Nuclear technology in preservation of cultural, natural heritage


Nuclear techniques nowadays are playing an increasingly important role in preserving the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Nuclear powered technology, such as accelerator-based techniques, are effective tools to gain a better insight into heritage materials and objects for their preservation.  

These are applied to analyse the composition of cultural artefacts, as well as to determine the time and place when they were created. Scientists can also use nuclear analytical techniques, such as ion beams, X-rays and neutrons, to create 2D and 3D imaging of cultural artefacts with high sensitivity and accuracy. 

For instance, experts at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland, used nuclear technology to analyse various cultural artefacts, including paintings by Venetian artists from the period AD 1300 to 1900, as well as ancient Egyptian mummies. 

Nuclear analytical techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, are also used to determine the age of cultural and natural heritage material. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope which decays over time, while scientists study the progression of this decay to determine the age of artefacts with remarkable accuracy.  

In another instance, scientists used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of an ancient aquaculture system of the Gunditjmara people in southeastern Australia. This is considered to be the world’s most extensive and oldest aquaculture system, dated by nuclear techniques to be 6,000 years old, and has been included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO. The Gunditjmara people used the local volcanic rock to construct channels and dams to manage the water flows in order to trap, store and harvest short-finned eel called kooyang. 

According to Geraldine Jacobsen, the Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, “these aquaculture systems had been studied for many decades, but their age was unknown. It was through applying ultra-sensitive isotopic analysis for radiocarbon dating that the antiquity of the systems was determined and provided evidence of the extensive history of Gunditjmara use and management of and connection to this landscape.” 

Besides dating, nuclear technologies also play an important role in the restoration and preservation of cultural artefacts. Long lasting preservation of unique objects of cultural value pose a major challenge owing to problems such inadequate storage facilities, flooding and high temperatures.  

In such situations, ionizing radiation is applied to disinfect and improve the durability of artefacts, as seen in the case of Brazil. where the climate, humidity, natural disasters, fungi and termites can destroy books, paintings, wooden pieces, furniture, sculptures and modern art. The ionizing radiation technique has been used successfully in Brazil to conserve and restore art and cultural heritage artefacts. 

“Using gamma rays for preservation is non-destructive, done at room temperature without any physical contact and with no additional substances, unlike conventional decontamination methods that often involve heat or chemicals that can alter material,” says Pablo Vasquez, R&D and Innovation Manager Radiation at Brazil’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute. 

“In Egypt, we use radiation technologies to treat cultural assets, which are thousands of years old. Bio-deteriorating agents, such as bacteria, fungi and insect eggs, can be removed quickly from the artefact without damaging it due to the high penetration power of gamma radiation”, according to Hassan Abd El-Rehim, Professor in Radiation Chemistry at the National Research Centre of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority. 

These instances from around the world of the application of nuclear technology in the preservation of cultural and natural heritage were illustrated at an online event called “Atoms for Heritage”, held on the sidelines of the recently concluded general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.  

“By using the latest 3D technology, we can transform paintings and other 2D objects into 3D objects to examine in detail their internal structure and the materials they are made of. This so-called Mixed Reality technology opens new research possibilities and education opportunities”, said Lukasz Kownacki, Radiologist at the European Health Center Otwock in Poland. 

“The IAEA helps countries to use nuclear science and technology to examine, preserve and restore cultural heritage artefacts. We provide training and support research in this area by bringing together institutes from across the world through coordinated research projects”, said the IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Najat Mokhtar, at the opening of the event.  

The IAEA recently designated its first two collaborating centres in the area of cultural heritage – the University Paris-Saclay in France and the National Centre for Radiation Research and Technology at the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (NCRRT). 

Under an agreement signed last month, the IAEA and the Paris-Saclay University will carry out research in areas such as characterization and dating of cultural artefacts with the help of accelerator technology, developing methods for safe analysis of objects of cultural value; data analysis and data sharing, training and outreach, as well as combating illicit trafficking. 

The NCRRT will work with the IAEA to enhance the use of industrial radiation processing and nuclear techniques in cultural heritage preservation.