With support and guidance, all countries can reap the benefits of peaceful nuclear applications, and there is no better example of that than Malaysia. Since joining the IAEA in 1969, the Southeast Asian country has applied nuclear science to improve food security, address pests and pollution, encourage economic development, and improve people’s health. Recently we spoke to Siti A’iasah Binti Hashim, Director General of Nuklear Malaysia – the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (MNA) – as she visited Vienna to receive her organisation’s Outstanding Achievement Award in plant mutation breeding and take part in the 65th IAEA General Conference. She spoke about some of her agency’s recent successes, efforts, and challenges in addressing 21st Century problems:
Q: Congratulations to MNA on the Outstanding Achievement Award in mutation plant breeding. Why has Malaysia chosen to use mutation breeding and how has the IAEA supported you?
A: In Malaysia, we are striving to be food self-sufficient. One way we’re doing this is through increased and improved rice production. Our celebrated achievement with rice mutation breeding has come at just the right time, and the strain we developed – NMR152 – was recently registered and listed in our government’s subsidy scheme, meaning farmers can now buy its seeds at significantly reduced price. Our aim has been to provide a good quality rice breed that is resistant to diseases and can adapt to uncertain weather conditions such as flood and drought, and this strain does that. In fact, its yield is 8-10 tonnes per hectare, which is far above the 3-4 tonnes seen in the national average – so we’re doubling up!
Earlier this year NMR152 made an impact on flood-devastated communities in an east coast part of Malaysia. Within 100 days of being given the seeds, the affected farmers recovered their economic losses and made profit, in time for the Eid al Fitr holiday.
The IAEA has helped us get to this point, primarily through its technical cooperation programme. The programme has helped us develop human resources capacity in plant mutation breeding, and initially organised to have our seeds irradiated in other countries. The IAEA then supported us in establishing our own gamma greenhouse. We became an IAEA International Collaboration Centre (ICC) in 2019, for the 2019-2023 cycle in Plant Mutation breeding using Chronic Gamma Irradiation. Now, experts and fellow researchers from other countries come to Malaysia to be trained in mutation plant breeding and use our facilities.
Q: What other nuclear applications are having an important impact in Malaysia?
A: Aside from plant breeding, radiation processing is an impactful area of our work. MNA is designated as an IAEA Collaborating Centre in the areas of radiation processing of polymer, natural polymer, and nanomaterials. Our facilities not only help foreign fellows and researchers. but support Malaysian small- to medium-sized industry enterprises and add value to their products. For example, we have helped cable manufacturers switch from conventional crosslinking to radiation crosslinking to produce superior quality cables. We provide these enterprises, at low cost, an irradiation service needed to crosslink the cable insulation. They’re not big companies, so investing in an electron beam facility is too expensive, but with our support their cables have achieved the stringent quality requirements of the automotive industry.
We’re also very supportive of non-destructive testing (NDT), and over the last 10 years have trained almost 2,000 people in the field. Many of these people have gone on to secure jobs in the NDT sector or become well-paid radiographers in the oil and gas industry. Some have even created NDT service start-ups. Last month, the IAEA sent an NDT mission to Beirut to help the city a year on from the blast that wracked its port, and one of the experts was an expert from MNA. This shows our commitment to the IAEA and the international arena while making a global statement that we have the expertise and are ready to help.
Q: In August, you were on Malaysian TV discussing the contribution of nuclear technology in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us about MNA’s role in the pandemic and how the IAEA has helped?
A: As Malaysia’s national liaison agency for the IAEA, we’ve handled the contributions from the IAEA’s COVID-19 relief programme. The IAEA sent Malaysia two sets of RT-PCR equipment as well as X-ray machines. These tools have helped our Ministry of Health detect COVID-19 cases, but MNA has been able to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 in other ways, too. Our ICC on radiation processing has facilities to produce face shields worn by pandemic frontline workers, and we were able to directly support a part of East Malaysia that at time was badly hit by COVID-19 and ran out of personal protective equipment. We also participated in the national vaccination programme, where MNA was appointed to manage volunteers from the public services.
Beyond COVID-19, we’re working with the IAEA in stopping future pandemics and zoonosis outbreaks through the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative. We liaise with the IAEA and our Department of Veterinary Services – who are leading most of the action in Malaysia – and we have the facilities for irradiating insect larvae, which can be used in sterile insect technique campaigns to control disease carrying insects.
Q: As head of MNA, you are undoubtedly a role model to women and girls across your country considering careers in nuclear and other scientific disciplines. How do you think Malaysia can achieve greater gender parity in the nuclear sector?
A: In the MNA, overall we are 46 per cent women and 54 per cent men, so quite evenly balanced, except in our upper management. But even there we exceed Malaysia’s national target of 30 per cent women in higher management. If you look at Malaysian universities, on average 60 per cent of the students across the science and technology disciplines are girls, and for us there is no such thing as gender income inequality – women are paid the same as men and get equal benefits, especially in the public sector. So in many ways we are already well on our way to gender parity.
We still do have initiatives to promote women in the nuclear sector, however, and Malaysia has a Women in Nuclear (WiN) chapter which I am the president of. WiN Malaysia focuses on public awareness and engagement with students through lectures and career talks. We also participate in non-student engagement activities to promote better nuclear awareness and understanding among the general public.
Our aim has been to provide a good quality rice breed that is resistant to diseases and can adapt to uncertain weather conditions such as flood and drought, and this strain does that.