SA needs skilled nuclear scientists

The SKA project created opportunities for training radio astronomers – SA's nuclear industry needs a similar talent fillip. (Oupa Nkosi)

The SKA project created opportunities for training radio astronomers – SA's nuclear industry needs a similar talent fillip. (Oupa Nkosi)

We need a Square Kilometre Array (SKA) for nuclear, says Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) chief executive Phumzile Tshelane. "Necsa does train PhDs and artisans, but it's not enough."

Last week the Mail & Guardian revealed that Necsa was considering reopening its Valindaba site, the heart of apartheid South Africa's nuclear weapons programme, to enrich uranium to fabricate fuel rods for the global market.

The Integrated Resources Plan 2010 allocates an additional 9.6-gigawatts of electricity from nuclear, but the details of this nuclear project are still unclear.

Experts, academics and analysts expressed concern about enriching uranium – mainly the possibility of burgeoning costs being hidden under a veil of national security and the delays in announcing the country's nuclear power plans – and also pointed out the shortage of skilled people.

The radio astronomy community suffered from a similar problem when it submitted its bid to host the SKA, which will be the largest radio telescope in the world. It was announced last year that the project would be split between South Africa and Australia.

Through its human capital development programme, SKA South Africa has provided more than 400 training bursaries for scientists, engineers and artisans.

The associate director of science and engineering at SKA South Africa, Justin Jonas, said earlier this year that the country had become one of the main destinations for scientists and engineers interested in radio astronomy.

Tshelane acknowledges that the "pipeline is weak" for nuclear scientists and technicians, but says there should be a drive to recruit young people into the field.
"We did that to build Pelindaba and Koeberg [nuclear power station]. That is what we should do now."

In addition to Necsa, South Africa has government-funded nuclear research and training facilities in the form of iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences (iThemba Labs). The core funding for iThemba Labs comes from the department of science and technology through the National Research Foundation and, although it produces medical radioisotopes and performs sample analyses [such as carbon dating and material analysis for mining companies], among other things, it is mainly a research and training facility.

However, a major criticism of South Africa's nuclear plans – both for nuclear power plants and for uranium enrichment – is the lack of capacity. Cadiz mining and minerals analyst Peter Major says that, when South Africa was enriching uranium at Valindaba, "we spent a lot of money and had a lot of scientists … We had world-class people who knew what they were doing. Do we really have the capacity [now]?"

Amelia Broodryk, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, does not believe we do. "If we were to have six additional plants now [we would need] a workforce to man the power stations; our regulator wouldn't be able to cope right now," she says.

But "the beauty of this process is that it takes years to build a station. Government would have to make sure … that our technical people are being trained, our regulators are being trained."

She says, though, that the country would not be starting from scratch. "Our nuclear industry has been up and running for many decades."

Koeberg power station has been operational since 1984 and Pelindaba's Safari-1 research reactor was commissioned in 1965.

Tony Stott, a senior manager for nuclear stakeholder management at Eskom, dismisses the idea that South Africa does not have the capacity to build and operate nuclear technology.

National Nuclear Regulator spokesperson Gino Moonsamy says that discussions about the regulator's position on uranium enrichment are premature, because "all role players from national level will ensure that all the role players are capacitated adequately to make sure it is a success. It is not a self-regulatory environment."

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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