If you’ve heard of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it’s probably because the agency is best known as the world’s nuclear watchdog, tasked with monitoring nuclear programs and making sure nuclear material doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. This is true, but it’s only a fraction of the important work the IAEA does every day, all around the world.
Today, there are entire departments of the IAEA dedicated to helping countries improve the lives of their citizens through the safe, peaceful, and secure use of nuclear technology.
What does that mean exactly? It doesn’t just mean that the IAEA helps countries set up nuclear power programs to produce electricity – though it plays a crucial role in this realm as well. It means that the IAEA has facilitated ways to use nuclear technology to improve human health and fight pandemic diseases; improve water resource management; increase food security, including developing more resilient crops and working to eradicate insect-borne livestock diseases; and protect our oceans’ coral reefs – and it shares this knowledge with countries at risk.
I recently attended an IAEA meeting here in Vienna, along with delegations from 34 other countries, in order to approve funding for such programs over the next two years. The United States, a founding member of the IAEA, is heavily involved in this effort. In the last year alone, the United States contributed over $30 million to improve lives around the world through peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
A significant amount of U.S. funding, alongside funding from other countries, has recently been dedicated to the construction of a new lab facility in Seibersdorf, Austria, just a short drive from Vienna. At this lab, scientists will continue to innovate and develop applications for their Sterile Insect Technique, or SIT, which sterilizes pests that destroy crops and spread disease. Using radiation, scientists sterilize mosquitoes and then release them to mate in the wild, thereby stopping the production of offspring and reducing the overall insect population. SIT has been employed successfully in over 40 countries – including the United States – against agricultural pests such as fruit flies, tsetse flies, screwworm, and moths. Right now, IAEA scientists in Seibersdorf are focused on using SIT to sterilize Aedes mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus.
Nuclear technologies can also help boost crop yields and preserve plant biodiversity, which ensures food security in developing countries. At IAEA laboratories, scientists treat plant seeds with different types and dosages of radiation in order to maximize the plants’ productivity and resistance to drought conditions. In Bangladesh, the IAEA developed a rice variety that has a higher yield and shorter maturation period, which led to a 26% increase in rice production, more income for farmers, and better food security across the country.
In addition to providing direct benefits to nutrition and agriculture, the IAEA’s nuclear expertise helps address the growing incidence of cancer in the developing world. For cancer patients, radiotherapy treatment can be a lifesaver, but how can patients be certain they are receiving the correct amount of radiation? IAEA experts help governments plan nuclear medicine facilities. They visit hospitals, train physicians and technicians, and conduct audits to ensure that appropriate doses of radiation are provided to patients. This expertise is critical to increasing access to such medical care, particularly in developing areas in Africa, where limited facilities serve millions of people.
These are just a few examples of how the IAEA and nuclear technology have improved the lives of countless global citizens, and the United States is proud to be a strong supporter of the continuation of this work. We look forward to enjoying the fruits of the IAEA’s labor for many years to come.
About the Author: Nicole Shampaine serves as the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, Austria.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.
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