As with all living things, humans rely on our world’s natural resources to provide for us. However, our natural resources are not unlimited, and it is up to us to protect them. Luckily, nuclear science and technology can play a key part in this effort. To protect our natural resources, we need to better understand them. That is why scientists use nuclear measurement technology to track the movement of certain resources from location to location. This is done by tracking the movement of certain isotopes, which you can think of as a different species of the same chemical element. Isotopes have the same atomic “number” (number of protons) and same chemical properties, but a different atomic mass. This allows scientists to use precise nuclear technologies to detect and track them. Researchers have used these techniques to better understand how freshwater aquifers are refilled in eastern Africa and how regional weather patterns affect precipitation in Brazil. These scientists benefit greatly from collaborating via the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation and the Global Network of Isotopes in Rivers, both of which were established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Such techniques also help protect our oceans. For example, researchers use isotopic analysis to track microplastics in seafood to help protect our environment and our food supply. Meanwhile, with the help of the IAEA’s Environment Laboratories, nuclear techniques are being used to determine how harmful, biotoxin-producing algal blooms will affect marine life in 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nuclear techniques play a role in protecting natural resources on land too. For decades, scientists have analyzed isotopes in agricultural soil to determine whether farmland is being degraded by soil erosion. By identifying where this damage is happening, they can then work to ensure that land is better protected and restored. For example, researchers in Sarawak, Malaysia, use this technique to determine where farmers can best cultivate rice, without having to worry that their efforts will be unproductive or hurt the very land they rely on in the long term.
Many pollutants have distinct isotopic signatures as well. By tracking their movement in natural resources and the environment, researchers can determine the best ways to cut pollution off at its source. For example, when fertilizer is applied to farmlands, isotopic analysis can be used to see if it has spread to nearby air, fresh water sources, or oceans, or if it is being contained to where it ought to be.
Over the past several decades, scientists have developed revolutionary new ways to monitor and protect our natural resources using isotope analysis. Thanks to the IAEA and researchers worldwide, we have seen how peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology play a critical role in protecting our planet. The United States strongly supports the IAEA’s work to protect natural resources, and we have contributed over $11 million to these efforts through its Peaceful Uses Initiative since it was established in 2010, part of our overall contribution of over $130 million to PUI since 2010. Through fulfilment of their commitments under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), NPT States Parties help make the peaceful uses of nuclear energy more available to people around the world. Only by working together can we better protect the planet upon which we all depend — for us and for future generations.
About the Author: Dr. Janet Chen is a Contractor in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and was an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Science and Technology Policy Fellow.