South Africa 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 given in 1953 was the catalyst that resulted in the development of a programme in which the United States transferred nuclear technologies, originally developed for military reasons, for civilian use. On the strength of its uranium resources, South Africa (SA) is one of the founding members 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 South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation (SAFARI-1) was commissioned at Pelindaba, 15-kilometres from Atteridgeville, on 18 March 1965. This reactor was fundamental to South Africa’s entry into the nuclear global sphere. 

Subsequently, this resulted in the establishment of institutions such as 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. South Africa remains a respected major role player in the global nuclear industry.  

The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) 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 to undertake nuclear technology research and development, Necsa will utilise and improve its capabilities just as similar organisations have undertaken in other countries to:

  • Develop nuclear technologies to ensure that we remain competitive in the supply of nuclear medical and industrial isotopes;
  • Utilise 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 of foreign entities on 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. 

When delivering his Budget speech in July, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Honourable Gwede Mantashe, emphasised the continuing role nuclear power would play in South Africa’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, South Africa therefore 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 16 July 2019 entitled “Shutting down SA’s nuclear future” is devoid of proper nuclear historical perspective and the vital role Necsa currently 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 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 government as its shareholder and the IRP defines the policy that will map out South Africa’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 Integrated Resource Plan.

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, fluorochemicals production facilities already possess such. Licensing the CSIR or any other research or academic institute to handle Necsa facilities is a farfetched 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 1 December 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 South Africa and its State Owned Entities like 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. 

South Africa 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. 

Ayanda Myoli is the Acting Chief Executive Officer of South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa)