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Why poor countries need nuclear research capacity

For many readers, the phrase 'nuclear research' is often taken in the context of defence or national security. What is less known is that in developing countries, applications of nuclear research have had far-reaching impacts on, for example, public health, food security and the management of natural resources. In Africa, a growing number of nations are using nuclear techniques to identify drug-resistant strains of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, to detect the active transmission of tuberculosis and to explore the development of vaccines against HIV. Nuclear research in Central America has led to the development of low-cost feeding strategies for livestock to enhance milk and meat production through better nutrient uptake. In Asia, mutation-breeding techniques have been used to develop drought-resistant sorghum and saline-resistant rice. Initiatives to enhance yields for barley, cassava, millet, yams and many other crops are having a positive impact on the lives of people in poor countries. Isotope-hydrology applications, moreover, are allowing governments to manage their water resources better. In some cases, this has resulted in transboundary cooperation — for example, to support the sustainable development of the upper Lempa River water basin, which is shared by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Isotope hydrology has also been essential to investigate and manage groundwater and geothermal resources in Ethiopia, and to identify safe drinking water in Bangladesh, where arsenic contamination of water has caused a major health crisis. Some 120 developing countries — nearly every developing country that is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — have developed some capacity in nuclear research and applications for public health and the environment.

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Cetto, A. Why poor countries need nuclear research capacity. Nature 456, 37 (2008).

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