The Atomic Panacea: Non-Power Applications of Nuclear Technology

By Dr Sitakanta Mishra

Nuclear power is increasingly viewed as a clean energy source and a viable alternative to hydrocarbons which are depleting and also the major cause of climate change. It may take a few more decades to harness the full potential of nuclear power which is capable of meeting the energy requirement of entire humanity; but very few are aware of the enormous ‘non-power application’ of nuclear technology, especially in the field of health, agriculture, water resources, environment, industry, etc. primarily enriching human life in numerous ways across the globe.

The medical industry is the largest beneficiary of nuclear technology, particularly in the field of the radiopharmaceutical sector. This includes diagnostic as well as therapeutic formulations using highly pure radioactive pharmaceutical preparations, safe enough for human administration to cure various ailments, especially cancer and cardiovascular disorders. ‘Nuclear medicine is one of the advanced frontiers in the medical industry with the controlled use of radionuclide for diagnostic imaging which help treat diseases otherwise impossible to address through traditional methods. Besides, radiation technology and material are also used in the sterilization of medical equipment, and the production of biologically advanced supplements. The incredible scope of this industry has led several countries to establish specialized departments to cater to global medical industry needs. For example, the nuclear energy giant Rosatom (Russia) has established a specialized nuclear medicine department. Similarly, India also has established a Radiation Medicine Centre in Mumbai.

Secondly, nuclear technology is capable of enhancing the efficiency of the agriculture sector in various ways. By the use of irradiation technology, the shelf-life extension of perishable food crops can be achieved, thereby supplying to long distances possible. Also, through Gamma irradiation process high-yielding seed varieties are prepared by inducing mutations and cross-breeding for commercial exploitation. Evidence suggests that employment of irradiation technology can improve yield by 10-40 per cent for potatoes and leafy vegetables, 10-12 per cent for rice, 10-15 per cent for corn and wheat, and 7-15 per cent for Barley. Radiation technology is also used to address pest control. Through the Sterile Insect Technique, environment-friendly safe options for pest control can significantly minimize crop losses. Furthermore, nuclear technology is also being used to determine soil quality to enable more efficient soil management. Soil moisture neutron probe, a technique to measure moisture, has proven to be much more effective than conventional sensors, enabling farmers to optimize irrigation as per the soil’s needs.

Thirdly, to address the shortage, wastage and contamination of water, the nuclear industry can play a big role. As the water level is depleting, judicious use and conservation of water is the need of the hour, and nuclear technology can provide the option for scientific purification of polluted water, effluent treatment, as well as desalinization of seawater. With the application of advanced techniques for the removal of microorganisms, turbidity and toxic contaminants, the nuclear industry helps in addressing water conservation. To treat seawater, the nuclear desalination process uses the excess heat from a nuclear power plant to evaporate seawater and condense the pure water. Moreover, with the help of nuclear techniques, scientists can determine the quantity and quality of water supplies by “using naturally occurring isotopes as tracers to find out where groundwater comes from, if it is recent or old if it is being recharged or polluted and how it travels” which is called isotope hydrology. Most importantly, nuclear technology is helping urban development authorities with the management of municipal sewage sludge by using radiolytic hygienist technique which produce pathogen-free sludge to be used as biosolids for providing micronutrients to the soil. India has established Asia’s first radiation treatment plant to hygienize municipal sewage sludge, the Sludge Hygienisation Research Irradiator, in Vadodara, Gujarat.

Fourthly, nuclear technology is used in varieties of applications in industry such as gamma radiometry, scanning of industrial process columns, controls systems using nucleonic gauges for level, thickness, moisture and density measurements, voidage determination, analysis of mixers, well logging and elemental nucleonic methods. The nucleonic gauges based on ionizing radiation are extensively used these days for quality control and online monitoring of production processes in the industrial sector. Known as ‘industrial radiography’ nuclear technology and material is used in welding, casting parts or composite pieces inspection, food inspection and luggage control, sorting and recycling, EOD and IED analysis, aircraft maintenance, ballistics, turbine inspection, surface characterisation, coating thickness measurement, in counterfeit drug control, so on and so forth. Moreover, nuclear technology can help in the preservation of historic monuments through specific preservatory processes.

Besides, in many other sectors, nuclear technology or material is in increasingly used largely for the betterment of human life. For example, nuclear energy is also getting increasingly applied in the beauty and skincare sectors. Heavy water which is a component highly demanded in the nuclear industry finds its non-power application in areas like metabolism studies, NMR solvents, deuterated drugs, optical fibre, semiconductors, medicinal chemistry, etc. Nuclear technology also finds its use in archaeology where it helps archaeologists to know the timelines or lifecycles of unearthed relics and documents.

The list of non-power applications of nuclear technology and material is huge and fast increasing. Interestingly, there is less awareness among the public of the wide application of this technology other than power generation. Therefore, many times, nuclear technology is demonized and public perception of anything nuclear is largely negative. It’s high time that the authorities and scientists extensively reach out to the public and spread the utility nuclear industry which is catering to the larger society in numerous ways.

Dr Sitakanta Mishra , Associate Professor, School of Liberal Studies (SLS), Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gujarat

(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are sole of the author and ETHealthworld does not necessarily subscribe to it. shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.)


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