The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, has reaffirmed his organisation’s readiness to help African countries adopt nuclear energy, if they wish to.
“[South Africa] is the only established user of nuclear power [in Africa]. Other countries are very interested in using nuclear power,” he said. He cited Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria as examples. “If they decide to use it, we’re helping to use it sustainably, safely.” The IAEA had a 19-step guidance document for countries wanting to adopt nuclear power. This is not mandatory but is, he pointed out, very useful. It includes information on the international conventions a country has to join, the regulations to be adopted, how to select sites for nuclear power plants (NPPs) and how to select vendors of NPPs. The IAEA, which is a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), can also send missions to help countries assess themselves on their readiness for nuclear power.
But nuclear technology, and the IAEA, covers much more than NPPs. “In our daily life, nuclear technology is used everywhere.” Nuclear technology is used to fight cancer, extend the shelf life of food, fight human and crop disease-carrying insects, and locate underground water sources, for example. “I’m very much encouraged that African countries, small and big, are interested in using [these other] nuclear technologies,” he affirmed. “I believe in the advantage of nuclear technologies, not just in nuclear power.”
Amano praised South Africa for its willingness to share its nuclear expertise with others. “South Africa is an excellent role model in South–South cooperation, generously sharing its nuclear expertise with other countries in Africa and beyond.” As an example, he cited South Africa’s provision of training in nuclear medicine. “South Africa is an experienced user of advanced nuclear technology, a leader in many areas and a valued partner of the IAEA,” he stated. “South Africa provides an excellent example of how modern technology can be used to effectively advance development.” He remarked that he had been “extremely impressed” by the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences facility, near Cape Town. Some of its activities “are unique in the southern hemisphere”.
“Science is fundamental for development and technology advances are a must if we are the face the challenges facing humanity today,” he highlighted. These include climate change; nuclear energy was important to counter this. “The IAEA is unique in the UN system in having eight nuclear application laboratories, near Vienna [Austria]. We have our own technology.” The IAEA is authorised to transfer the technology it develops to member countries. He praised South Africa for strongly supporting the modernisation of these laboratories, and lobbying other countries to do likewise.
He also pointed out that, since the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP in Japan, caused by a 15-m-high tsunami, itself triggered by a magnitude nine earthquake (together, the earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 19 000 people; no-one has died from radiation from the NPP), safety at NPPs around the world has been further reinforced. “I have visited many NPPs in recent years and in every one I have seen strengthened safety. Nuclear energy is now safer that it has ever been. . . . After Fukushima, many thought it would be the end of nuclear power. It didn’t happen. “Use of nuclear power is expanding. The rate of growth is slower than our [preaccident] estimate after Fukushima. This is very different [to what happened] after [the nuclear disaster in 1986 at] Chernobyl, [in Ukraine]. After Chernobyl, construction of nuclear reactors stopped. . . . There have been changes after Fukushima Dai-ichi. The centre of [nuclear] expansion is no longer in Europe or North America, but in Asia. Developing countries are wanting to have access to nuclear power.” Today, some 60 reactors are under construction worldwide, most of them in Asia.
Amano delivered a public lecture at the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University on May 11. This was arranged in cooperation with the Department of Energy. “We look forward to deepening that [nuclear] cooperation [with South Africa] in the future,” he concluded.