Experts call on China to deepen investments in nuclear technology for people’s wellbeing

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/23 20:38:40

Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant in Lianyungang city of East China's Jiangsu Province Photo: VCG

The nuclear industry is not only the cornerstone of national defense, but also serves as a scientific guarantee for people's livelihood. The 88-year-old Zhou Yongmao, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert in nuclear industry, thinks of China's nuclear development in these terms, calling for more investment in the application of nuclear energy for people's livelihoods in a recent interview with the Global Times.

Over the past few years, nuclear technology has been used for livelihood projects, from the enhancement of material properties and nuclear medicine to food and agricultural products radiation processing. It has been a very important part of China's economic construction since the reform and opening-up, said the experts.

Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT), Zhou's project that progresses toward clinical cancer treatments, is a microcosm of such extension. 

Saving life by nuclear

For some professionals such as drivers and photographers, cutting off their limbs with cancerous cells would jeopardize their income and livelihood. While the traditional cancer treatment cannot avoid this pain, the use of nuclear radiation elements for treatment can serve as an efficient alternative. 

BNCT is a targeted radiation cancer therapy in which neutron beams destroy only the boron compound-bearing tumor without causing radiation damage to the neighboring tissue. It is less traumatic than current treatments and has fewer side effects.

In 2014, a fatal cancer - melanoma - shattered the peaceful life of Wu, a driver from Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province. Melanoma is the most malignant type of skin cancer, with a high mortality rate, high metastasis rate and difficult treatment. Once the tumor metastasizes, the five-year survival rate of melanoma patients is only 4.6 percent, according to data released by the People's Daily. 

To improve survival rate, Wu was advised to have his left foot amputated. But for a professional driver with a family to feed, that was too much to accept. Considering Wu's situation, Zhou, proposed a novel treatment.

BNCT is a radiation science which is emerging as a hopeful tool in treating cancer. Zhou has promoted BNCT in China since 2000, and he led the design and construction of the world's first in-hospital neutron irradiator for BNCT in Beijing in 2004. It was this machine that made Wu the first patient in China to be treated by BNCT for plantar malignant melanoma.

The in-hospital neutron irradiator is the joint effort of Chinese experts in nuclear reactor engineering, neurosurgery, and radiation protection.

After two and half years, CT scans showed the tumor in Wu's body disappeared, Zhou told the Global Times. He introduced that BNCT therapy is especially suitable for gliomas and tumors on the reproductive organs, and it is also the cheapest type of radiation treatment available today.

Countries such as Japan, Finland, Italy, Russia, and the US are the front runners in the clinical studies of BNCT and have achieved progress in treating head and neck cancers. But China still lags, Zhou suggested, referencing how few people in Chinese mainland knew about it before 2003.

Zhou and his team has treated four patients with acromegalic malignant melanoma for seven neutron exposures. But the slow pace of development still worries him a lot.

In 2015, 15 academicians including Zhou wrote a letter to the central government to fully explain the features and advantages of BNCT therapy. 

"I believe that with enough investment, China will lead the world in the application of nuclear energy in medical care, just like the progress of our nuclear submarines and nuclear power plants," Zhou told the Global Times. "The market for nuclear technology in medical programs is much larger than the market for nuclear power today."

But there are still challenges that must be addressed before promoting BNCT therapy to a wider population. For example, boron neutron capture still has toxicity which leaves a risk of causing side effects on normal cells in the body, Chen Yiwei, an oncologist at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital and secretary-general of the Taiwan Society of Neutron Caption Therapy, said in an academic conference held in 2018 at Taipei Medical University.

High blood boron concentrations also may result in excessive damage to the scalp and unaffected brain vasculature, warned the experts in the medical journal Clinical Cancer Research. This is why it is crucial to prescribe an accurate and real-time dosage to better estimate the radiation doses delivered to the tumor and healthy tissue.

Other realms

In his early years working at the China Institute of Atomic Energy, Zhou developed a miniature neutron source reactor used for urban construction. 

It can be also used to monitor endemic diseases and to explore etiology. In terms of ecological protection, the reactor can be used as a low-carbon and safe nuclear energy heating system, which can help alleviate the haze caused by the coal burning heating system in northern China, the journal of China Nuclear Industry further introduced.

The miniature neutron source reactor can help analyze the composition and impurities of industrial products and ensure the quality of import and export commodities.

It can even be used to analyze the remnants of crime scenes and help solve cases by assisting police officers detection and forensic evidence collection.

Zhou's miniature neutron source reactor helped a police officer solve a hit-and-run accident in 1988 by taking glass chips and cloth scraps from the scene to the reactor for testing, and relying on this clue to find the manufacturer, and eventually find the car owner.

Large space

"In recent years, the annual growth rate of China's nuclear technology industry in the application field stays at about 20 percent per year, with an annual output value of hundreds of billions of yuan," Zhang Jianhua, the deputy director of State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, said in a recent interview with Guangming Daily. "However, the output only accounts for about 0.4 percent of GDP. Compared with that of developed countries of nuclear energy, China's nuclear technology in multiple industries still has a lot of room for development."

He introduced a development plan for China's nuclear industry for the next five years issued in 2017. 

It explicitly lists "promoting the application of nuclear technology and expanding the scale of the nuclear industry" as a key task to promote, especially to strengthen  research on the application of nuclear technology, accelerate the development of the radiation processing industry, as well as increase the application of nuclear technology in agriculture, medicine and other fields.
Newspaper headline: Nuclear for people’s livelihood


blog comments powered by Disqus