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Nuclear science and technology have an important role to play in realization of a truly sustainable future.
In 2015, all of the United Nations Member States recognized the importance of global cooperation in achieving sustainable development—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”—when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the heart of the agenda is a set of developmental goals including strategies for improving health and education, reducing inequality, promoting economic growth, addressing climate change, and preserving our environment.
Nuclear science and technology promote sustainable development by improving health and the quality of life, through applications such as nuclear medicine, food preservation and safety, industrial materials and processes, basic scientific research, environmental studies, and the generation of electrical power with minimal environmental impact.
Improvement of Health
Every year one-third of those hospitalized in the United States are diagnosed or treated with nuclear medicine techniques. Diagnostic and therapeutic procedures using radioactive isotopes and radiation sources have had notable success in the treatment of prostate and breast cancers. Radioactive iodine has been found to be the most reliable treatment for hyperthyroidism, reducing surgeries for this condition from 3,000 to 50 annually in the U.S. In addition, radioactive materials are used to complete the tests which must be performed on many new drugs before they can be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Food Preservation & Safety
Almost a billion people go hungry every day. Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world is lost due to spoilage and infestation between production and consumption. Nuclear technologies can prevent much of this loss by delaying spoilage. Use of food irradiation technology also helps solve problems of food safety. It is effective in killing such dangerous illness causing microorganisms such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. Coli, which frequently contaminate meat and poultry.
Nuclear technology is useful or essential to many products that contribute to every-day health and safety, such as smoke-alarms, radial tires, and fail-safe lighting sources (emergency exits, runway markers for airports, safety lamps in coal mines, etc.) that require no energy supply. In addition, nuclear radiation is used in the sterilization of many medical supplies and instruments.
Safe Working Conditions
Nuclear technology work environments are highly controlled and regulated; worker safety is carefully protected. As a result, lost-time accidents at U.S. nuclear plants are significantly below the rates for other industries. In 1997, the accident rate for all U.S. private industry was 3.3 per 200,000 worker hours, while the rate in U.S. nuclear plants was just 0.45 per 200,000 worker hours the same year.
Generating electricity with nuclear power does not emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or fly-ash particulates. Nuclear wastes are low in volume and carefully controlled to remain separated from the biosphere.
Quality of Life: Combating Poverty and Improving Standard of Living
Industrial Materials and Processes
Radioactive sources are used to detect defects in materials, thus avoiding material or product failures that would adversely affect people. Radioactive sources also improve the efficiency of production, resulting in lower costs and higher quality products. Nuclear gauges are used in automated production lines to control thickness in sheet metal and paper and liquid fill levels for containers. In many cases, there are no feasible substitutes for these techniques. In recent decades, the application of a single nuclear technique – tracers – in the machine tool industry has saved the U. S. economy many tens of billions of dollars.
Electrical Power Generation
A billion and half people in the world don’t have access to electricity. One of the most important contributions nuclear science and technology makes to sustainable development is in the area of electrical power generation. Nuclear power plants provide essentially carbon-free electrical generation. They provide an energy source that is sustainable. In the future advanced fuel cycle technologies will enable more efficient use of nuclear fuels so that nuclear power will be a renewable resource with an essentially inexhaustible fuel supply.
Efficient Development of Natural Resources
Nuclear science and technology are often key to the efficient recovery of natural resources. Tracer applications are used in enhanced oil recovery, well logging, and other geological studies. During an enhanced petroleum recovery project in the U.S. a major oil company found that radioactive isotope tracers costing less than $1 million were an essential component of the reservoir management system that produced an extra 56 million barrels of oil, valued at more than $1.4 billion.
The availability of reliable energy sources is critical to a country’s economic development. By providing a reliable and economical power source, nuclear technology can make a significant contribution to economic development and employment opportunities. Of course, nuclear technologies themselves also provide employment opportunities. In the U.S. during 1995, nuclear technology related jobs accounted for 4 percent of total U.S. employment, with 90% of those jobs in fields other than power generation.
Building Capacity Through Scientific Research
The capacity of a country for economic development depends upon the skills of a diverse group of people – engineers, technicians, chemists, architects, doctors, nurses, welders, accountants, and many others. Their contributions help develop the infrastructure and provide the services needed to promote health and contribute to the quality of life. Entire areas of research and development in chemistry, metallurgy, genetics, biotechnology, and many other fields of science and engineering exist because of nuclear technologies. For instance, radioactive materials are essential to many space probes, especially those to the outer planets; radioisotopic measurement techniques are the only way for accurately dating many historical and archeological artifacts.
Concern for Future Generations
Environment and the Ecosystem
Scientific studies enhance our understanding of the global ecosystem and help us analyze the environmental impacts of human activity. Those studies involve such areas as geology, hydrology, atmospheric sciences, and archeology. Nuclear science and technology impact studies in all of these areas, as well as chemistry and biology, which are key to environmental understanding. Radionuclides are helpful in determining plant and sea assimilation of greenhouse gases and measuring carbon dioxide releases from industrial areas. Ocean circulation models and ice core interpretations depend on nuclear techniques. Nuclear technology is not limited to research. It is also used to solve problems while eliminating harmful environmental impacts. For example, some insects are controlled using radiation-induced sterilization instead of environment-damaging insecticides.
All manufacturing and energy generation industries produce waste. Nuclear power plants produce a significantly smaller volume of solid waste than a coal-fired plant. Most nuclear waste is low-level and short-lived in comparison to many hazardous and toxic wastes that have an infinite life. The high-level nuclear waste from a power plant includes some long-lived isotopes which must be handled carefully and recycled or placed in safe storage facilities to keep it isolated from the biosphere. The safety record for radioactive waste disposal is extremely good, with no examples of harmful exposures in the U. S.
Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future; retrieved 12/19/2018Nuclear Energy’s Role in Sustainable Development (December 2013)
Scientific American Magazine (October, 2013). Renewable Energy’s Hidden Costs
World Nuclear Association (June 2013). Sustainable Energy
IAEA (June 2012). Nuclear Technology for a Sustainable Future (pdf)
IAEA: Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development (pdf)
Nuclear Power: The Leading Strategy for Reducing Carbon Emissions (June 2006)
Nuclear Matters: Nuclear Benefits: Carbon-Free Electricity (2014)
DID YOU KNOW?
ONLY NUCLEAR ENERGY DELIVERED BY GENERATION IV IFRS (integral fast reactors) “can rescue the world from energy disaster,” according to the 24-page report, Energy Independence Day: July 4, 2040, by author Joseph M. Shuster, in cooperation with the Science Council for Global Initiatives. The report offers what it calls “a realistic energy mix,” complete with cost estimates and a timetable for achieving the goal of energy security for the world by 2040. As explained in the report, the use of coal and oil as energy sources would be eliminated, with the energy mix in 2040 consisting of nuclear (42 percent), wind and solar (30 percent), natural gas (12 percent), biomass, geothermal, tides, and waves (6 percent), plasma remediation (5 percent), and hydro (5 percent). The report promotes the use of IFRs because they would use the long-lived waste from the current fleet of light-water reactors for fuel. “Moreover, the residue that remains after burning this ‘waste’ in an IFR is far less toxic, its volume diminished, and will remain radioactive for only 200–400 years,” the report says. In addition, IFRs have been designed to be proliferation resistant, the report says, and “the possibility of a reactor core meltdown has been eliminated.” IFRs also can further reduce the proliferation potential by consuming as fuel the bomb-making material that exists around the world, the report says.
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