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Kuwaiti Experts Use Nuclear Technology to Study the Marine Environment

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Lamya Al-Musallam, a senior research associate at KISR, checks the pH level in the tanks, which is controlled by a system provided by the IAEA. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)

In the face of climate change and increased industrial activity, scientists in Kuwait are using nuclear science to address challenges to the marine environment, with the assistance of the IAEA.

“Kuwait is facing the effect of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution from the oil and shipping industry, power and desalination activities,” said Nader Al-Awadi, the Executive Commissioner for International Cooperation at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR), adding that these factors also impact the marine environment. “Kuwait is covering a broad range of techniques to study the marine environment and the application of nuclear technology is among the core methods.”

Ocean acidification: the other CO2 problem

With the establishment of a large-scale facility to carry out research on the acidification of oceans – a result of increased amounts of carbon dioxide entering the ocean, – investigations are conducted on different marine organisms. Experts are making regular measurements of temperature and water acidity levels, and looking at how marine life is likely to respond to such changes in coming decades, said Saif Uddin Iqbal Uddin, a senior research scientist at KISR.

Potential impacts of ocean acidification and ocean warming include the degradation or complete loss of critical habitats, such as sea grass beds and coral reefs, he said. Nuclear and isotopic techniques are utilized to understand past conditions of ocean warming and acidification, and to predict future responses of marine organisms, such as mussels, oysters and corals, under changing conditions.

The Gulf waters provide a natural lab and ideal environment to study how marine life might adapt to ocean changes. “Despite huge temperature fluctuations from 8 degrees Celsius to 36, corals are surviving,” he highlighted. At the same time, they are becoming more brittle due to ocean acidification. Under an IAEA project, studies focus on the effect of ocean acidification on calcification of key coral species.

Another important research area is the evaluation of the uptake of radioactivity and marine pollutants by marine sediments under ocean acidification. The seabed is a repository of contaminants and it has more pollution load than seawater, explained Saif Uddin.

Early warning systems

The use of early warning systems to assess radiation levels is another important area of research. In cooperation with the IAEA, Kuwait’s experts have established a marine radioactive assessment network, which compares the radiation levels to baseline radioactive levels established in the 1990s, said Saif Uddin, adding that regular assessments are undertaken to check any impact on the marine environment. Data demonstrates that radioactivity levels are normal, and marine life is safe.

Gamma ray detectors are deployed at sea in an array of locations and studies are conducted on water entering the Gulf to detect and, in conjunction with hydrodynamic measurements and modelling, evaluate if there is any radioactivity which can impact seawater desalination, which is the source of freshwater supply in the country. The IAEA support includes providing laboratory equipment as well as training of staff in gamma and alpha spectrometry, all of which are used to measure radioactivity in the marine environment.

Other IAEA supported projects relate to the monitoring of pollutants in the marine environment and how these have changed since the first Gulf war in 1990.

Nuclear technology is also used for seafood safety, for example, to monitor biotoxins produced by microscopic algae, known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Factors such as surface water temperature, the circulation of wind and water, the natural movement of nutrient rich waters towards the surface or the accumulation of agricultural run-off into the sea can trigger algal blooms, which can sometimes include toxic species. These toxins then enter the food chain and present a danger for people and threaten the livelihood of communities depending on fisheries.

This is where using nuclear techniques such as the receptor binding assay to track biotoxins from HABs is useful. Under an IAEA supported project, this technique will be utilized for the detection of toxins in seafood. This information will be very important for hazard preparedness and as early warning, Saif Uddin said.

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Nuclear Technology Helps Develop New Barley Variety in Kuwait

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The IAEA has provided support to Kuwait in practical training on mutant identification and selection of barley mutant population in the field. (Photo: L. Jankuloski/IAEA)

New home-grown barley varieties developed using irradiation with the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are in the final stages of development and will be ready to be released to farmers for production in coming years.

“Modern plant breeding technologies ensuring sustainability and conservation of scarce natural resources are of paramount importance in achieving national food security and the enhancement of biodiversity,” said Habibah S. Al-Menaie, a senior research scientist in the Desert Agriculture and Ecosystems Program of the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR). “Joining the FAO/IAEA coordinated research projects in the area of mutation breeding has led to the development of several barley mutant lines with improved yield and quality under Kuwait’s environmental conditions.”

As arable land is limited to small areas, 95% of the country’s food and animal fodder is imported. Barley is a preferred crop for cultivation, because it is relatively drought tolerant and therefore one of the most suitable crops for an arid country like Kuwait. Having high yielding home grown crops is among the key objectives of the country’s agricultural programme to enhance food security.

“Increased agricultural production in Kuwait is a major challenge due to several constraints such as drought, salinity, limited water sources, limited plant genetic resources, low percentage of arable land and unpredictable climatic events,” said Al-Menaie.

The development of new varieties with improved traits is just the first step towards increasing yields. Optimizing water and nutrient use efficiency helps ensure that the new improved varieties live up to their yield potential and provide agronomic, environmental and economic benefits. “Efficient crop production requires the establishment of appropriate soil, water and crop management practices in the field. In this regard, soil moisture levels are monitored to develop effective strategies for resource efficient crop production. It increases the efficiency of the agricultural production and conserves natural resources,” Al-Menaie said.

This is a major step forward for the country’s small agriculture industry, said Nader Al-Awadi, the Executive Commissioner for International Cooperation at KISR. Drought, salinity and diseases have historically limited staple crop productivity in Kuwait. The lack of crop varieties optimized to local environmental conditions and improper soil, water and nutrient management practices have hindered sustainable and efficient agricultural production so far, he added.

Mutated barley — the next generation

Mutation induction by radiation rapidly increases the genetic diversity necessary to produce new and improved varieties and is thus advantageous over traditional breeding. “There was no crop mutation work until cooperation commenced with the FAO/IAEA Programme and equipment was received for plant propagation and screening purposes,” Al-Menaie said. With the view to develop the new barley varieties, the growth and yield performance of introduced barley varieties and lines from other countries were evaluated under Kuwait’s environmental conditions. The best adaptable varieties were identified, and the seeds were subjected to induced mutation using gamma rays.

New mutant lines have been generated and they are now examined for drought and salinity tolerance. The selected mutant lines will be advanced, which then can be multiplied for planting. “It’s a long process, but we are about to see the life-changing results, which will have a great impact in the agricultural sector of Kuwait very soon,” Al-Menaie said.

Changed attitude: Increasing farmer awareness

One of the major challenges was explaining to farmers the safety of the new mutated barley lines developed. “When they heard that ‘nuclear techniques’ were used to create improved barely seeds, they got scared,” Al-Menaie said, adding that the authorities encouraged land owners and farmers to participate in crop mutation technology workshops. These provided in-depth information and resulted – over time – in a changed attitude amongst farmers, she said.

Eisa Al-Hasawy, the Chairperson of the Kuwait Dairy Company, pioneered farmers’ support to KISR efforts to promote the benefits of the new mutated barley. “We are happy that on our sandy soil, with little or no water, the new barley variety will be produced to benefit our people and hopefully lead to us exporting barley in the future,” he said. “Working at the grass root level with local farmers was vital to overcoming their fears and traditional mindset.”

Training and enhancing expertise

The FAO/IAEA support has been key to the success in developing the new barley variety. Through technical cooperation and coordinated research projects, the training in integrated crop mutation techniques as well equipment provided to the KISR plant and soil laboratories have helped scientists to gain a better understanding of how nuclear techniques such a gamma ray induction for crop mutation can help to have better crops, Al-Menaie said.

For barley to grow and produce seeds, soil moisture is critical, for which the FAO/IAEA Programme’s support to KISR’s soil and water section, through training and equipment, has been an added value, she said.

To assess the moisture levels in soil, and to ensure every drop of water is used, the FAO/IAEA experts provided training on soil water management and soil moisture equipment, including the use of the cosmic ray neutron sensor to assess water availability to the crop. The cosmic ray sensor monitors soil moisture over up to 20 hectares, a much bigger footprint compared to conventional moisture sensors, said Abdullah Salem Alshatti, the principal researcher at the KISR Soil Department.

The moisture in the soil is tracked in real time and the data acquired helps develop effective strategies to optimise supplemental irrigation to have soil moist to a level that benefits crop production, he said. “Data collected from the cosmic ray sensor also helps to develop precise action to conserve moisture in the soil by using dry weeds and tree barks on the top soil to preserve wetness”.

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Toward Closing the Gender Gap in Nuclear Science

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Philippine students do hands-on experiments to learn about nuclear science. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Authors: Miklos Gaspar and Margot Dubertrand*

Women make up less than a quarter of the workforce in the nuclear sector worldwide, hurting not only diversity within the industry, but also competitiveness, experts have said. Many organizations, including the IAEA, are actively working to increase the share of women in all job categories.

“Although there are many talented and highly-skilled women within the nuclear industry, we are still vastly under-represented. There is still work to do,” said Gwen PerryJones, Executive Director of Operations Development at the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom. “Diversity in the workplace benefits us all, and I fully support initiatives that encourage women to enter the industry and help them see routes to senior positions.”

Women who have made it to leadership roles are making a significant contribution. Muhayatun Santoso, a senior researcher at Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN), has led ground-breaking research into the use of nuclear techniques to measure air pollution in many of Indonesia’s cities. Her work contributed to Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city, receiving the ASEAN Environmentally Sustainable Cities Award in 2017.

“Air pollution is a major problem across urban areas in Indonesia, with a surge in industrial activity and traffic increasing the amount of toxic substances in the air,” she said. “I am proud to be able to help my country tackle this major problem.”

Agneta Rising, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, is a leading specialist on nuclear energy and the environment. While she was Vice President for the Environment at Vattenfall AB, Sweden’s state-owned nuclear and hydropower operator, she headed a pan-European department focused on energy, environment, and sustainability. She is also the co-founder and former President of Women in Nuclear (WiN). During her presidency, WiN quadrupled in size.

“Women are essential to the strong development of the global nuclear sector. To be the most competitive, a business needs to have the best people working for it. The nuclear industry should have programmes to attract and recruit women, otherwise they would be missing out on the competitive advantage their talents could bring,” said Rising. “When the workforce better reflects the diversity of society, including the representation of women, it also helps to build society’s trust in nuclear technologies.”

At present, women make up only 22.4% of the workforce in the nuclear sector, according to data from the IAEA.

Women in Nuclear

The goal of WiN, a non-profit organization with 35,000 members in 109 countries, advocates for stronger roles for women in nuclear science and technology and to increase awareness of the importance of gender balance in historically maledominated fields. It also promotes these areas to women making career choices.

“While there is a growing proportion of women in senior technical positions in every branch of nuclear science and technology, women are still under-represented,” said Gabriele Voigt, President of WiN and former manager of nuclear facilities and laboratories in Germany and at the IAEA.

“Part of the problem is that too few young women study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in secondary and higher education,” she said. “Another issue is the omnipresent glass ceiling and bias — whether conscious or unconscious — that is difficult to confront in the work environment.”

WiN is helping to change that by increasing girls’ exposure to nuclear-related topics from a young age and by building a strong network of women and creating access to role models for the next generation. Some countries, including with the help of the IAEA, are introducing nuclear science to high school students with a particular emphasis on girls.

“Presenting science, and particularly nuclear science, to girls at an early age is the best way to achieve a higher proportion of female scientists in this field,” said Micah Pacheco, regional science supervisor at the Philippines’ Ministry of Education, under whose watch several schools in the Manila area have introduced nuclear science and technology education programmes. “Nuclear is fun — girls should see that!”

The IAEA’s progress on gender parity

As of the end of 2017, the proportion of women in the professional and higher categories at the IAEA reached 29%, compared to 22.5% ten years earlier. Director General Yukiya Amano has stated that he would like to achieve gender parity at the most senior level by 2021.

“The Agency has taken concrete steps to improve the representation of women in the Secretariat through targeted recruitment efforts and awareness-raising activities, and we’ve seen improvement in the representation of women at the Agency,” said Mary Alice Hayward, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Management at the IAEA. “But we are conscious of the challenges that remain. Gender equality in the workplace requires more than improving the statistics — it also means making sure the IAEA is a place where women want to work.”

This includes creating a supportive environment, such as flexible working arrangements that enable staff members to combine work and family responsibilities, as well as special outreach campaigns to young women highlighting the benefits of working at the IAEA.

An example of success in reaching gender parity in senior roles at the IAEA was in the Division of Information Technology. While it is historically a male-dominated field, an active campaign and sourcing strategy resulted in targeted outreach to many qualified women candidates.

At the Office of Legal Affairs, the majority of professional staff are women.

“Not only do we have a female Director, two of the three Section Heads are also female, meaning 75% of the senior staff are women,” said Director Peri Lynne Johnson. “Furthermore, we have 11 female lawyers and ten male lawyers, and we try to ensure parity among our interns.”

*Margot Dubertrand, IAEA Office of Public Information and Communication

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We need to build more networks of women in science

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

Why science?

I was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with family roots in Usangi, near Mount Kilimanjaro. I was lucky. My parents were community organizers in our village, educated in finance and economics during pre-independent Tanzania. They were not scientists, but they had a clear vision for all their six children—that we would all study science. So it was a bit of a nudge followed by encouragement. They were firm believers that we needed a strong grounding in science so we could analyze the world and do anything we wanted to. They believed science provided strong analytical foundation and flexibility to pursue either science or non-science careers later in life. I am grateful for my parents’ vision of science for their girls and boys.

We were an unusual family compared to the norm in East Africa at that time. Some of my brothers are now doctors, engineers, accountants, and I have a sister who audits information technology systems for a living. A lot of people commented that it wasn’t the “right profession for women” but I was drawn to science because I was curious. And no matter what else I do in life now, I find I have that tendency to prod people and ideas a bit more than is typical.

How hard was it to grow up in East Africa with an interest in science?

In the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up, there were a lot of good missionary schools which had a strong grounding in science. But it was not common for a girl to take physics, chemistry and biology. I had a wonderful headmistress and mentor, Mama Kamm, who believed that girls should do science, and cooking, and needlework! I then obtained a degree in immunology and biochemistry. But it became clear to me how male-dominated this field really was when I went to science competitions or events, and found myself one of the very few women participating. It seemed daunting at the time, but it helped me build the resilience I would later need to work in other male-dominated environments. That, and growing up with four brothers and a family that allowed me to compete with them.

What obstacles did you face when you left Tanzania?

I went to Glasgow, Scotland to pursue a science degree and found that if there were few women studying science at university, even fewer were from Africa. So there, I became a young African woman scientist. It was isolating, and I really had no one to look up to as a role model. This was one of the hardest parts of pursuing science. When I moved to Canada to study microbiology and immunology, it was clear that I had to work much harder than my male colleagues because expectations were so much lower for me as an African woman. I also learned that I needed to develop my own support networks for my science ambition. Because I was abroad, I had to be open to networking with non-Tanzanians: my interest in science became the glue of some of the relationships I developed then.

What perceptions need to change so more girls and women choose science as a career?

Family perception is everything. I was lucky, but not many are. Second, is the perception of your peer group. A lot of who you become in life is influenced by the people around you in your formative years. Third, societal pressure is a big hindrance. How are you perceived by your neighbours, or your friends or teachers? I think that as a girl in science you have to find a way to persevere despite those three levels of pressure. It is important to find how to build networks of women like yourself, and call on them for support and reassurance. Many of my classmates in the girls boarding school where I grew up run important scientific institutions in Tanzania, and even now, no matter where I am in the world, I reach out to this group of friends for support. Our headmistress Mama Kamm transformed the science and girls agenda in Tanzania—we still look up to her for inspiration and admiration. We have our own cohort of women who studied science. But you also have to remember that your network has to include men, because as women, we can learn from them and also count on them as our champions to change some of the misconceptions about girls and science. For example, in my case, I observed early on that my male peers tended to question authority and decisions much more than I did. When I first left Tanzania to study science, it never occurred to me to ask why my paper hadn’t been published, but a man will never shy away from asking that question. I decided to learn from these colleagues and adjusted my professional behavior accordingly.

How can more girls and women choose science as a career?

You have to address self-doubt because expectations from women are often very different and lower than from our male peers. We need to have many more role models. When I was growing up, there were not many women I could look up to and think “I want to be like her.” But technology has made finding these role models so much easier today. We need to use our personal stories to inspire girls. Science provided me with the fundamental DNA to do anything in my life. So while I started my career as a researcher, I later branched out to public health and policy, and today, to environment. It was my scientific foundation that made this possible. This is what I really enjoy about my new role at UN Environment: we inform the global environmental agenda through work that is grounded in science. And so the curiosity continues.

What opportunities do environmental science offer?

Environmental science is a rapidly expanding field, and as our awareness of environmental issues grows, there are more career options within environmental science for girls and women. You can pursue a degree in public health and decide to focus on environmental pollution, for example. So there are many more opportunities and options. For women, life is never clear cut and dry, no matter how much we try—we are far more nuanced in our approach to just about anything, including science. This is why I feel environmental science can only become stronger if we have more women in research, because we often bring the human angle into the science. For us to make a difference in this field, we have to start with and think of people and humanity—the social aspects of environment are equally important. These are exciting opportunities for girls and women!

UN Environment

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