World Environment Day: Radiation and Biodiversity


05 June 2020

3 minutes

5 June is World Environment Day! It is a time to increase awareness on environmental issues, and is a call to action for the protection of the environment.

Each year, a specific theme is chosen for the global community to reflect and focus efforts on. The theme for World Environmental Day 2020 is biodiversity. The delicate web of biodiversity on land and in water supports all life, and any disturbances to this web can result in massive change to the entire system. We need to understand the impact of our activity and technologies on biodiversity to properly understand our role and the actions we must take.

It is well known that nuclear generation is an effective low-carbon option to mitigate climate change and land use change, which currently accounts for 10.5% of world’s electricity generation. Today, we would like to draw your attention to some of the many ways radiation technologies can be used in environmental preservation and promotion of biodiversity, focusing on the recent exiting developments in this area.

Environmental monitoring, such as groundwater measurements with isotope hydrology, soil erosion rate measurements through fallout radionuclide analysis, and lead pollution measurements with proton induced X-ray emission analysis, give us more insight into the consequences of overexploitation of natural resources and pollution. This knowledge is key in mitigating future damage.

IAEA is developing a range of nuclear and isotopic techniques to study the effects of ocean acidification, particularly on biodiversity. These effects can be seen clearly in the decline of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which supports entire ecosystems. The important information garnered through these techniques will strengthen acidification mitigation and adaptation plans.

Beyond information-gathering, radiation technologies offer solutions to environmental contaminants threatening biodiversity. Gamma rays and E-beams are extremely effective in killing bacteria and inactivating viruses, and are a course of treatment for contaminated water sources. One example is the use of gamma radiation in eliminating contaminants in sewage and sludge. In 13 countries, wastewater from the textile industry has been treated with E-beams, to break down harmful chemical pollutants into smaller fragments – which facilitates subsequent biodegradation treatment. This makes wastewater reusable, reducing the impact on aquatic life and human health when discharged to bodies of water.

E-beams have also been used to extensively reduce air pollution from flue gases from industry and fossil fuel plants. This reduces the potential for forest decline and aquatic eutrophication from the acidification of soils and water.

Plastics are playing an increasingly large and negative role in shaping aquatic ecosystems. Not only does the amount of plastic in aquatic systems need to be reduced, but the addition of new plastics needs to be curtailed to prevent the threat it poses to animals who ingest it, and the people who eat fish contaminated by it. IAEA have helped to develop biodegradable plastics through the use of ionizing radiation with natural polymers. These plastics have applications in medicine, agriculture, and the food industry.

If you are interested in building your knowledge of applications of radiation, check out our book on Advanced Radiation Technologies. This broad reference text is suitable for all interested individuals. If you are a professional in the radiation technologies and radioisotope areas and are inspired to expand your network, knowledge, and skills, you may be interested in our School on Radiation Technologies.
Written by
World Nuclear University

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