We should move beyond nuclear fear to combat climate change

Nuclear technology. [iStockphoto]

As the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in the United Arabs Emirates (UAE), bringing together world leaders, environmental experts and activists, a pivotal topic scheduled for discussion this week is the role of nuclear energy in advancing green energy solutions.

President William Ruto addressed the gathering last week as he sought to push the continent’s climate agenda in his capacity as chairman of the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change.

Despite its potential, nuclear energy often carries negative connotations, primarily because many nuclear programmes have their roots in military weapon development. Furthermore, even civilian nuclear power programmes are met with widespread apprehension.

Many people harbour a fear of nuclear power, associating it with perceived potential risks and accidents that could have catastrophic consequences. However, following the COP28 there is developing a significant shift from traditional discussions centered only on nuclear as an energy source highlighting other innovative ways in which nuclear science contributes to development and environmental sustainability. Nuclear science extends far beyond the realm of electricity generation.

It encompasses a wide array of technologies and applications that can significantly impact our efforts to mitigate climate change. These include advancements in agriculture, medical research, and industrial processes, all of which contribute to a sustainable future.

Nuclear technology is revolutionising agriculture, a critical sector where its impact is particularly significant. Mutation breeding, a technique involving the use of radiation to alter plant genetics, is at the forefront of this transformation.

This method has enabled development of new crop varieties that are more resilient to the challenges posed by climate change. These crops are better equipped to withstand extreme weather, pests, and diseases, and they require fewer chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilisers, thereby reducing the agricultural carbon footprint.

A notable example of this advancement is in Kenya, where Prof Mirium Kinyua has harnessed nuclear techniques to revolutionise wheat farming. Her work has led to creation of a new variety of wheat that is not only high-yielding but also drought-resistant.

This innovation has been a game-changer for small farming families, enabling them to achieve productive harvests on lands previously deemed unsuitable for cultivation. This breakthrough is providing both social and economic benefits to the country.

The significance of this progress cannot be overstated, especially at a time when wheat crops in Kenya and other African countries are under threat from a destructive new strain of fungus known as “wheat rust.”

This fungus poses a serious risk to regional farmlands, making the development of resistant wheat varieties a crucial and life-saving achievement. As discussions at the all-important COP28 gathering unfold, it is pretty clear that nuclear science and technology hold great potential in our quest to address climate change. By embracing these innovations, we can unlock new pathways to a sustainable future, underscoring the importance of continued research and investment in this field.

In conclusion, while nuclear energy often dominates conversations about nuclear technology’s role in climate change, it is just the tip of the iceberg. The applications of nuclear science in agriculture, water management, medical research, pollution control, and industrial efficiency are pivotal components of a holistic approach to environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation.

It is important to explore every avenue to tackle climate change. The Horn of Africa recently underwent its worst drought in 40 years, leaving about four million people food insecure in Kenya.

There’s no more denying that combating climate change and its effects is an age-old challenge, and perhaps the greatest headache facing mankind. At any rate, however, it has come with renewed risks and unpredictable fashions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that by mid-century, a billion people will face water shortage and hunger.

In Africa, 600 million are at risk. The colossal losses and emerging threats to livelihoods, blamed on global warming, must be a major concern as this year’s UN-led climate change talks continue in Dubai.

-The writer is a nuclear scientist and partnership and public awareness director at the Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority.


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