Ebola Outbreaks

West Africa experienced the largest Ebola outbreak in history in 2014. It claimed over ten thousand lives and impacted the entire countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In June 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end to Ebola and months later, in April of this year, Liberia removed its temporary Ebola treatment facility only for Africa to announce another outbreak just a month later.

Contagious and often deadly, the Ebola virus or hemorrhagic fever can be transmitted from animal to human and through human-to-human contact. Between 2-21 days after infection, a patient will experience symptoms that resemble a flu (fever, sore throat, headaches). As the virus continues to damage the immune system and organs, internal and even external bleeding can occur. Death rates for the disease can be as high as 90%.

The 2014 outbreak closed many schools in the region that remained locked for almost an entire year. Close to twenty thousand children lost their families, or were left without one or both parents, according to information reported on by UNICEF.

To prevent a repeat of the deadly Ebola 2014 outbreak, a team of scientists with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are using nuclear science and technology to be able to effectively diagnose such viruses.

“We demonstrated our ability to respond quickly to emergencies such as the Ebola and Zika viruses, supplying affected countries with simple nuclear-derived kits so they could detect the diseases quickly and accurately in the field,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in his speech in late May at the International Conference on Technical Cooperation.

Early and rapid detection helps to limit the spread of such diseases. There are nuclear-derived techniques that scientists can use to help identify Ebola such as polymerase chain reaction technology (PCR) which examines the DNA of cells. Researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are hunting  fruit bats in the hopes that they might hold answers on Ebola, specifically, how the virus jumps from bats to other animals or how it causes outbreaks. And it’s not just researchers in the Congo. As pointed out by the IAEA, veterinarians in Africa are working in partnership with the agency to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

“Around 75% of human diseases originate from animals, which is why it is so important to stop them at the animal level. Nuclear-derived technology helps us do this,” according to Abel Wade, Director, National Veterinary Laboratory (LANAVET), Yaounde, Cameroon.

As was witnessed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, quick and effective diagnoses is key to preventing large-scale transmission and infection. The most recent outbreak in the Congo was declared under control only a month after it was discovered.

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Fighting Food Insecurity

Nuclear technology steps up to meet a huge challenge.

The world needs more food and lots of it. According to the World Bank, in order to meet growing global demands we must produce 50% more food by 2050.

At the same time, expanding populations and climate change threaten our ability to meet these goals. A recent report by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that, “as temperatures rise, crops will increasingly experience temperatures above the optimum for their reproductive development, and animal production of meat or dairy products will be impacted by temperature extremes.”Branch of an apricot tree with ripe fruits

Enter the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In order to produce more food under challenging environmental conditions and with less available land, scientists from the IAEA are working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to find solutions to food insecurity.

One solution is the Nuclear Techniques in Agriculture program, a way to address food shortages through, “using radiation induced mutation, mutation detection and pre-breeding technologies.” Exposing plants to small doses of radiation can make them more resistant to disease and climate change.

One of the foods being targeted by this program is quinoa. This gluten free grain, common to the Andean people, is known as a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Because of its genetic diversity, quinoa is able to be grown under different environmental conditions, making it an appealing crop to grow; almost 100 countries currently harvest it.

Food irradiation can also help to kill potentially deadly bacteria and the use of isotopes can help to measure resource levels such as the health of soil and water storage within the land, providing farmers with important information on the health of their resources so that they can more effectively use their land to yield greater harvests.

As part of addressing food security issues, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is using its sterile insect technique (SIT) to help Mauritius fight back against fruit flies. Fruit flies, native to Southeast Asia, attack a variety of much-needed produce including bananas, mangos, eggplant and squash. In a release by the IAEA in mid-June the Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security for Mauritius addressed the magnitude of the problem.

“160 million Mauritian Rupees-over 4 million Euros-are lost annually as a result of the damage caused by fruit flies,” according to Mahen Kumar Seeruttun, Minister of Agro-Industry.

Being able to save crops and produce more bountiful harvests means the ability to address starvation and provide much needed nutrients. Today, it is estimated that 2 billion people live with food insecurity and that one in eight are starving, highlighting the importance of these nuclear initiatives. From hunger to hope, technology can help to fight back and feed those who are most in need.

 

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Nuclear Science: Unlocking Answers To Malnutrition

A healthy diet begins with having enough food to eat, but we need more than that. A healthy diet provides a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals which are critical to growth, development and disease resistance.

A deficiency in minerals and vitamins is called hidden hunger.  One might feel full but one’s growth and development can be stunted in the absence of necessary nutrients.

According to a 2014 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), hidden hunger and undernutrition affects nearly two billion people. That’s almost 1/3 of the global population.

In 2013, 6.5 million children died before five years of age. And 45% of these deaths are linked to maternal and child malnutrition.

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Relative risk of mortality associated with estimated low weight-for-age (Figure adapted from Caulfield et al. 2004, Am J Clin Nutr.)

Increased child mortality is not the only impact of undernutrition. A lack of food variety coupled with unhealthy environments and limited access to health care can increase the risk of disease, and hold back mental and physical development.

“165 million children are stunted or not as tall as they should be for their age. In some cases, they are stunted not because they are hungry but because the quality of their diets is poor or because they are frequently sick.” Christine Slater, nutrition specialist at the IAEA.

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Chronic infections and repeated illnesses in children, like respiratory infections, can be an indicator of a deficiency in essential nutrients.

Nuclear technology is one tool in the fight against malnutrition. A technique called deuterium dilution helps to determine body composition, or the percentage of fat versus fat-free mass.

Deuterium is a stable form of hydrogen that includes a neutron. It bonds with oxygen to make water that acts just like regular water, but weighs more because of the neutron.

Taken into the body through drinking, concentrated deuterium passes into the body’s water, and after a few hours is evenly distributed throughout the body water. Body water is sampled as saliva, urine or blood. From the amount of deuterium consumed, and the concentration in body water, we can calculate the amount of fat-free mass. If this is subtracted from body weight, we have an estimate of the amount of fat in the body.

Scientists think this measurement technique gives more reliable results—especially for children—than measuring skinfold thickness or body-mass index. It can be used to evaluate programs that provide children with nutrients to promote healthy growth while limiting the risk of obesity later in life.

Deuterium dilution techniques have been used for many years in high-income countries, according to Slater, and with the help if the IAEA Technical Cooperation Program, these benefits can be found in low- and middle-income countries as well.

There are many other applications. For example, cancer treatments often leave patients malnourished. This procedure could help provide doctors with better information on their patients’ nutritional status.

As Slater points out, malnutrition is a complex problem requiring a multi-pronged solution that includes a better diet and cleaner environment. An effective diagnosis helps makes the solution possible.

“Malnutrition is not just to do with food and quality of diet but environmental influences,” says Slater. “Children who live in dirty environments and don’t have access to good sanitation can get sick and we find in a lot of cases that their guts are damaged.  So even if they get good quality food they can’t absorb the nutrients.”

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The Nuclear Connection to Combating the Zika Virus

A team of experts at the IAEA is launching a new fight against Zika and it’s totally nuclear.

It’s an astonishing fact. One million people have already been affected by the Zika virus, a number that could quadruple by the end of this year.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global emergency on the virus and recent reports indicated that it has spread its way into North America. Reports of over 100 cases have already surfaced in the United States.

The Zika virus is not new. It was first discovered in Uganda back in the 1940s and is named after the forest in which it was found. The virus is spread through a mosquito known as Aedes aegypti.

Symptoms can include mild fevers, skin rashes, joint pain and headaches. But far worse, the virus has been linked to brain damage in babies and, according to French researchers, can also lead to brain infections in adults.

The procedure is called the sterile insect technique (SIT) and it’s been around for over 50 years. Very effective in addressing insect pests, the technique requires using a small dose of radiation to make insects infertile. It has been proven successful in other pest insects, suppressing or eradicating them all together. However, this will be first time that the SIT technique will be applied to fight human disease.

“Think of it as a method of birth control. We produce sterile male mosquitos using radiation that sterilizes the sperm in the male mosquito,” says Rosemary Lees, a medical entomologist with the IAEA. “When we release a large number of these males we flood a region with sterile males so that the wild females are more likely to mate with them.”

Since female mosquitos usually only mate once, mating with infertile males would stop the further reproduction of Aedes mosquitos.

The SIT technique relies on something known as Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope that is currently used to sterilize 40 per cent of the world’s medical devices. In Canada Cobalt-60 is harvested from Bruce Power and processed by Nordion.

“Cobalt-60 from our reactors already plays a major role in keeping single-use medical equipment safely sterilized, and with it now helping to stop the spread of diseases like Zika virus the world’s population continues to benefit from it,” said James Scongack, Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Bruce Power. “We look forward to working with Nordion to continue safely harvesting Cobalt-60 during our planned maintenance outages so it can help prevent disease across the world.”

The second half of the program involves understanding the wild mosquito environment through trapping mosquitos. The idea is that if researchers know how many wild mosquitoes there are, they will know how many to release. The hope is that if enough wild mosquitos are trapped and sterile ones breed, that the spread of the virus will cease.

“We are trying to remove the vector. Think of Zika transmission as a triangle. People, virus and the mosquito. By removing one of the three you can stop the transmission,” according to Jeremie Gilles, head of the mosquito group with the IAEA.

The WHO has declared the Zika virus a public health emergency and has advised all pregnant women to avoid affected areas. This is only the fourth time in history that this has happened since International Heath Regulations (IHR) came into place in 2007.

The work being done at the IAEA through the use of nuclear technology may be able to stop the spread of what could soon be a global pandemic in its tracks.

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Cleaning Water with Nuclear

It’s a startling fact: In just 10 years, our growing population and rising industrial development will mean that almost a third of the world will not have access to clean water.

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Almost all the world’s water—96 percent of it—exists in oceans that contain salt. But humans need fresh water, and “fresh” means water that contains fewer than 1,000 parts per million dissolved salts in one percent of its weight. Ocean water contains almost 35,000ppm.

Desalination removes salt from water using heat – lots of heat. If the heat comes from fossil-fuel sources, then desalination contributes to climate change. That’s because all fossil fuels—oil, gas or coal—release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The need for clean and accessible water cannot be overstated. A recent alarming WHO report found that one in three people are affected by water scarcity. A number that would be higher had it not been for desalination plants. Almost a quarter of a billion people rely on desalination to supply them with clean water. Desalination plants supply Israel with almost half of its water, Japan holds a fleet of 10 desalination facilities which provide electricity and potable water.

Nuclear power plants look interesting to countries with a fresh-water shortage due to environmental benefits. According to Dr. Ibrahim Khamis, a senior nuclear engineer with the IAEA, “A nuclear power plant is like any heat source. The moment you use the reactor, the cost of fuel is much less and it has a lot of energy.”

Nuclear plants produce tremendous heat which drives steam turbines to make electricity. They can use leftover heat to boil ocean water. When steam condenses, it becomes pure, clean water; the salt drops out and can be returned to the ocean.

Dr. Khamis says using nuclear power to desalinate water has both economic and environmental benefits, combining two projects into one. “Instead of having a desalination plant somewhere and a power plant somewhere else and each one has intake, withdrawing the water, you can bring them together to improve the environmental impact and become more green when you use nuclear desalination,” he says.

According to the World Nuclear Association,The feasibility of integrated nuclear desalination plants has been proven with over 150 reactor-years of experience, chiefly in Kazakhstan, India and Japan.”

After decades of research, India launched a hybrid Nuclear Desalination Demonstration Project, the largest of its kind.

Using nuclear technology to provide safe, clean drinking water is nothing new. The U.S. Military has relied on nuclear reactors to provide potable water to submarine and aircraft carrier personnel.

With the global demand for water on the rise, nuclear technology could be a solution to the world’s fresh water supply, providing security and prosperity to countries in need of fresh water. Nuclear technology could prove to be a solution when faced with a dwindling fresh water supply. Providing security, prosperity and growth to countries starved for access to water.