Harness nuclear science to quench thirst of water-starved populations

By Edward Mayaka | Mar 27, 2024
Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority (KNRA) Director for Partnerships and Public Awareness Edward Mayaka addresses the media on the role of the nuclear sector in the climate change fight at COP28 in Dubai. [Mactilda Mbenywe, Standard]

As we marked World Water Day 2024 last week, it is likely that millions out there were not aware of a potential unconventional hero in the quest to quench our global thirst – nuclear technology.

According to the UN, over two billion people are deprived of safely managed drinking water, Moreover, water scarcity takes a greater toll on women and children.  

Despite strides towards Sustainable Development Goal 6, which champions the cause for universal water and sanitation, the journey is far from over. The daunting statistic of a water-starved population requires urgent action.

Looking at our local situation, statistics indicate that Kenya is among the water-scarce countries across the world, with per capita availability below 1000 m³ annually. The struggle for accessing clean and safe water is a problem experienced by more than 18 million people today.

Water, though seemingly abundant with 70 per cent coverage of our planet, presents a paradox with only a sliver – 2.5 per cent being fresh and a mere fraction of that readily accessible for human needs.

Now, we can illuminate the potential of nuclear technologies to address this dire mismatch. These advanced methodologies offer a lens into water’s journey through ecosystems, the resilience of groundwater reserves, and the implications of climate change on water security.

The role of nuclear technology in bridging the gap towards achieving SDG 6 is multifaceted. Prominently, it powers the desalination process, a lifeline for millions who depend on converted seawater for their daily needs.

By considering nuclear power technology for water desalination, we not only tackle water scarcity but also mitigate further environmental degradation. Moreover, nuclear technology extends its prowess to wastewater treatment, employing gamma ray and electron beam radiation to purify water efficiently and without the byproducts of traditional methods. This innovation serves critical sectors, including the garment industry across China, South Korea, and Brazil, underscoring its scalability and environmental benefit.

Isotopic analysis, another nuclear technique, delves into the origins and lifecycle of water sources, enabling informed management and pollution tracking. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) has made massive investments in a Hydrology Laboratory, highlighting the significance of these analyses in global water strategy.

However, the adoption of such nuclear solutions is hindered by lack of information, the substantial financial outlay required for infrastructure, maintenance, and regulatory compliance.

Here, the World Bank and other international groups could emerge as a pivotal financier, with the potential to marshal resources for integrating nuclear into water management under SDG 6.

The shift towards what many are calling a ‘nuclear renaissance’ marks a significant departure from the earlier wave of nuclear pessimism that swept across the globe following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

This pivotal event in Japan had cast a long shadow over the future of nuclear energy, sparking widespread debate and concern over safety standards and the inherent risks of nuclear power. However, the narrative is changing dramatically as countries, even in Africa, embrace nuclear.

This renewed enthusiasm for nuclear technology is not merely a reaction to the pressing need for sustainable energy solutions but also a testament to the comprehensive reforms and enhancements in nuclear regulatory frameworks worldwide.

The IAEA’s role in promoting nuclear safety, security, and non-proliferation while facilitating the peaceful use of nuclear technology has been instrumental in rebuilding trust and confidence in nuclear energy’s potential.

The evolving regulatory frameworks, now more pragmatic and grounded in the reality of the current global challenges, coupled with the IAEA’s unwavering support, are facilitating this transition. Countries that were once hesitant are now looking towards nuclear technology.

This paradigm shift towards embracing nuclear technology heralds a new era of sustainable water resource management.

Mr Mayaka is Partnerships and Public Awareness Director at Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority

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