Soon after Independence, India embarked upon its three-stage Nuclear Power Program to meet the defence and energy demands of Independent India. Since then, India has made significant strides in the field of nuclear energy. As on March 2020, Jitendra Singh, MoS – Department of Atomic Energy, reported to the parliament that on completion of the 21 new nuclear power reactors by 2031, India’s current nuclear capacity of 6,780 MW is proposed to be increased to 22,480 MW. As we continue to advance our nuclear energy capabilities, India equally exhibits enormous potential to leverage alternative uses of nuclear technology.
The COVID-19 health crisis has drawn our attention to another incubating global crisis that involves food security. The nuclear industry has emerged with novel harvest technologies that can minimize food losses. Food irradiation can be attributed as one of the safest and most effective methods of food preservation, ever developed. This process involves food being exposed to controlled ionizing radiation. However, Irradiation does not make food radioactive, and has tremendous potential in reducing food losses by keeping food and grains safe, and significantly improving their shelf life.
Nuclear technology has the potential to strengthen agricultural productivity and reduce our dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Food irradiation can kill harmful microorganisms and bacteria that cause food spoilage or food poisoning. By harnessing the sterile insect technique (SIT), a sustainable alternative to insecticides, laboratory-raised male insects are sterilized with gamma radiation. After being released in the wild, they mate and no off-spring is produced. Over time, insect population is suppressed, leading to less dependence on pesticides.
For a country like India whose food grain production in 2019-20 was estimated to reach 295.67 million tons and about 58% of India’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, India needs to ramp up the use of such preventive technology to further secure its food produce. In this way, as part of an integrated strategy, nuclear techniques can be adopted to control insects and pests from destroying crops.
India is the world’s 13th most water-stressed country, while something as simple as washing hands is a luxury in some parts of rural India. Extreme threats to human lives, wellbeing and business stability are raised by stress conditions. Unless afflicted countries act, situation is likely to worsen gradually. The recent trends call for optimizing water utility and adoption of modern water management techniques.
As water contains varying proportions of naturally occurring isotopes, thereby enables researchers to measure its isotopic composition using nuclear techniques. With this, researchers can detect origin of a water body and even accurately measure the availability of water resources in a particular geography. While the illegal discharge of pollutants in waterbodies remains another contributing concern for water pollution, to that effect, such nuclear techniques can also help identify the source of contamination in a water body. In India, isotope hydrology can be harnessed on a wider scale to tackle water issues in a rapid and cost-effective manner.
Nuclear technologies are being effectively harnessed to detect and fight the Covid-19 virus across the world. Diagnostic testing is a vital part of containing outbreaks. The nuclear and radiological fields have played an instrumental role in treating and diagnosing COVID-19. As the end of this outbreak remains unpredictable, India needs to equip itself with mass scanning infrastructures and upgrade its research and development capabilities.
Given the highly communicable nature of the COVID-19, continuous sterilization is crucial to suppress the spread of virus. In the event where the positive cases overshoot, disinfecting personal protective equipment would require mass sterilization facilities for frontline workers. Radiation sterilization is effective, and time saving and intends to reduce or eliminate viruses and pathogenic micro-bacteria. The technique of radiation sterilization is advantageous as it can ensure that micro-organisms are inactivated and can also allow large batches of hazardous materials to be sterilized.
Radiation and nuclear technologies have a broad spectrum of applications that go beyond generating electricity. In fields such as nuclear medicine, hydrology, health-care diagnostics, agriculture, biotechnology, food irradiation, pest control, the applicability of alternative nuclear technology can be further leveraged in India.
Moscow-headquartered TISC, part of Russian nuclear fuel manufacturer TVEL, which is a subsidiary of state nuclear corporation Rosatom, has started executing plans to build Russia’s first targeted radiopharmaceuticals manufacturing facility. India can pursue comprehensive technology transfer and knowledge sharing initiatives with Russia to further advance its alternative nuclear technology potential on Indian soil.
Today, we witness an exponential growth of nuclear medicine theranostics. What started with 131I in Graves’ disease and thyroid cancer, has today evolved to the era of radionuclide theranostics and alpha therapy in prostate cancer, neuroendocrine tumors among others. We have to ensure that India gets to the forefront of the clinical and research aspects of theranostics. It requires an intricate collaboration between Nuclear Medicine Physicians, Radiochemists and especially our colleagues at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Presently, one of the main reasons for the tardy pace of the alpha program is the exorbitant cost of importing it from Europe and elsewhere. If this presently unmet need can be fulfilled by BARC by augmenting the exiting isotopes’ production technologies or by alternative import strategies, the targeted therapies using alpha emitters could be provided at an affordable cost to our patients.
We in India need to strengthen its strategic vision and make roadmap for working with industry and other Indian/Foreign partners to advance the crucial role of nuclear medicine and its emerging role both in molecular diagnosis and cancer therapy.
We need to involve the medical community, regulators, patients, and the public and the administrators in health and atomic energy. We have to engage DAE and MOH & FW to make strategies and implement action plans for the accessibility and affordability of useful radionuclides in cancer treatment which are not available in India.
In Russia, the growth of the nuclear industry is seen as a top national priority, thereby enabling Russia to emerge as an undisputed leader in advanced nuclear technology industry. To that effect, India can work closely with Russia to rope in the best global practices to further advance and diversify its nuclear potential. In addition to defence and strategic partnership, nuclear medicine is another crucial area in which the cooperation between India and Russia may be initiated at the DAE level between India and Russia.
(The article is jointly contributed by Dr. Baljinder Singh, Professor, Department of Nuclear Medicine, President- Society of Nuclear
Medicine-India, Department of Nuclear Medicine, PGIMER, Chandigarh And Dr. Varinder Garg, MBBS, MD (Radiology), OSD (PGIMER) to the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare, Principal Investigator, Advanced Cardiac Centre, PGIMER, Chandigarh).
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