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UN nuclear agency marks 50th birthday, moving on multiple fronts

UN nuclear agency marks 50th birthday, moving on multiple fronts

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations body whose tasks range from seeking to curb nuclear proliferation and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands to advancing cancer treatments and searching for underground water, turns 50 this weekend, continually adding to its many exploits.

“Over the past half century of distinguished international service, the IAEA has strived to accelerate and expand its contributions to security and development,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a congratulatory letter to IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. “I applaud the ceaseless efforts made by the IAEA towards this end.”

The actual birthday falls on 29 July, marking the day when the IAEA’s Statute officially entered into force, but a whole series of anniversary celebrations kicked off months ago in various countries around the world, including special events in the Republic of Korea, Japan, Hungary, and Bulgaria, as well as a pictorial history and a children’s painting contest.

The agency is best know around the world for its strategic role in preventing nuclear proliferation, a role that has recently hit the headlines with its efforts in connection with the nuclear programmes of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Lesser known, however, are its many other hats, including some which are quite new. Just this year, the IAEA helped an Austrian museum assess damage and identify ways to preserve a stolen Renaissance sculptural masterpiece that was recently recovered.

Acting as a nuclear detective in a little-known sphere, it loaned Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum an instrument known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (or XRF) to examine and uncover hidden truths about a golden salt and pepper cellar (saliera) sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini, which was found buried deep in a forest after being stolen in 2003.

Not many people know that nuclear-based techniques like XRF are used for studying works of art, from Cellini’s Saliera to Michelangelo’s David. But they have proved their worth in fields ranging from art restoration to archaeology and the preservation of cultural artifacts.

The best feature is that the invisible rays do not destroy or harm the treasured art. Another is its portability. Since any movement to a work of art is potentially catastrophic, the goal of art restorers is to minimize disturbance. And XRF, about the size of an overhead projector mounted on a moveable chassis, can be brought right to the source.

In the field of medicine, the IAEA in May put its expertise in nuclear science and radiation to use in Haiti to curtail infant malnutrition and bolster cancer treatment in the poorest country in the in the Western hemisphere.

The agency is using stable and non-radioactive isotopes to identify breastfeeding patterns with mother’s milk, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as an infant’s exclusive food for six months, while at the same time helping to build a national cancer treatment centre equipped with the technology necessary to diagnose and treat the disease.

In other fields, the IAEA is using isotope hydrology as a tool in managing water resources in Africa. Because water contains different isotopes, isotopic dating can be used to estimate the origins and movement of water and determine the availability and capacity of underground aquifers.

In food security, one of the most challenging problems facing Africa, the agency is supporting pest control through the sterile insect technique (SIT), where radiation is used to sterilize otherwise healthy insects, which are then released to mate without producing offspring, thus controlling and gradually eradicating the pest population.

SIT is one of the methods being used to combat the tsetse fly. Trypanosomosis, also known as sleeping sickness, the parasitic disease carried by the fly, is considered a major constraint to sustainable development, affecting both humans and livestock.

But it is in the strategic domain that the agency still captures headlines. Just this month an IAEA inspection team confirmed that the DPRK had shut down five nuclear facilities as part of an agreement to end its atomic weapons programme.

At the same time it announced a forthcoming visit of inspectors to Iran, which the United States, European Union and other countries accuse of harbouring a nuclear weapons programme. Iran denies the charges in the continuing standoff.