Interview with Dr. Kwaku Aning, International Atomic Energy Agency

In this interview, Dr. Kwaku Aning, Deputy Director-General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), spoke about the wide range of uses of nuclear technology that lie outside of the realm of energy and weaponry, and the diverse activities the IAEA undertakes to support their development. The IAEA, Dr. Aning explained, contributes to research on techniques for the application of nuclear technology for development, and shares this knowledge with its membership.

One area where nuclear technologies can provide many benefits is the search for potable water. Dr. Aning said that less than 3% of global water reserves is potable, the majority of which is stored in glaciers, in the Arctic, and the Antarctic. A smaller percentage of it is underground, and nuclear technology can play an important role in learning more about these precious few sources. “We use isotope hydrology to determine the extent of this underground water,” he said.

Besides offering innovative options to protect marine biological systems, develop more resilient crops able to withstand flooding or prolonged drought, and apply medical treatments and elaborate diagnostics, nuclear technologies can be used to fight insects that can cause economic damage and/or spread diseases. The “sterile insect technique,” for example, uses radiation to render flies impotent. Dr. Aning mentioned as an example the cooperation between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, who collaborated to fight the Mediterranean fruit fly despite their political differences.

Dr. Kwaku Aning assumed his current position as the Deputy Director-General and Head on January 1, 2011. Prior to this assignment, Dr. Aning served as the IAEA’s Director and Secretary of the Policy-Making Organs, as well as UN representative in New York. He has worked in various capacities for the UN for the last 30 years.

The interview was conducted by Pim Valdre, Director of External Relations, International Peace Institute, on February 24, 2012.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Pim Valdre (PV): Kwaku Aning, IAEA Deputy Director General for Technical Cooperation, welcome to IPI and to the Global Observatory.

Our first question: some 80 percent of the IAEA membership consists of states that do not operate a nuclear energy program. In many cases, their driving force to become members are major development challenges related to chronic hunger, human health, water resource management, lack of reliable energy, and so forth. Could you describe to us IAEA’s development mandate and, more specifically, the contribution of the technical cooperation branch?

Kwaku Aning (KA): Thank you. We are happy to be here.

I just wish to recall that it was back in 1957—November 1957, to be exact—in the General Assembly that President Eisenhower raised the issue of “atoms for peace.” The idea was that he saw atoms, nuclear specifically, as a way of helping lots of countries deal with issues like health, food, agriculture. In fact, water management, all these issues that you raised, these were basically all the kinds of issues that impacted on development, and these were essential things, because life is water. So, these are the kinds of things that President Eisenhower was referring to. For our part, the agency has facilities where we do research, and develop techniques for application of nuclear technology for development.

The role, specifically of the TC [Technical Cooperation] mandate, is to take this from the labs and bring it to the people. We are the face of the agency at the national level. We bring these techniques to member states, to help them develop. We have 151 member states, out of which 130—around that number—participate in the projects that we implement. Basically, this is what the mandate of the TC department vis-à-vis the agency as a whole, our ability to bring these technologies to member states to facilitate, to assist them in their development.

PV: You mention water, and obviously finding reliable access to clean and healthy water is becoming a major challenge, not only development but in preventing conflicts in different parts of the world. What contribution in the area of water security can the nuclear technologies offered by the IAEA make?

KA: I would like to put this in perspective and to see how important our work is. I would like to provide your audience with some statistics. Globally, water—and I am talking of all kinds of water, including sea, saline, and all of that—ninety-seven percent of the water on the surface of the Earth is sea-water or saline water, or some kind of not pure, drinkable water—more than ninety-seven percent. That means that just below three percent is actually potable water. Out of this three percent, sixty-eight percent of that is found in the Arctic, the Antarctic, or as frozen ice on the Alps, Kilimanjaro, Everest, and all those. So out of all of that, only about three percent is the water that we have, that we use.

Now, if you take that percentage, 30 percent of that water is underground. So we have 68 percent which is frozen, after that, 30 percent, what is left, is underground. Only about 0.03 percent is what you find in freshwater lakes. But 300 times more than that is underground.

Then, we bring in the agency. What do we do? We use isotope hydrology techniques to determine the extent of this underground water. We can indicate, determine whether this is fossil water. In other words, water that has been there for centuries, or even tens of thousands of years.

For example, in the Sahel region of the Sahara, we know there are lots of underground aquifers, but we don’t know how long they have been there, whether they are like fossil fuels—a limited resource, no replenishment. If you use it, it is finished.

But we also know that we have Lake Chad and Niger River, so there may be possibilities of catchment areas where the aquifers are being replenished. This technology will permit us to determine all of this, and also find ways and means of sustainably training and teaching people there to use it. If it is fossil, then we know it is not coming back. We have to use it as irreplenishable, we can deal with issues like irrigation, because the other thing that is important to mention here is that 70 percent of potable water is used for irrigation. And it is so inefficiently used, that 60 percent of this, 70 percent, is run off. It either goes into the sea, or evaporates back as rain, and goes into aquifers. The problem is if you use this in combination with fertilizers, the run off goes into the sea, it pollutes the sea or the aquifers. Once you pollute the sea, this leads to things like algae bloom, “red tide,” that kills fish, that is also poisonous for anybody who eats the fish. So, the work that we do to determine the extent of these water resources is extremely important.

PV: Could you speak a little bit more about, if we turn to water and oceans, what the IAEA in protecting marine biological systems and environments?

KA: We have a lab in Monaco. This lab does a lot of research in ocean pollution. I just mentioned red tide, a result of pollutants going into the water. We keep track on what is happening in the water. And recently, a lot of what we are doing is concentrating on ocean acidification. Ocean acidification, it must be recalled that oceans are carbon dioxide sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide. So, if you have a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it means more of it is going into the sea.

So increasingly, the sea is becoming acidic. As a result of that, it’s destroying coral reefs, but, as you know, coral reefs are where fish take protection from predators, especially little fish who grow up to become the food that we eat, they take shelter there. If they don’t exist, the chances are we have shortages of food from the sea, ocean fish. It is also very tough on shellfish, crabs, the kinds of things that people exotically like—shellfish, crabs, shrimp, lobsters—it is very difficult to on them.

So, we are doing modeling on this, increasing the acidity [in the models] to see what the impacts are. At the moment, nobody can predict what these changes are likely to be. So we just have to keep, a bit, slightly ahead of the curve to make sure that when something like this happens, that we have the technology to prevent it, or at least to remediate what we have. So, that is one area where we have work.

PV: Obviously, water scarcity is closely related to food security. In a world facing the dilemmas of rapid population growth, a changing climate, and increased demands for crops and livestock, what is the role of nuclear technology in relation to food security?

KA: Again, we have a lab that we jointly run with the Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO). It is only about 45 minutes by car from our headquarters. There, we use nuclear techniques to look for new species of grains, rice, or wheat, which will, for example, be less susceptible to drought conditions, or flood conditions. As you know, recently the floods in Thailand destroyed almost all the rice crop. There are species that could stay in standing water for one month, two months, and still produce grains for consumption. Our research goes into this kind of situation. Also, in the Sahel region in Africa, rice or other species that are not so susceptible to drought, could be available.

The other thing is, when it comes to animals, cattle, chicken, birds, these things that we do, during floods, they either migrated, they run away because they don’t want to sit, most of them drowned, the owners lost control of them. What this brings is potential transfer of diseases from one region to the next. I mean things like foot-and-mouth disease, which is very, very infectious, and can wipe out cattle population anywhere. We also have the issue of bird flu, which is not only for birds—it can be dangerous for human beings. This technology we have could trace and keep track of where these things are, where they are going. If you want to test, say, for a pathogen, standard procedures says you do a culture for a while, and then you go back and see what it says. This technology can instantly tell you what the pathogen is, and how to deal with it. So, here again, it is a very powerful technology, which could help us keep ahead of food production, things which are necessary for human sustainability.

PV: Further on agriculture and food crops: Could you tell us a little bit more about the so-called “inherited sterility” technique and the usage of radiation to irradiate large number of insects?

KA: We prefer to call it “sterile insect technique.” What it involves is that we use radiation techniques to render things like Mediterranean fruit fly impotent. The male cannot reproduce. After we breed them, we release them in the field. They will mate with what they find there, except they will not reproduce. If you continue doing this, by iterative process, you will be able to wipe out the species. The Mediterranean fruit fly is one of the most economically difficult for countries that have infestations to deal with. We have one for example, a very important example of cooperation, even with political difficulties, a project dealing with the Mediterranean fruit fly involving Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Because you cannot wipe out the flies in Israel, and leave Palestine and Jordan, they will just come back. So they are cooperating, sitting together doing this project to wipe out this fly that is economically very devastating.

Then in Africa, in Ethiopia, we are doing something on the tsetse fly. Tsetse flies, as you know can lead to sleeping sickness, and also is very devastating for livestock. Some years ago, we managed to wipe out tsetse flies from Zanzibar. It is an island, it is part of Tanzania, but it is off the Tanzanian coast. The thing with it is that it is an isolated place. So, it’s easy to wipe it out, and not so easily re-infest. In the case of Ethiopia, we are doing it in the Rift Valley, because it is surrounded by high mountains. So, the possibility of wiping them out without re-infestation is very good.

The alternative is aerosol spray, which could be polluting the environment, other things. But this is benign, it is between the insects themselves. They wipe each other out. So it is a very powerful tool for this particular situation.

PV: Are these techniques also applicable to malaria?

KA: We are looking into malaria, and also dengue fever. Of course, same mosquitoes, but what they do is different. The pathogens they carry are different. We are doing experiments on how this could be applied in infested areas, especially the tropics. I think, in Guatemala, we have a facility where we are using this for dengue fever, where we are applying these techniques. But again, the mosquitoes that carry these diseases are resilient. So, instead of spraying, we are using their own genetic make up to destroy it, so this is what this technology can do.

PV: You spoke previously about areas of human health where these technologies and radiation can help. Could you speak a little bit more about the area of non-communicable diseases, where nuclear radiation could help?

KA: This technology, nuclear technology, is a very powerful tool for diagnostics, as well as treatment for cancer. I am sure, everybody has a family member who has been treated with radiation for cancer, for tumors, or something like that. But it is not just for the treatment of the problem, but for diagnostics. It is the easiest, probably the cheapest way of determining exactly where the tumor is, its size, make up, how one can get to it – either by surgery, even if you are not going to do radiation by surgery, by radiation treatment.

It can also be used for diagnostics of heart diseases. It can pinpoint where the blockage is, where you have the inflammation in the part of the heart, for action either by surgery or other techniques.

It is also extremely powerful for things like nutrition, childhood nutrition or people who are suffering from AIDS. Childhood nutrition—it can determine very quickly if the child is getting the right type of nutrients in, whether breastfeeding or the kind of system that is provided by World Food Programme, or by UNICEF, one can easily check to see if the intervention is working, providing the children the right kinds of nutrition.

Cases of AIDS, for example, nutrition is a big part of treatment. Because of the large cocktail of drugs that they take, they have to have a certain level of nutrients to sustain some of these very powerful drugs they have to take. And again, these could be used to determine what sort of nutrition deficiency they may have, or what they need to add to make them helpfully take these medications. Here again, it is a very powerful tool.

PV: Finally, looking into the future, are there any new “cutting edge” nuclear technologies for development that you see on the horizon?

KA: There are lots of things we can do, even outside the health and food and agriculture area. But, there are huge problems of malnutrition in that we could, for example, work with UNICEF to develop very simple kits which could be used in the field. When people hear of nuclear techniques, they think it is a very sophisticated. For example, to see whether a mother is giving the baby the right milk, they just have to take a very small dose of a very staple isotope, actually just water, an isotope of water. And after that, two weeks later you go, and cotton swab, like you do for DNA testing, and you can easily determine if the child is getting the nutrition. So this is one area where we need to expand our work.

I also talked about drought situations. As you know, if you go to the other part of the world, Asia-Pacific, their problem is flooding, and again there are a lot of things we can do with this technology. First to make sure that, after the floods, we can determine the nutrients that are lost from the soil and how to replenish that. We can also look at even before prevention mechanisms, by first mapping out the water before the floods and see what situation exists during the floods. So we can also use the same technology to help in this area. We have a lot of work to do in development issues, in food, for health, nutrition, different species of rice.

I was in Indonesia recently, it was in April, and it is supposed to be dry season. In Indonesia, mango industry is big. Supposed to be dry season, but it was raining. But the mango only flowers during the dry season. So basically, the crop was about to fail. It is not because of lack of water, but too much water. So we have to keep ahead of the curve. A lot of research is required in this area.

What this technology does is to be able to determine footprints of things, because, if anything, you take water from here and some water from Philadelphia, there is some specific stuff in Philadelphia that is different from this. You can tell where it comes from, if you know the footprints of the soil here and the soil over there. So there are, in Washington, even some suggestions to use the technology for blood diamonds. Because the diamonds are formed in certain countries, maybe peculiar soil components. So you can tell, if you know the soil footprint of that area, if it came from Sierra Leone, or it came from Angola, or somewhere. Even it can be used for timber, and other things.

So there is a lot of work to do in the future. You may have a maple tree here, which is totally different from Canada, because the absorption of the nutrients is not the same, the soil is not the same. So, this technology can do a lot of things, over and above health and nutrition and so forth. There’s no end to this. It is a very powerful tool.

PV: Thank you so much for speaking to us.

KA: You are most welcome.