I refer to the article titled ‘Good nuclear citizen’, published in the Engineering News of July 8 to 14, 2011.
I am not a subscriber to your publication but the article was passed on to me by an old colleague of the Pelindaba days. It is a very interesting article but I would like to inform you about some misleading items in the document.
Firstly, the role of Professor Pierre Haarhoff is presented erroneously. He was a brilliant scientist and I knew him fairly well because he worked in my chemistry group for a number of years before he was transferred to the enrichment programme.
In the early days, Dr Basil Schonland, then head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was involved in the Uranium Committee, which became the Atomic Energy Booard (AEB) in 1948 to control all uranium transactions and, later, in 1958, all nuclear matters in the country. In 1958, Dr Ampie Roux of the CSIR became the first part-time director (and later president) of the AEB and was requested by government to formulate a national nuclear research programme which was approved in 1959.The first laboratory work was initiated in 1961, the same year in which construction of the Safari research reactor was started at Pelindaba.
The idea of using the vortex tube for isotope separation was actually conceived by Dr Wally Grant, who started the first temporary laboratory in 1961 in Pretoria to investigate the feasibility of the idea. I do not want to belittle Haarhoff’s contri- bution because he was a brilliant scientist. He obtained an MSc in physics as a young scientist and, as a bursar of the AEB, spent some years in the UK to obtain a PhD in theoretical chemistry (where the responsible professor described him as pure genius). At a later stage (after he had resigned from the AEB), when he became professor in the engineering department at the Universty of Pretoria, he also obtained a PhD in engineering. After his transfer from chemistry to the enrichment programme at Pelindaba, he contributed to the development of the cascade technique (Pelsakon) used in the Y-plant and conceived the idea of the Helikon cascade technique used in the Z-plant.
With this information in mind, I think it is only correct to highlight the contribution of Roux as well as that of Grant in the nuclear programme at Pelindaba – both of them worked at Pelindaba to the end of their careers. Grant also conceived the idea for a new type of nuclear reactor (called Pelinduna) which was developed for some years at Pelindaba but eventually [was] terminated because of financial and other constraints.
Secondly, when the enrichment plants at Pelindaba were closed down, there was already another enrichment technology under development. This was based on the use of lasers and promised to become the most economical enrichment process in the world. Unfortunately, this programme was also terminated, around 1997, probably because of financial constraints.
Thirdly, the Beva programme was specifically developed to produce fuel elements for the Koeberg type of reactor (using low- enriched uranium) and was not directly involved in the production of fuel for Safari.The two types of fuel differ completely from each other technologically. The successful development of the Beva project was a technological achievement for South Africa and one reached by few other countries.
There is also one more error (from a scientific point of view) in your article: when uranium hexafluoride reacts with hydrogen, one of the products is not hydrochloric acid but hydrofluoric acid.
Dr Daan Kemp