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Atoms for Sustainable Development Goal #6: How Nuclear Technology Can Support Sustainable Water Resource Management, and Why the World Bank Should Fund It

By: Student Contributor

Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs published an article titled, “The World Needs More Nuclear Power: Why the World Bank Needs to Get in the Game.”  The article argues that in order to reach net-zero by 2050, the world needs to double its nuclear power capacity, and that the World Bank should help finance this expansion.  The problem, the authors explain, is that the World Bank has a long-standing, self-imposed policy against financing nuclear projects.  In defense of this policy, past World Bank presidents have cited political and safety issues associated with nuclear power, as well as a lack of technical expertise. 

Now, the World Bank has welcomed a new president, Ajay Banga, amidst calls from multiple sectors for the World Bank to direct more resources towards environmental challenges.  The change in leadership is an opportunity for the World Bank to reassess its anti-nuclear policy and to authorize its sub-agencies to fund nuclear projects.  Nuclear is a safe, reliable, zero-carbon emitting technology and is one of the best tools we have to achieve our decarbonization goals.  But nuclear is not only useful for mitigating climate change.  There is another widespread environmental challenge that hinders economic growth, spurs migration, and can give rise to conflict – the lack of safe drinking water.  Nuclear technology can be used to alleviate water scarcity, treat wastewater, and support sustainable water management practices.  It is time for Atoms for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #6, and the World Bank should fund it. 

It is difficult to think of a more universally important resource than water.  It is the most basic human need.  Yet 2.2 billion people in the world today lack access to safely managed drinking water.  SDG 6 aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and several of its targets are due by 2030. While some progress has been made on these targets, there is still much to be done.  The UN estimates the rate of progress needs to increase 6 times the current rate in order to meet the targets.  At the current rate, 1.6 billion people will still lack access to safe drinking water in 2030. 

Nuclear technology can play a role in closing these progress gaps in several ways.  The first and probably best-known way is by powering desalination plants.  There are 16,000 desalination plants in 177 countries turning seawater into freshwater through evaporation or reverse osmosis.  Millions of people already rely on desalinated water for drinking, cooking, and washing.  Nuclear has long been recognized as a source of power for this energy-intensive process, and has been used by Japan, Kazakhstan, and India, among others.  By using nuclear power instead of fossil fuels, we can avoid adding more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, so that we can make progress on SDG 6 without sacrificing progress on other environmental goals.   

Nuclear technology can also be used to treat wastewater.  Gamma ray and electron beam radiation break down microorganisms and chemical pollutants in water and reduce color and odor, making the water reusable or safe for discharge into the environment.  Conventional methods of treating wastewater involve using chemicals, which create a secondary form of waste.  Radiation techniques do not create any waste and can treat more water in less time, providing cost benefits in the long run.  These techniques can be used in various industries, too. For example, gamma and electron beam radiation are used to treat wastewater from the garment industry in China, South Korea, and Brazil.  One electron beam facility in China has the capacity to treat 30,000 m3 of wastewater per day, preventing 4.5 million m3 of water – equivalent to the needs of 100,000 people – from being taken from the local river annually.  

Another nuclear technology being applied to water resource management is isotopic analysis, which is the study of the isotopic compositions of materials to understand their age and origins.  For example, samples of groundwater or glacial melt can be analyzed and compared to other samples to determine the rate at which these water resources are being depleted or replenished, allowing for better management practices.  Isotopic analysis can also be used to trace pollutants, like sewage, fertilizer, and pesticides, in water systems, enabling people to address the origin of the pollution.  In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is constructing a new Isotope Hydrology Laboratory as part of its newly launched Global Water Analysis Laboratory Network, indicating the importance of this technology. 

Unfortunately, the numerous applications and benefits of nuclear technology for sustainable water resource management are out of reach for many countries.  The cost of constructing a large infrastructure project involving nuclear technology is significant, and there are also ongoing costs associated with maintaining the facility, training the workforce, and supporting the regulatory framework.  As “the world’s largest multilateral source of financing for water in developing countries,” and part of the UN system, the World Bank is the logical financier for applying nuclear technology to SDG#6.  It can leverage its connections with other development banks and the private sector to provide grants and low-interest loans.   

An absence of multilateral financing for nuclear projects has meant that countries interested in developing civil nuclear capability have increasingly turned to authoritarian countries like Russia and China, which use the provision of civil nuclear assistance as a tool of statecraft, for financing and technology.  The World Bank’s purported lack of expertise in the nuclear field should not be a barrier – the group routinely partners with other organizations and outside experts on large projects.  As part of the UN system, the World Bank can call on the IAEA to provide the necessary expertise in nuclear science and technology. 

To be sure, some lenders may take issue with a reversal in long-standing policy or the use of nuclear technologies in general.  However, the time is right for change.  The promise of nuclear technology for mitigating environmental challenges is receiving more support than ever, and new leadership at the World Bank can encourage new ways of thinking.  More than anything, the basic human need for water should motivate us to pursue every feasible mechanism for achieving universal sustainable water resource management.  It is time for the World Bank to embrace the technical solution of Atoms for SDG #6. 


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