Nuclear Agriculture

Sunmi Lee
March 12, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: "Miracle rice" that is bringing a "green revolution" to agriculture. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While the biggest uses of nuclear technology are related to nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, there are many other uses of nuclear energy, one of them being agriculture. Nuclear technologies are playing a big role in the development of agricultural technologies, helping farming communities increase crop production, control pests and diseases, and improve water quality.

Breeding New Seed Varieties

Radiation technology allows the creation of new seed varieties that have higher yields. One famous example of a successful crop is the "miracle" rice that has increased the rate of rice production substantially. [1] Crop improvement in general involves genetic variation, skewed toward more useful traits. Different types of radiation can be used to induce these mutations to develop more useful traits in crops. Traits that researchers aim to bring out typically include higher yield per crop, resistance to diseases, higher quality of crop, and faster ripening. [2] The earlier attempts of genetic mutation started in 1930s, and now this technique of using radiation to induce mutations in plants has been widely used. [2] Now, we can say that these radiation-induced mutation technologies have become a significant part of the established plant breeding methods. [2]

Controlling Pests and Diseases

Diseases and pests typically destroy more than a third of crops before and after harvesting; hence, pest and disease control using nuclear technologies has been playing an essential role in improving production rate of harvests. [3] Radioisotope techniques are widely used in pest control, which allows for the reduction of the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. The most widely used technique is the sterile insect technique (SIT), which sterilizes male, laboratory-raised insects using gamma radiation. [3] Then these sterilized insects are released in the wild, and when they mate, no offsprings are produced, which reduces the insect population over time and eventually suppress the increase in its population. [3] The Medfly, which has been a threat to around 250 species of agricultural products has been eradicated using SIT in some parts of the US, Chile and Mexico. [3] Moreover, similar to breeding new seed varieties, radioisotopes help the development of disease-resistant plants and animals, making crops fundamentally more immune to pest attacks and different diseases. [2]

Improving Water Use Efficiency

Nuclear, and in particular isotopic technologies play a significant part in enhancing the water use efficiency in agricultural contexts. Since agriculture is the predominant user of freshwater resources, helping water management can bring a hugely beneficial impact to the sustainable use of freshwater resources. [4] In particular, isotopic techniques can: 1) optimize irrigation scheduling by accurately monitoring soil in order to minimize water losses, 2) optimize crop's water absorption rate from rainfall or irrigation, and 3) assist in selecting crop with higher tolerance to drought and higher crop water productivity. [5] Optimizing irrigation scheduling is said to impact the efficiency of water usage most directly. So far, significant advances have been made in water monitoring using isotopic technologies. [5] Stable isotopes can be used to measure the abundance of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen in soil, water and plant in order to help with identifying sources of nutrient fluxes, and more evenly spread water and different nutrients throughout the soil. [5]


We live in a world where food security can be greatly impacted by harvest failures and the consequential rising of food prices. The use of nuclear technologies is a potential solution to these problems, and many of these solutions are currently being widely used in different agricultural contexts. Genetic modification, pest control using sterilization and water usage control are three main areas of nuclear application in agriculture. Unfortunately, the application of nuclear energy in agriculture is a highly debated, highly politicized issue due to potential contaminations and nuclear waste management, so it is imperative that we work toward a greener nuclear age, where these powerful technologies can be implemented to its full without their challenges and threats.

© Sunmi Lee. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Beneficial Uses of Radiation" Nuclear Energy Institute, November 2008.

[2] B. Singh, J. Singh, and A. Kaur, "Applications of Radioisotopes in Agriculture," Int. J. Biotechnol. Bioeng. Res. 4, 3, (2013).

[3] "Nuclear Technology for a Sustainable Future," International Atomic Energy Agency, June 2012.

[4] A. E. Waltar, "The Medical, Agricultural, and Industrial Applications of Nuclear Technology," Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 16 Nov 03.

[5] "Deficit Irrigation Practices," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002.