An article by University of Cape Town honorary research associate David Fig published on July 16, titled Shutting down SA’s nuclear future, is devoid of proper nuclear historical perspective and the vital role the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) plays in the economic development of this country and globally.
There is no doubt that Fig is an accomplished environmental sociologist and publisher. It is therefore surprising that he would write such a flawed article that is also demoralising to young aspirant professionals in the nuclear industry.
South Africa has played a significant role in global nuclear development, and it is important to put its history in this field into perspective.
In 1953, then US president Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech was the catalyst that resulted in the development of a programme in which the United States transferred nuclear technologies originally developed for military use to the civilian sector. South Africa, on the strength of its uranium resources, became one of the founding members of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957, and therefore has a permanent seat on the board of governors of the agency.
A nuclear research reactor called the South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation (SAFARI-1) was commissioned at Pelindaba, 15km from Atteridgeville, on March 18, 1965. This reactor was fundamental to South Africa’s entry into the global nuclear sphere.
Subsequent to this came the establishment of institutions such as the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, iThemba Labs, the National Nuclear Regulator, and the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute with its Vaalputs nuclear waste disposal facility in the Northern Cape.
South Africa remains a respected major role player in the global nuclear industry.
Necsa’s nuclear capabilities are of strategic importance in enabling the economic performance and meeting of regulatory requirements of existing nuclear facilities. As a state-owned entity mandated for nuclear technology research and development, Necsa utilises and improves its capabilities just as similar organisations have done in other countries.
- Developing nuclear technologies to ensure that we remain competitive in the supply of nuclear medical and industrial isotopes;
- Utilising our capabilities, which conform to international quality standards as set by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME III and ASME VIII engineering design and manufacturing), to enable maintenance of existing nuclear facilities and development of local industry to reduce dependence on foreign entities for nuclear technologies; and
- Cascading our international ASME quality certification capabilities to the local industry to enable localisation, industrialisation, economic growth and job creation during the replacement of the SAFARI-1 research reactor and future nuclear new builds.
South Africa needs to maintain as well as expand its nuclear capabilities and nuclear value chain development if it is to deliver on its political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal national and international obligations.
It would have been more relevant had Fig provided an opinion on Necsa’s future role after the finalisation of the Integrated Resource Plan 2018 (IRP), which is due at the end of September 2019. Necsa cannot act on an IRP that has not been approved by cabinet.
The IRP is still being reviewed, and it does not make sense to conclude that SA no longer ascribes to a future that excludes nuclear technologies.
When delivering his budget speech in July, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe emphasised the continuing role nuclear power will play in South Africa’s future, saying that “as we transition to a diversified, cleaner energy future, the country would acquire nuclear at a price, pace and scale it can afford”.
Necsa’s strategy is guided by and approved by government as its shareholder and the IRP defines the policy that will map out South Africa’s energy mix vision moving forward.
Fig’s article does not assist in moving away from rivalries between energy technologies, nor does it encourage SA as a developmental state to appreciate the benefits of widening the scope of nuclear technology development in the absence of an approved integrated resource strategy.
Relocation of Necsa or a ‘suitably pared-down’ nuclear research establishment, as suggested by Fig, is irrational. Siting, licensing and relocation to alternative sites is impractical, not least of all because Necsa’s existing research reactor, radioisotope production facilities, fluorochemicals production facilities are already in place.
Licensing the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) or any other research or academic institute to handle Necsa facilities is a far-fetched dream.
In addition, it is common practice globally for the legal entities responsible for generating radioactive waste and those responsible for final disposal of the waste to be separate. This was achieved in SA when the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute Act (No 53 of 2008) became effective on December 1, 2009, endorsing the establishment of the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute (NRWDI).
The waste management responsibilities between Necsa and NRWDI are properly defined and managed.
Fig’s opinion piece purports that South Africa and its state-owned entities like Necsa, which is mandated for nuclear research and technology development, should forget about such opportunities.
He does not even take note of the benefits being realised by similar entities in other countries. His suggestions are far from any reality.
Necsa is well-placed to use its research and development capabilities to ensure that the country is able to:
- Transition to a diversified cleaner energy future;
- Address water shortages through the desalination of sea water;
- Become globally competitive in the use of innovative technology for the design, manufacture and deployment of nuclear energy systems in accordance with nuclear energy policy; and
- Ensure reliable energy and security supply.
South Africa should appreciate the strategic nuclear capabilities it already has in Necsa and leverage these capabilities in the best interests of the country, to benefit the future of SA.
Ayanda Myoli is acting chief executive of Necsa.