South Africa’s nuclear industry should engage more with the public in creating awareness of the benefits of the nuclear industry, says South African Young Nuclear Professionals Society chairperson Fionah Khathi.
She says the negative stigma surrounding the industry is fuelled by false perceptions and asserts that South Africa has strong regulatory and security systems in place.
South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) strategy and performance group executive Van Zyl de Villiers agrees with Khathi’s view that public concerns about nuclear safety and waste disposal are based on perception rather than fact.
“There are fewer fatalities in the nuclear industry than in other energy-producing industries. The emissions, as well as the potential health and environmental impacts, which stem from nuclear activities, are low, compared with many other industries,” he states.
De Villiers points out that negative perceptions of the industry are further exacerbated by concerns about nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters, such as those which occurred at Chernobyl, in present-day Ukraine, and Fukushima, in Japan.
However, he says the public should dispel these fears, as South Africa holds an excellent safety record in the industry.
While nuclear waste is a justifiable concern, he notes that the fears about this are also fuelled by scaremongering.
“What goes into a nuclear power station is controlled inside.
“We understand nuclear waste. We can contain it and monitor it. Radioactive waste decays over time, compared with some byproducts from other electricity generation processes, which stay toxic forever. The South African nuclear industry is working responsibly regarding waste,” he stresses.
Khathi adds that all practices in the nuclear industry are aligned with international standards but believes that South Africa’s standards on safety are stricter in some respects.
Necsa has a department dedicated to waste management, which has monitored and controlled on-site storage facilities at its main nuclear research centre, Pelindaba, west of Pretoria.
As a demonstration if its commitment to South Africa’s strong stance regarding the nonproliferation of nuclear technology, Necsa converted the fuel used in its Safari-1 reactor from high- to low-enriched uranium, in 2009.
Khathi also notes that the country has a safeguards agreement with a United Nations agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the inspection of any nuclear facility at any given time.
“South Africa has committed itself to a safe nuclear industry by implementing regulations, legislation and international standards of safety,” Khathi continues.
South Africa has a good, proud track record of nuclear safety and it is the only country that has voluntarily stopped its nuclear weapons programme.
Meanwhile, despite public perception, De Villiers believes nuclear power generation prospects in South Africa are good, given government’s commitment to nuclear energy in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010).
The IRP 2010 outlines the proposed power generation mix for South Africa for the next 20 years. Nuclear power is expected to contribute 9.6 GW of electricity of the proposed new electricity generating capacity, with the first 1 600 MW to come on line in 2023.
De Villiers states that, if South Africa is to reduce the environmental impact of coal, the IRP 2010 is a suitable way to begin.
“The IRP is a fair plan and it is appropriate. The country needs to go nuclear. We also need renewable energy sources, but they are complementary. We will need storage capacity for the energy produced by renewables. The storage is expensive and has not been proved on an industrial scale. It will be a long time before we have storage capacity for renewables to possibly make a contribution to base-load supply,” he predicts.
However, he says government’s focus on nuclear development should be to “get going” and create a skills base for the industry.
If the country is to build the skills base required for the industry, the capacity for this needs to be built collaboratively, he asserts.
He suggests that government initially builds the additional capacity and, as nuclear development gets under way, emphasis should be put on localisation.
However, the industry should also consider next-generation technology and retain an awareness of, as well as an involvement in international programmes, while increasing its involvement in these over time.
De Villiers says that there has been interest in the move towards fourth-generation reactors, which are smaller and more modular than traditional reactors.
“There is a worldwide trend towards fourth-generation reactors, which are intended to be safer, less prone to proliferation, economically competitive, economical to run and less environmentally hazardous,” he notes.
These reactors are being developed primarily in the US, France, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
According to De Villiers, there are about 17 500 sealed radioactive sources in South Africa.
Various industries, such as the medical, agriculture, mining and food industries, use nuclear technology for their operations.
The medical industry in South African has been using nuclear applications for many years, while the food industry uses ionising radiation to kill bacteria, viruses or insects that may be present in spices.
One of the most innovative uses of nuclear technology has been in the fruit industry in the Western Cape, where it is used to reduce the amount of pests found near fruit.
Radiation is used in sterilising fruit flies to prevent them from breeding. This is known as the sterile insect technique.
Meanwhile, one of the most recent and interesting uses of nuclear technology in the medical field is positron emission tomography, which is an imaging technique that uses a small amount of radioactive material to reveal the condition of human tissue and organs.