Opening Photo: U.S. Ambassador Jackie Wolcott (center right, hands raised) receives a tour of the LINAC (linear accelerator) facility at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, together with other Vienna-based ambassadors, June 2019. Photo by Dean Calma
By Josefine Ritzinger
In the 1985 film “Back to the Future,” the audience sees Emmett “Doc” Brown return from 30 years in the future and begin rifling through a trash can searching for garbage to fuel the Mr. Fusion engine that powers his time-traveling DeLorean. Having already spent time in the “future” of 2015, he was able to upgrade the vehicle’s power system, providing a much safer and readily available alternative to the radioactive plutonium that powered the DeLorean’s time travel in 1985.
In the real version of 2020, there are no Mr. Fusion engines powering vehicles, but nuclear technologies shape daily lives in more ways than one might imagine. Things that the developed world takes for granted like producing enough food for the population, quickly diagnosing diseases, or receiving medical treatment for cancer are made possible because of advancements in nuclear technology.
The idea that peaceful nuclear technologies can improve daily lives, much like Marty McFly and Doc Brown in “Back to the Future,” goes back to the 1950s. In December 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a famous “Atoms for Peace” speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Eisenhower addressed the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and imagined a future in which “the miraculous inventiveness of man would not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” Eisenhower’s speech sketched out a roadmap for what came four years later: the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In exchange for life-changing nuclear technology, Member States of the IAEA agree to not use such support to pursue atomic weapons. Such commitment on the part of IAEA Member States is necessary because much of the same nuclear know-how that advances a host of economic and humanitarian objectives can also be used in nuclear weapons programs. Crucial to the success of international cooperation on peaceful nuclear technology, IAEA recipients agree to adhere to nuclear “safeguards” that allow for IAEA inspections to verify that assistance and related nuclear material is used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
In 1968, the United States, Soviet Union, and 60 other countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which entered into force in 1970 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. Article IV of the NPT states that “Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” The world’s ability to make good on that Article IV pledge is fundamental to the continued viability of the NPT-based global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
In turn, since its founding, the IAEA has made the work of technical cooperation (the sharing of peaceful nuclear technologies with Member States) fundamental to its mission. Foreign Service personnel working at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna help the U.S. government identify IAEA projects that align with U.S. strategic and development priorities and monitor their implementation.
Over the last 10 years, the United States has provided more than a third of a billion dollars in voluntary contributions to the IAEA to promote peaceful nuclear activities in the areas of human health, food security, nuclear power infrastructure, nuclear safety and security, environmental protection, and management of water resources. Last November, the U.S. Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna Jackie Wolcott announced a U.S. commitment of an additional $50 million in voluntary contributions to IAEA projects over the next five years.
The Department of State’s Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs and the Department of Energy’s Offices of Science and Radiological Security are major contributors to IAEA projects. Much like the improvements made to Doc Brown’s fictitious DeLorean, funding from the Department of Energy has helped countries replace medical machines that use radioactive sources with safer, nuclear-derived technologies. For example, through the IAEA, the Department of Energy provides LINAC (linear accelerator) machines that use electricity rather than a radioactive source to generate high-energy beams used in treating cancer for countries with limited treatment options. Doing so decreases the risk of theft or exposure to radioactive materials while increasing the availability of safe and effective cancer treatment to underserved populations. In 2020, medical centers in Egypt and Mexico received U.S.-funded LINACs through the IAEA.
Another area in which nuclear techniques are replacing older technologies is insect control. Whereas pesticides were previously the only option to reduce insect populations, the Sterile Insect Technique, or SIT, is an environmentally friendly technique through which male insects are sterilized in laboratories using radiation and then released into the wild. The males mate with females but produce no offspring. When sufficient sterile males are released, each successive generation produces fewer and fewer offspring, thus suppressing the overall population.
For countries whose entire crop can be overwhelmed by a specific insect, this technology is revolutionary. SIT has been used effectively for decades to keep fruit fly populations suppressed in Central America and the Caribbean, protecting the livelihoods of those who depend on agricultural trade with the United States. With funding from the United States, SIT has been used to reduce the tsetse fly population in Senegal, allowing farmers to raise more productive breeds of dairy cows. The IAEA is now testing SIT on mosquito populations. Combining traditional control methods with SIT can prevent the spread of dengue, the Zika virus, and many other devastating diseases transmitted by mosquitoes. The technique has even been piloted in the United States by the Mosquito Control District of Lee County, Fla., with the technical expertise of scientists from the IAEA.
The IAEA has most recently been involved in addressing today’s most pressing global challenge: battling the COVID-19 pandemic. The RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) diagnostic technique, derived from nuclear technologies, has been used by the IAEA for years to study and diagnose veterinary diseases, but it can also detect and identify the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 accurately in humans within hours. With funding from the IAEA Member States—including a generous contribution of more than $11 million provided by the United States—the IAEA purchased and distributed RT-PCR machines and lifesaving protective equipment to more than 120 countries around the world; U.S. funding paid for equipment in 84 of those countries.
Peaceful applications of nuclear technology save lives and improve the livelihoods of millions around the world. With its focus on nuclear technologies, the IAEa has done extraordinary work over the years, saving and improving countless lives. The United States, through its leadership and generosity, has remained true to its commitments under Article IV of the NPT by funding important development projects around the world.
From helping farmers protect their crops and livestock to providing lifesaving medical treatment, the world continues to apply the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in extremely effective ways. While the future we live in today may not fully resemble the one imagined by those in 1955 or even 1985, the growing use and acceptance of peaceful nuclear technologies as answers to key challenges in sustainable development no doubt makes our future look that much brighter.
Josefine Ritzinger is a Virtual Student Federal Service intern at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna.