A nuclear facility. Picture: REUTERS
A nuclear facility. Picture: REUTERS

SA has historically played a significant role in global nuclear development, which is important to put into perspective.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech in 1953 was the catalyst that resulted in the development of a programme in which the US transferred nuclear technologies, originally developed for military reasons, for civilian use.

On the strength of its uranium resources, SA is one of the founding members of, and therefore has a permanent seat on, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), founded in 1957.

A nuclear research reactor called the SA Fundamental Atomic Research Installation (Safari-1) was commissioned at Pelindaba, 15km from Atteridgeville, on March 18 1965. This reactor was fundamental to SA’s entry into the nuclear global sphere.

Subsequently, this resulted in the establishment of institutions such as the Koeberg nuclear power station, Ithemba Labs, the National Nuclear Regulator, the National Radioactive Disposal Institute and the Vaalputs nuclear waste disposal facility in the Northern Cape. SA remains a respected major role player in the global nuclear industry. 

The SA Nuclear Energy Corporation’s (Necsa’s) nuclear capabilities are of strategic importance in enabling the economic performance and meeting the regulatory requirements of existing nuclear facilities. As a state-owned entity mandated to undertake nuclear technology research and development, Necsa will use and improve its capabilities just as similar organisations have undertaken in other countries to:

• Develop nuclear technologies to ensure we remain competitive in the supply of nuclear medical and industrial isotopes;

• Use our international quality standards (ASME III and ASME VIII engineering design and manufacturing) capabilities to enable maintenance of existing nuclear facilities and the development of local industry to reduce the dependence on foreign entities in nuclear technologies;

• Cascade our international quality certification (ASME) 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 build.

Nuclear value chain 

When delivering his budget speech in July, the mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe emphasised the continuing role nuclear power would play in SA’s future, and that “as we transition to a diversified, cleaner energy future, the country would acquire nuclear at a price, pace and scale it can afford”.

To support this, SA needs to maintain and expand its nuclear value chain development and capabilities, thus enabling the realisation of its political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal national and international obligations.

There is therefore a need for Necsa to use its research and development capabilities to assist the country to: transition to a diversified cleaner energy future; address water shortages by 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.

David Fig’s article of July 16 2019, entitled “Shutting down SA’s nuclear future”, is devoid of proper nuclear historical perspective and the vital role 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.

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 2018 that has not been approved by the cabinet. The IRP 2018 is still being reviewed and it does not make sense to conclude that SA no longer ascribes to a future that excludes nuclear technologies.

Necsa’s strategy is guided by and approved by the government as its shareholder and the IRP defines the policy that will map out SA’s energy-mix vision moving forward. Seemingly, Fig’s article does not assist in moving away from creating 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 IRP.

Relocation of Necsa or the “suitable pared-down” section thereof, as is suggested by Fig’s article, is irrational. The siting and licensing, and relocation to an alternative site is impractical, as Necsa’s existing research reactor, radioisotope production facilities, and fluorochemicals production facilities already possess such. Licensing the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or any other research or academic institute to handle Necsa facilities is a far-fetched dream.

In addition, it is common globally that the legal entities responsible for generating radioactive waste and those responsible for final disposal of the waste are separate. To this end, 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 article purports that SA and its state-owned entities entities such as Necsa, which is mandated for nuclear research and technology development, should forget about such opportunities. He further propagates not to even take note of the benefits being realised by similar entities in other countries. This is far from any reality.

SA should appreciate the strategic nuclear capabilities it already has in Necsa and leverage on these capabilities in the best interests of the country, to benefit the future of SA.

Myoli is Necsa acting CEO.