Tag Archives: International Atomic Energy Agency

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CNA Response to HBO Miniseries Chernobyl

The worst nuclear accident occurred in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, sixty miles north of Kiev, Ukraine, in what was then the Soviet Union.

Thirty-three years later, Chernobyl is now a critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries, which will run for five weeks during May and June.

Here’s a spoiler: Almost all the problems associated with the Chernobyl incident were particular to the Soviet-era reactor and the secretive government response.

The Chernobyl accident was a unique event at a type of rudimentary reactor complex that was becoming rare in the Soviet Union, and no longer exists at all.

Chernobyl reactor versus CANDU

It is almost impossible that an accident like the one at Chernobyl could happen in a commercial nuclear plant found in Canada or the U.S.

The RBMK reactor at Chernobyl was never built by any country outside the USSR because it is a flawed design.

It is also significantly different from Canadian CANDU reactors in several ways as the chart from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd below shows.

Containment

Containment is an airtight building made of concrete and steel that prevents harmful radioactivity from escaping the reactor in the event of an accident.

The Chernobyl reactor had no containment. The key factor in the widespread dispersion of radioactivity was the energy released from the burning graphite moderator and the absence of a containment structure capable of withstanding that energy.

CANDU reactors, like most Western designs, have a containment structure designed for its maximum credible accident, while its moderator is low-temperature, low-pressure water instead of graphite.

Design flaws

Chernobyl also lacked other safety mechanisms that are considered standard design in the rest of the world.

The root cause of the Chernobyl accident was a design flaw in the shut-down system that no other reactor in the world has.

The CANDU and RBMK designs have some fundamental differences. CANDU reactors use a heavy water moderator, while RBMK use graphite. Graphite can be a very useful material in a safe reactor design. But in an unstable design like the reactor at Chernobyl, it was fuel for the fire that resulted from the explosion.

Safety culture

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that a “lack of safety culture” existed within nuclear power plants in the former Soviet Union, including Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was a testament to the former Soviet Union’s poor construction materials and techniques, and absence of safety culture.

In the years prior to the accident, managers ignored safety rules laid down by engineers so production quotas could be met. Workers and lower-level managers were afraid to raise objections when they saw something wrong.

Health impact

In 2006 the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) undertook a study to follow up on health effects.

Of the plant staff and emergency workers exposed to the huge core doses and toxic smoke at Chernobyl, 28 died from acute radiation sickness.

The UNSCEAR report also said Chernobyl was responsible for a “substantial fraction” of about 6,000 thyroid cancers among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident. By 2015, 15 cases had proved fatal.

“To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure,” the study concluded.

According to a 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) report, a maximum of 4,000 people might yet exhibit some ill effects as a result of radiation exposure attributed to the Chernobyl release (as opposed to other sources of radiation, such as natural background radiation or medical procedures).

For context, about 1,000 people die per year mining coal in China; about 2,000 people die per year in road accidents in Canada; and more than 3,000 people die per year from fire in the United States.

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Nuclear technology increases rice crop yields

Rice terraces in Indonesia

There has been a wealth of studies examining the impact climate change can play in reducing the yield of rice crops.

Whether it be less rain or a shortened growing season, many are concerned about the future of rice production. And this could have a negative impact on the health and economies of the developing world.

But nuclear technology could offer a solution.

In Indonesia, scientists at the country’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) have developed 22 rice varieties using irradiation to generate new and useful traits in crops. The process is known as mutation breeding.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) explains, “Mutation breeding uses a plant’s own genetic make-up, mimicking the natural process of spontaneous mutation. The mutation process generates random genetic variations, resulting in plants with new and useful traits.”

Ripe rice crops

In Indonesia, scientists use gamma irradiation to induce mutations in seeds and to speed up the natural mutation process. The new plants are then tested and those displaying useful traits are selected for further breeding and subsequent distribution to farmers.

After two years, the new rice has been a success. Two hundred farmers in the region of East Java have used the rice variety called Inpari Sidenuk, which is Indonesian for “Nuclear Dedication.” According to the IAEA, the farmers have doubled their yields to nine tons per hectare.

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Nuclear a heavyweight in the battle against obesity

For centuries, hunger and a lack of food was the norm for the general population.

Being overweight or obese was considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity. It wasn’t until improvements in farming and industrial technologies developed in the 18th century that the number of people who were overweight started to increase.

“The scarcity of food throughout most of history had led to connotations that being fat was good, and that corpulence and increased ‘flesh’ were desirable as reflected in the arts, literature, and medical opinion of the times,” a 2006 Baylor College of Medicine paper on the history of obesity explained.

Almost 200 years later, “being fat” or obesity is no longer good and has become a full-blown epidemic in both the developed and developing world.

In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized obesity as a global epidemic as rates rose in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China and Thailand.

“Overweight and obesity represent a rapidly growing threat to the health of populations in an increasing number of countries,” the WHO stated in a 2000 study. “Indeed, they are now so common that they are replacing more traditional problems such as undernutrition and infectious diseases as the most significant causes of ill-health.”

Now, nuclear technology is being used in the battle against childhood obesity, which has increased from 4.2% of the population to 6.7% between 1990 and 2010. Every third eleven-year-old child in Europe and Central Asia is overweight or obese, according to the WHO. And the problem is worse in developing countries. Of 42 million children under five years of age with excess weight, 31 million are in developing countries.

The IAEA is now supporting efforts to use isotope techniques to better measure body composition and energy expenditure to assess how lifestyle changes can help in the fight against childhood obesity, Body composition is assessed using the deuterium dilution technique by Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR).

Through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical cooperation programme, the IAEA has supplied FTIR equipment to authorities in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece and Montenegro to help with analysis of deuterium enrichment in saliva samples.

During May’s European Congress on Obesity conference, the IAEA held a symposium titled “Assessing body composition for better understanding of risks related to childhood obesity and designing effective interventions” to explain the role of isotope techniques.

So how does the technology work?

A person drinks a weighed amount of non-radioactive water with deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen.  After a few hours the isotope is spread throughout the body water, which can be sampled in the form of saliva or urine.  Deuterium enrichment in saliva is measured using an FTIR or an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS). Since the amount of deuterium is known, the total volume of body water can be calculated from the enrichment.  Based on the assumption, that fat is water-free, scientists can accurately determine the body’s ratio of fat and fat-free tissue.

“This nuclear technique is accurate and safe to use in all age groups, it is not associated with any radiation hazard, and is suitable for the use in field settings,” according to the IAEA.

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Nuclear Science: Addressing Marine Pollution

The International Marine Organization (IMO) recently imposed new regulations to limit the amount of sulphur used in the fuel of cargo ships by 2020. The limit will decrease the amount of sulfur used in fuel oil from 3.5% to 0.5% within the next 2 years, stating that the new regulations will “significantly reduce the amount of sulphur oxide emanating from ships and should have major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts.”

When it comes to monitoring the oceans for contaminants, nuclear and isotopic techniques provide a unique source of information for identifying nuclear and non-nuclear contaminants and tracing their pathways in the environment, as well as for investigating their biological effects.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has worked for decades in this field with various United Nations environmental organization.

“To assist Member States in addressing coastal and marine pollution, the IAEA has developed a number of science-based tools and techniques that help decision-makers protect the marine environment,” according to the IAEA. “The Agency maintains environment laboratories in Monaco and Seibersdorf, Austria, that use nuclear and isotopic techniques to study pollution processes and fingerprint pollutants’ sources.”

Last year, the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco held training courses for scientists on techniques to measure and monitor pollutants in the marine environment.

Since starting a collaboration with UN Environment in 1986, the IAEA has jointly organized to date 56 training courses and 34 Proficiency Tests with representatives from Mediterranean countries to strengthen pollution monitoring. In addition, 57 recommended methods for the analysis of trace elements and organic pollutants in marine samples were developed, in association with UN Environment and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO).

“Over the past 40 years, the IAEA has jointly conducted 33 extended Quality Assurance missions to check and improve the quality of contaminant analyses, 93 instrument service missions, and installed new instruments for the analysis of contaminants in Mediterranean laboratories,” according to the IAEA.

As an IAEA policy study concluded, “Most major pollution problems facing the marine environment can only be investigated using nuclear and isotopic techniques, which offer the diagnostic and dynamic information needed to identify the source of contamination, its history of accumulation, its  environmental pathways and its impact on the environment.”

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Nuclear Science: A Window to Heart Disease

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 50,000 Canadians are diagnosed with heart failure every year.  It is estimated that half of all Canadians will be touched by heart failure, costing the health care system close to $3 billion annually. Globally, heart disease is responsible for over 30% of all deaths.

Enter cardiac nuclear medicine.

Instead of performing surgery, doctors, by using small amounts of radioactive material, can look inside the human body to diagnose diseases like heart disease. This noninvasive procedure involves injecting small amounts of radiation and looking at the heart at a molecular level, providing accurate and early diagnosis, which is key to treating and saving lives.

Argentina is increasing investment in nuclear medicine to help patients with cardiovascular disease, as recently highlighted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Through a collaboration between the Argentinean government and the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), the IAEA is offering up training and equipment in order to provide increased access to nuclear medicine services.

“The multimillion-euro investment involves building six new centres across the country that will offer high-quality nuclear medicine and radiotherapy services. The new centres will be operating in the Argentinean provinces of Río Gallegos, Río Negro, Santiago del Estero, Formosa, Entre Ríos and La Pampa,” according to the IAEA.

There are two different types of tests that can be used to scan the heart. The main difference between the two is the type of radiotracer used. In a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan, positrons work with a tracer to take pictures of a patient’s heart. The pictures can detect blood flow; identify heart attack scars; and even detect if arteries are narrowed.

The second test that relies on nuclear medicine is a SPECT (Single Photo Emission Computed Tomography) scan.  It allows doctors to get a 3D image of a patients heart in order to determine overall heart health, including blood flow; whether or not a patient has had a heart attack; and to diagnose coronary artery disease or a build up of plaque inside the heart’s main arteries.

Investments in early cardiac detection and treatment are key. According to the World Health Organization (WHO); “Ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease and lower respiratory infections have remained the top killers during the past decade.” In Argentina, it is the leading cause of premature death.

Managing your diet, sleep and even stress levels can all lower a person’s risk for developing heart disease. Early detection can help to identify risks in time for treatment to save lives. Thanks to nuclear medicine this can be done. And before it’s too late.

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Nuclear: Challenging Our Notion of Risk

Risk surrounds us daily. We are constantly making decisions based on our perceptions of it. Our travel plans, our commute to work, our relationships and even our perceptions on social and political issues, all relate back to our perceptions of risk. Parents try to mitigate the risk that surrounds their children and of course there are the messages circulating around risk which can often be contradictory or too complicated to be easily understood.

Investigating risk and risk assessment is the latest project by documentary filmmaker Robert Lang, who sought out the world’s experts on the subject for his latest project, “Risk Factor”. “It’s complicated. We are all exposed to risk and we react to it whether we know it or not. And we hear about it in the news practically every night, whether it’s Zika or a terrorist attack or some health issue like the benefits or the dangers of drinking coffee, etc.”

The concept of risk also includes our perception of climate change and the risk behind certain energy sources such as nuclear.

“I have been an environmentalist for decades and for most of that time was anti-nuclear and wary of any form of radiation, because of the perceived threat of nuclear disasters …in general that’s in line with what environmentalists are supposed to think.” stated Lang. “But when you start looking at the facts and weighing relative risks and don’t lump all radioactivity risks into one basket, the picture becomes more nuanced. There are lots of benefits of radiation and nuclear power. I would say that the film made me confront some of my preconceptions and my understanding of what was going on in my hometown of Port Hope.”

The safety of nuclear power generation is often ignored. An analysis of the safety of each power source found that nuclear was one of the safest forms of generation. This analysis broke down fatalities by terawatt hour. Only rooftop solar had fewer deaths than nuclear, which was found to be safer than wind, hydro and even gas.

Misconceptions of safety around nuclear were highlighted in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that tracked the impacts of Fukushima. On March 11th 2011, the sea floor opened up causing a massive earthquake and tsunami with wave heights over 10 meters high. More than 15,000 people were killed with thousands more missing in the aftermath. However, no one was killed as a direct result of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant. In fact: the “United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public and their descendants.”

Lang is hoping that his investigation of risk will challenge us to rethink our preconceptions and separate fact from fiction. The filmmaker notes that how we perceive danger is connected to cultural affiliations. Our social networks and interactions are largely based on aligning ourselves with others that we believe to share a similar mindset.

Robert Lang will be a featured guest and will host the Public Affairs Workshop, at CNA2018 where his film “Risk Factor” will be screened. For more information go to: https://cna.ca/2018-conference/