United Nations international atomic inspectors confirmed that Iran is moving apace on producing nuclear fuel at an underground site, but that is not what Kwaku Aning, an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency, wanted to talk about on a visit to New York.
Nor did his colleague, Geoffrey Shaw, an Australian who represents the nuclear-watchdog agency in New York, come to the Feb. 24 lunchtime program at the International Peace Institute to analyze the Iranian situation.
Instead, Aning and Shaw promoted work that their agency does besides ensuring the safety of nuclear plants; that is, the behind-the-scenes role it plays in water, health care, food and environment, the main reasons countries join the IAEA.
“Almost 60 percent of the work we do has nothing to do with verification,” said Aning, a Ghanaian and deputy director-general for technical cooperation at the Vienna-based agency.
In fact, much of its focus is on water. “Lots of people are surprised that the agency is working on water-related issues in member states,” Aning added.
Droughts, runoff and arsenic
As a crucial but limited resource, water gets the attention it deserves: 97 percent of it comes from the sea and other salt-water bodies, while the rest is fresh water. Two-thirds of fresh water is found in mountain ice caps and the poles, with the remaining located underground, which is where the agency’s use of isotope hydrology techniques comes into play: it can map the extent of underground water, how long it has been there and whether it is fossil water or replenished.
In the Sahel region of Africa, for example, an ominous drought is unfolding from Senegal to Ethiopia, but the region is rich in underground water, so through a project it wants to carry out with 10 countries, the IAEA hopes to find out how much water is there and how much can be tapped.
Fresh-water use is also poorly managed, and agriculture is the largest consumer of it, depleting 70 percent for irrigation. Most of that is polluted from fertilizers and washes into oceans, aquifers or evaporation, where it can encourage such toxic growths as red tide, killing fish and the people who eat the fish. The agency has the technology, Aning said, to keep track of these problems, and it has such a project in the Philippines and in the Caribbean.
The agency also uses isotope hydrology to verify more basic problems like the safety of drinking water. In Bangladesh, the technology uncovered arsenic in water.
Ocean acidification is another concern. “The ocean is a sink for carbon dioxide,” Aning said, so that the more that exists in the atmosphere, the more it gets into seas, killing coral reefs and devastating shellfish and other hazards. “We need to get a handle on it,” he added.
Isotope hydrology tools helped to produce rare plant species that can thrive in saline or muddied water, such as a wheat crop that survived Thailand’s floods last year. In Bangladesh and Vietnam, special rice now grows in saline water.
Protecting food and fighting cancer
With the Food and Agriculture Organization, the nuclear agency is tackling pest control. In Israel, the Palestine territories and Jordan, a steroid insect technique, which is used in aerosol spray to reduce pest populations, like the Mediterranean fruit fly, keeps males from reproducing.
Food preservation is another avenue of work, albeit controversial, since it involves radiation. Extending food shelf life is important, however, in developing countries, where silos can be nonexistent and refrigeration scant.
In health, the agency develops radiation tools for diagnosing cancer, pinpointing the size and location of tumors and how they look. Cancer is becoming a huge issue in developing countries because people are living longer and diets are changing there, but chemotherapy “is 10 times more expensive than radiation treatment,” Aning noted.
As for nuclear power, some developing countries want it and need it, despite wariness over its safety. The agency expects Vietnam, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Belarus to start building their first nuclear power plants soon, with Jordan and Saudi Arabia probably joining later.
But the problem with the IAEA is that it does not have the main mandates in, say, health and agriculture, so it’s relegated to providing technology to UN partners, primarily the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
“So there’s a lot of things we do which is not in the public eye,” Aning said, adding that the agency, like all UN entities, needed funding. “Show me the money.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.