Why Nuclear Technology?
These days, practically everyone is aware of the role nuclear technology has played in revolutionizing electricity generation and energy diversification. Not so well-known are the many other, non-power applications of this technology. During the past half-century, the worlds of medicine, agriculture and industry have seen significant improvements due to the harnessing of radioisotopes. And with the surfacing of new applications every day, nuclear science continues to make major contributions to the quality of our life, providing welfare and prosperity for all. Here, we’ll look at some of the contributions of nuclear technology, and why Iran can – and is trying – to benefit from it.
There are over 430 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries around the world. These reactors have a total capacity of 372,000 MWe and can supply some 13.5% of the world’s electricity needs. Many countries are now using nuclear power as a primary source of electricity. France is leading this list, producing over 75% of its energy needs via the use of nuclear power plants. The following table shows the share of nuclear power in electricity generation in various countries in 2012.
Iran is no different from other countries. In fact, the main objective of its pursuit of nuclear technology is, and has always been, to produce clean electricity for its growing population. Although the country enjoys vast oil and natural gas reserves, these resources are limited and diminishing at a very quick pace. This is not to mention the demands presented by Iran’s rapidly changing demography.
Iran’s current population is estimated at nearly 80 million, with most below the age of 30. In comparison, the country had a population of 33 million in the mid-1970s, when it contracted the construction of its first nuclear power plant to West Germany. Projections show Iran’s population will likely reach 100 million by 2025. Naturally, along with the increase in population comes a rise in demand for electricity.
Iran’s domestic electricity consumption has experienced an upward trend in the past decades. This trend has accelerated in recent years in particular. From 2000 to 2011, Iran’s electricity consumption rose from 88.6 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) to 206.7 billion kWh; an annual growth rate of approximately 8 percent. This means Iran needs to add five thousand megawatts of capacity to its power grid every year.
Iran’s electricity needs are currently met by the use of traditional energy sources such as oil, natural gas and coal. However, Iran can barely keep up with its electricity consumption using these finite resources. If natural gas and oil are not replaced by another energy source, and crude production is not significantly increased, Iran may become a net importer of oil over the next decade. Therefore, the Iranian government has emphasized the development of alternative energy sources.
One alternative is nuclear power – an energy source which can produce more electricity than any other renewable option such as solar or wind power. Today, nuclear power accounts for only one percent of Iran’s total electricity generation. Iran, however, hopes to change this and plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity by 2020. If successful, this could save it 190 million barrels of crude oil every year, tantamount to an annual saving of nearly $14 billion.
Iran is not the only oil-producing country which is harnessing the benefits of nuclear energy. Canada is the world’s sixth largest crude producer and the leading exporter of crude to the United States. Moreover, Russia has the largest known natural gas reserves in the world, the second largest coal reserves, and the eighth largest oil reserves. Yet, both Canada and Russia secure a significant portion of their electricity needs via nuclear power plants. This is done in order to free up their crude production for export and refinement, multiplying revenues and protecting their environments.
Energy security means having access to adequate and diversified sources of energy. It is a very important part of any country’s national interests. As economies grow, so do their demand for energy. In order to meet this demand, the world needs energy resources which are constant and viable. At present, most of the world’s energy requirements is met through the use of fossil fuels – a non-renewable source of energy that is depleting and causes great environmental hazards. Dependence on this fuel source is threatening the sustainability of global fuel supplies. Thus, it’s necessary to use alternative energy sources such as nuclear energy in order to ease concerns about the security of future energy supplies.
Iran, with its vast surface area and burgeoning population, has no choice but to diversify its energy sources in order to maintain the livelihoods of both current and future generations. Today, oil and natural gas are Iran’s main sources of national wealth. Once these resources are exhausted, they can never be replenished.
Iran is highly dependent on oil both for its energy needs and economy. From the early 1980s to 2010, Iran’s oil consumption increased at an alarming average rate of about 10 percent a year – threatening the future of its crude exports. If the trend continues, the situation could turn catastrophic for a country which relies on oil for most of its foreign currency earnings and a large part of its total annual budget. Proceeds from natural gas exports also account for a notable share of the Iranian government’s revenues.
As outlined above, many countries that are rich in fossil energy resources, such as Russia and Canada, rely on nuclear power for a significant portion of their energy needs. This is done in order to free up their crude output for exports and refinement. This objective is highly pertinent to Iran, which has been witnessing diminishing oil exports due to its increasing domestic crude consumption, growing population and electricity demand.
Given the facts, energy diversification – including the development of nuclear energy – is the only sound and responsible energy strategy for Iran.
Iran’s efforts to gain access to nuclear technology date back to 1957, when it signed an agreement with the United States on cooperation in research on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. A decade later, in 1967, the United States supplied Iran with its first nuclear reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor, which is still in use. Washington also provided Iran with weapons-grade uranium to use as fuel for the 5-megawatt research reactor.
In 1973, in an arrangement with France, Iran bought 10 percent of the shares of the international uranium enrichment consortium Eurodif, effectively securing 10 percent of its output. In the following years, Iran signed agreements for the construction of nuclear power plants with West Germany’s Siemens/Kraftwerk Union. West Germany began building the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in 1975. An agreement was also reached with France’s Framatome for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Darkhovin.
In 1976, US President Gerald Ford went as far as offering Iran the opportunity to buy and operate an American-built multinational reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from nuclear fuel. The deal was for a complete nuclear fuel cycle.
But in the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the United States and its European allies ended their efforts to help Tehran develop its nuclear energy program. Suddenly, the country which had first encouraged Iran to acquire nuclear technology and transferred the necessary know-how became the main opponent of its peaceful nuclear energy program. The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant was left unfinished, and France cancelled its contract to build the Darkhovin facility – retaining the engineering components to construct two atomic power plants on its own soil. Moreover, Iran didn’t receive a single gram of enriched uranium from Eurodif. The United States, meanwhile, stopped supplying fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, effectively forcing the closure of the American-supplied facility for a number of years. These developments convinced Iran that foreign supplies of nuclear fuel were unreliable at best and that it had no choice but to produce its own enriched uranium.
Nuclear energy is the largest source of emission-free energy in the world. Unlike fossil fuel plants, which emit immense amounts of environmental pollutants each year, nuclear power plants produce virtually no harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides during the power generation process. This not only helps keep the air cleaner, but also preserves the Earth’s climate, avoids ground-level ozone formation and prevents acid rain.
According to data provided by the World Nuclear Association, electricity generated from fossil fuel produces far more greenhouse gases than when nuclear or other alternative sources of energy are used.
Iran is suffering from serious environmental problems caused by oil and gas consumption. These problems have reached critical levels, especially in the capital Tehran, causing negative impacts on human health. According to Iran’s Ministry of Health, environmental pollution takes the lives of about 80,000 Iranians nationwide every year. It also causes severe problems for people with asthma, heart and skin conditions. To put things in perspective, Iran’s carbon emissions have increased by 240% in the past 33 years. In 1980, 33.1 million metric tons of C02 were emitted. In 2009, the figure stood at more than 81 million metric tons. According to some estimates, Iran is among the world’s top ten C02 emitters.
Air pollution damages more than just human health. By contaminating the rain water, it also causes severe damage to the soil and groundwater resources. Iran’s industrial base, which runs on fossil fuel, also produces large amounts of waste which contaminates rivers and coastal waters. This is threatening Iran’s water supplies, leaving the country faced with an imminent shortage of clean water.
Considering the minimal amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by nuclear power plants, they are a well suited replacement for Iran’s fossil-fueled power plants. Many countries in Europe among other places have been discouraging the use of oil and gas and moved towards nuclear power plants. France, for instance, is now meeting two thirds of its energy needs via nuclear power plants and has significantly reduced its reliance on oil and gas.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one in eight of the world’s seven billion humans are suffering from malnourishment or hunger. Tens of thousands are losing their lives due to hunger-related causes every day. This is not to mention the rapid expansion of the world’s population, which is placing heavy demands on global food supplies. For this reason, it is crucial to not only produce more food, but to find ways to preserve and protect it from contamination. FAO is now cooperating with the IAEA in using nuclear and related biotechnologies to improve food sustainability and security.
Iran has been active in utilizing nuclear technology to improve food security. The Karaj Agricultural and Medical Research Center, located near the capital Tehran, is one of the sites where research is being conducted in this field. The facility operates a 30MeV cyclotron supplied by a Belgian firm. The site is comprised of several departments, including sections focusing on Nuclear Agriculture, Ion Beam Applications, Materials Engineering, Nuclear Electronics, Nuclear Medicine, and Health Physics.
But how exactly is nuclear technology used to promote food security and improve agriculture? Below are just some of many applications of this field of science.
1 – Fertilizers
Fertilizers are commonly used in agriculture to maximize yield and achieve higher crop production. However, they are very costly and cause a great deal of damage to the environment. Therefore, it is important that they be used efficiently. Radioactive tracers allow scientists and farmers to optimize the use of fertilizers by determining how much of the chemicals are absorbed by the plant and how much is lost to the environment. This is effective in two ways. First, it reduces costs for the farmer, and second, it minimizes the environmental damage that can result from excessive use of fertilizers.
Iran is one of the countries that are heavily reliant on the use of chemical fertilizers for increasing crop production. Estimates show Iran is using more than four million tons of these chemical substances every year. This figure is expected to undergo a significant increase in the coming years, reaching 7.5 million tons by 2018. This high and inappropriate application of chemical fertilizers has caused undesirable changes in Iran’s environment, biodiversity and public health. However, with the help of nuclear technology, Iranian researchers have been able to reduce the use of fertilizers by 30 percent in the growing of several strategic crops such as wheat, corn and sugar cane.
2- Increasing Genetic Variability
Radioisotopes are also used to change the genetic make-up of crops and produce strains which are superior in multiple aspects. By applying small doses of gamma or neutron irradiation, it is possible to induce mutations in crops and create varieties which are more disease resistant, tolerant to harsh climatic conditions, show increased yield and have shorter growing time. This practice has been in place for several decades and has led to the development of some 1,800 crop varieties in the world.
Iran is using radiation technology to increase the genetic variation of its cereals, oilseeds, pharmaceutical and industrial crops as well as fruit trees. Considering the scarceness of freshwater in Iran, much of the work in this area is geared toward developing strains which are drought and saline resistant. By modifying and stabilizing the desired traits, Iran hopes to increase the quantity and quality of its field and horticultural crops.
3- Eradication of Pests
About ten percent of the world’s crops are destroyed by insects every year. In some developing countries, this figure is as high as thirty percent. The conventional methods used to deal with this problem include utilization of chemical insecticides. However, the use of these chemicals has not always been effective, and instead created environmental pollution and toxic residues in our food chain.
Furthermore, many insects have become resistant to the chemicals over time, therefore adding to the problem by prompting farmers to use even higher amounts of insecticides.
Nuclear-based techniques such as the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) can reduce and at times eradicate pests. SIT sterilizes male insects with gamma radiation and releases them in a target region. When they mate with female insects, they produce no offspring. Thus, over time, their population starts to diminish. SIT is now used in several countries and has helped eradicate approximately 10 species of pest insects.
Iran is among the countries that use ionizing radiation and techniques such as SIT to control its crop pests. One example of this is the control of Ectomyelois ceratoniae (Zeller), a pest which decreases the quality and quantity of pomegranate fruit in Iran. Considering that Iran is the leading producer and exporter of pomegranates in the world, it’s important that this pest be brought under control in order to prevent future losses.
4- Food Processing and Preservation
About a quarter of the world’s harvested food is lost to infestation and spoilage caused by bacteria and pests, making preservation no less significant than actual production. It’s only logical to conserve what is produced rather than to try to increase production to make up for losses.
Irradiation technology is one way to prevent food spoilage and increase shelf life. Contrary to common belief, irradiation does not make food radioactive and does not change the food any more than canning or freezing. The use of irradiation technology for food preservation is growing in all parts of the world. More than 40 countries have approved the use of radiation to help preserve over 60 different varieties of food, ranging from vegetables and meat to spices and fruit.
Like many other countries that are located in arid and semi-arid regions, Iran is characterized by warm, dry weather in many of its regions. This means pathogenic microorganisms and parasites are capable of growing very quickly and can therefore affect the safety and quality of food. Such a situation could cause significant losses of food during storage, transportation and marketing process. This has prompted Iran to conduct its own research to benefit from nuclear technology in its food preservation. The country is now using irradiation methods to control pests and microbial contaminants in strategic products as well as increasing their shelf life.
Iran recently inaugurated a gamma irradiation system for agricultural products in the northwestern city of Bonab. The center has the capacity to irradiate 700 tons of grains each month. Another similar project is underway in the province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari. Iran’s first Gamma Irradiation Center – built in 1985 – is also still active and provides disinfecting services for food and hygiene products. The center is also involved in research in the fields of microbiology, food irradiation, high dose dosimetery, and environmental monitoring. Tehran says it hopes to increase the volume of its agricultural products and address under-cultivation of land with the help of nuclear technology in the coming years.
5- Improving Livestock Productivity
Isotopes can be used to provide information about the nutrition of farm animals. This data can then in turn be used to improve feed efficiency and allow higher animal productivity. It can also lead to improved nutrition and health for the animal itself. Radiation techniques such as radioimmunoassay (RIA) can additionally help in improving animal breeding. With this technique, scientists can learn more about the function of hormones and the cycles of reproduction, making it possible to determine when animals are ready for breeding and to assist in areas such as the timing of artificial-insemination programs. Radioisotopes have also been used to develop vaccinations that are effective in dealing with certain animal diseases.
Iran has been active in this field, seeking to increase the efficiency and quality of its livestock products through nuclear technology. Use of radiation and radioisotopes in the production of vaccines for foot and mouth disease in cattle, or white spot disease in shrimp, are just some of the projects Iranian scientists are working on in this area.
6- Improving Water Use
Having access to adequate drinking water is essential for life and a crucial factor in agriculture. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world this valuable resource is becoming scarce. Therefore, it’s important that existing water supplies be managed and conserved wisely. Nuclear technology can be utilized to address this challenge as well.
For instance, isotope hydrology techniques allow the tracing and measurement of underground water resources. They can also be used to gain information about surface water resources. Neutron moisture gauges are useful in this regard as well. These devices can measure soil moisture and are ideal in helping farmers make the best of the limited water supplies they have. They are especially useful in areas where salinity levels are high, such as Iran.
Iran is situated in one of the most arid regions of the world and has scarce freshwater resources. Its annual average precipitation is merely 252 millimeters — about a third of the global precipitation rate. According to former Iranian agriculture minister Issa Kalantari, water issues are the “main problem that threatens the country.” Kalantari argues that Iran might face a potential water crisis in 30 years. The drying up of Urumia, Tashak, Parishan and other lakes is an indication of the severity of the situation.
In addition to low rainfall and worsening drought, population growth has also caused a decline in Iran’s water per capita. This water scarcity is restricting the development of Iran’s agricultural sector. But now, with the utilization of stable and unstable isotopes, Iranian scientists are taking steps to improve the efficiency of Iran’s irrigation systems.
Perhaps one of the greatest applications of nuclear technology has been in the field of medicine. The use of radiation and radioisotopes has led to dramatic medical advances in the past century, improving both the quality of life and longevity of humans around the world. Radioisotopes are now used in everything from sterilizing medical equipment, to testing of new drugs, to diagnosis and therapy.
Worldwide, there are over 10,000 hospitals that use radioisotopes in medicine. Every year, about 18 million nuclear medicine procedures are carried out in the US, providing medical services to more than 300 million people. In Europe, about 10 million similar procedures are carried out for some 500 million people.
Iran has actively sought to benefit from this technology. The country is now among the very few that are producing medical isotopes such as iodine-131. These kinds of radioisotopes are mainly used for diagnosis and treatment of various cancers as well as alleviation of cancer-related pains. Iran’s ability to produce the isotopes is considered a great achievement, considering that it only has an over three-decade old research reactor able to produce this rare substance. Today, Iran is producing isotopes used in the treatment of over 800,000 patients every year.
At the Karaj Agricultural and Medical Research Center, a wide range of radioisotopes and radio pharmaceutical drugs used for diagnostic purposes are produced. The products are manufactured using a cyclotron and then distributed to hospitals. Nuclear electronic instruments and radiation monitoring devices are produced at the site as well.
In all, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has succeeded in manufacturing about 55 different types of radio medicines and medical kits. These drugs are regularly distributed among more than 130 active nuclear medical centers and hospitals throughout the country. Estimates show that up to 15,000 people use AEOI products every week and that about one million Iranians benefit from them every year.
Part of Iran’s pursuit of self-sufficiency in the production of radio pharmaceuticals stems from the sanctions it is facing. American-led penalties are making it difficult to procure the materials needed for production of pharmaceuticals used in the treatment of cancer patients. Life-saving medicines such as bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs have also become hit by sanctions, putting the lives of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses in imminent danger.
Amid this situation, Iran has achieved notable progress in nuclear medicine, placing it among the leading countries in this science. At present, there are over 140 nuclear medicine experts in Iran — and these experts have not overlooked the need for research. The country launched its first academic journal in the field of nuclear medicine in English and Persian back in 1992. In 2010, at the World Nuclear Medicine Congress held in South Africa, Iran ranked first among 85 countries in terms of the number of papers presented at the event.
Iran itself has also hosted gatherings and conferences on this subject, including an Asia-Oceania conference on nuclear medicine and biology in 2009. That event was attended by around 100 leading scholars from various countries.
Iran is using nuclear technology to manufacture advanced equipment, such as gas turbine impeller fans needed for its oil industry. Other applications of nuclear technology in Iran’s industrial sector include the detection of leaks in pipelines through radioactive tracers and production of polymer sheaths and strips which have thermal contraction ability.The country is also utilizing nuclear technology to produce various laser systems.