Six incredible ways to implement nuclear technologies

by Alexander Uvarov, Editor in Chief of Atominfo.Ru, an independent online media.

Despite the fact that nuclear technologies are commonly used worldwide, few people know that besides energy production there are many other ways of using the atom for peaceful means in our daily lives. In particular, there is a lack of awareness not only about nuclear technologies in general, but about radiation and its benefits among people all over the world, especially in the countries where the nuclear industry is just beginning to develop.

The same applies to ASEAN countries. The Singapore National Research Foundation has taken the major step of establishing the Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme. One of the two components of the programme is going to be the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative, focusing on research and developing capabilities in nuclear safety, science and engineering.

Proof of the City-states commitment includes the fact that earlier this year, the National University of Singapore introduced a minor in medical physics to enable budding students to learn the foundations of nuclear physics and how nuclear science is being applied to medical physics.

Generally, it is important to note that nowadays radiation technology is widely used and can be applied in industries such as agriculture, medicine and even cultural heritage. In particular, radiation technology is used effectively for the sterilisation of medical waste and tools, food processing and seawater desalination.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of nuclear technology and radiation.

Water desalination

One of the most efficient uses of radiation technology is “nuclear desalination”. This term means the production of drinking water in a facility where a nuclear reactor is used as the source of energy for the desalination process.

This technology has been well tested over the years. Originally it was implemented in the 1970s in the Soviet Union. An atomic energy complex in Kazakhstan located on the Caspian Sea peninsula and delivering fresh water to Shevchenko city was, for more than 30 years, the only nuclear desalination plant in the world. The facility produced up to 120,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day.

However, since there are no nuclear power plants in ASEAN, and thus nuclear desalination, within the regional context, is largely unexplored. Nuclear power plants can be designed exclusively for the production of drinking water or for simultaneous generation of electricity and production of drinking water.

Radiation saves lives

Although not in popular consciousness, peaceful atomic technology is heavily used to produce radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment of acute illness. Over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use radioisotope technology.

Nuclear imaging diagnostics is vital in detecting tumors and vital organs dysfunction.

In the case of cancer, which is responsible for 20% of deaths in developed countries, early diagnosis is extremely important in reducing the risk of morbidity. Almost 90% of all detection procedures are performed with the use of radioisotopes.

Gamma irradiation is also used to sterilise surgical items, and eliminating pathogens in hospital waste and sewage. Another application of gamma irradiation involves the safe reuse of water for irrigation in desert areas.

Application of radiation in agriculture

Nuclear technology is also widely used in agriculture and more the broadly the food industry. About 25% of all food worldwide is infected post-harvest by bacteria, or damaged by insects and rodents. Contaminated meat and poultry is the cause of up to 95% of food-borne disease. Today environmentally safe radiation treatment is used in more than 50 countries for decontamination of food.

Furthermore radiation is a highly beneficial conservation method that reduces the use of chemical fertilizers for food preservation. Irradiating fruits preserved them because it eliminates the need for minimising parasitic cooling. This, for example, allows different countries to export fine fruits (as apricots and peaches) in optimal conditions and avoids food wastage (by combatting pests), which takes on an important context considering food shortages in a number of parts of the world. The World Health Organization recommends ionising irradiation – it is both environmentally friendly and ensures food health.

For instance, Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) has been conducting agricultural R&D aimed at increasing crop productivity. Many farmers in Indonesia are making use of BATAN’s findings. According to The Jakarta Post, the agency created 17 superior rice seedlings from 1982 to 2014 and eight prime black soybean seedlings from 1987 to 2014. Furthermore, BATAN, equipped with nuclear technology, has been able to produce oligochitosan from prawn waste. The waste product, Fitosan, boosts crop growth and prevents bacterial, viral and fungal plant diseases.

Energy transportation

Nuclear propulsion is yet another rapidly growing area of nuclear technology. Nuclear propulsion is useful for civilian or merchant marine vessels that need to be at sea for long periods without the opportunity to refuel. Nuclear propulsion is achieving increasing recognition due to absence of the negative environmental effects as opposed to fossil fuel generated propulsion.

Nowadays nuclear marine propulsion used by icebreakers paves the way for greater arctic energy trade. Ice is a major threat to vessels shipping hydrocarbons and other supplies and is also a barrier to commercial transit navigation from Europe to Asia. The main advantage of nuclear power for icebreakers is that these ships have a very high level of autonomy. It is crucial in the Arctic, where there may be no ports for hundreds of nautical miles and therefore no means to refuel. Currently, Russia is the only country in the world to possess such vessels with four icebreakers in operation and two in the pipeline.

Developing an Icebreaker fleet will assist in the supply of energy to Asia, including ASEAN countries. With continued growth in liquefied natural gas trade worldwide, the Northern Sea Route is becoming a promising alternative highway to connecting the European and Asia energy markets. In 2013, a total of 3.93 million tons of cargo were transported via the Northern Sea Route. This is almost treble the volume of 1998 traffic (1.46 million tons). Cargo transportation time from the Northern Europe (e.g. from Norway) to Japan via Northern Sea Route is almost twice as fast compared with the conventional southern route.

Cultural and historical conservation

The preservation of cultural heritage artifacts using irradiation is not well understood but is a highly effective application of nuclear technology. Irradiation methods are used to preserve historical documents, determine the age of archaeological items and verify the authenticity of works of art.

One of the major factors leading to the deterioration of cultural heritage materials - for example, books and paintings - is the devastating impact of microorganisms, mould and pests. Ionising radiation has a high penetrating power and researches have shown that an irradiation dose of 15 kilogray is enough to kill mould damaging fragile and precious historical paper artifacts.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is engaged in a range of irradiation projects including the disinfection of wooden churches and ancient books in Romania, the characterisation of jewelry (by X-ray fluorescence), and the characterisation of woven cloth and coins housed at the Shirvanshah Palace in Azerbaijan. Moreover in 2010, a 50,000-year-old baby mammoth - named ‘Khroma’ after the Siberian river where it was discovered by a hunter - underwent irradiation treatment at a nuclear institute in France to destroy harmful bacteria.

Security systems

Radiation technology is also applied in the important area of public security. X-ray machines generating ultra-low radiations levels are employed by airports and in other crowded and high traffic environments in order to eliminate the risk of terrorism.

The Russian State Atomic Corporation, ROSATOM, provided nuclear technology-based security at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014. The corporation provided comprehensive technology in terms of controlling access at venues and other Olympic infrastructure facilities such at the Olympic Village and media centers, etc. In total, more than a million people passed through the Olympic Park and nuclear technology played a vital role in the entire identification, access and screening systems.