Although much research is being done in South Africa on nuclear medical applications, such as radioisotope production, as well as proton and neutron therapy, very little research is being conducted on nuclear engineering applications in South Africa, says North-West University (NWU) School of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering lecturer Professor Pieter Rousseau.
According to government policy, the State-owned South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) leads and coordinates nuclear research in the country, and is supported by other institutions, such as universities.
“Unfortunately, Necsa’s budget has been progressively and significantly cut in the last few years and, therefore, I believe that not enough research is being done. In terms of universities, the research chair in nuclear engineering at NWU is currently the only entity focusing on nuclear engineering research,” he claims.
The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) awarded the research chair in nuclear engineering to NWU for 2011 to 2015, which will enable the country to retain excellence in research and innovation in the South African science system. Rousseau notes there are factors curbing interest among scientists in nuclear engineering research.
The biggest is government’s delay in making a final decision to proceed with the procurement of the nuclear energy generation new-build fleet, as envisaged in the Department of Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan 2010 (IRP 2010).
He believes that, once a concrete new-build programme has been announced and gets under way, the country should expect to see greater interest from students and other tertiary institutions in nuclear engineering-related qualifications and research.
The problem, therefore, is not government’s policy uncertainty, but rather the uncertainty about government’s ability to implement the policy, states Rousseau.
Meanwhile, Rousseau says the SARChI research chair at the NWU, which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), aims to increase the level of excellence in research areas of national and international importance.
“The DST establishes the research chairs, with a recognised research leader in the position of chair. The department provides funding in cycles of five years, based on an approved research plan and budget,” he states.
The NWU nuclear engineering research group comprises several permanent faculty members and about 20 postgraduate students, many of whom are from previously disadvantaged groups. The faculty members include Rousseau, who is the chair, Professor Jat du Toit, Dr Vishnu Naicker, Dr Jan Hendrik Kruger and Dr Dawid Serfontein.
Rousseau notes that the appointment of a research chair and the approval of the chair’s research plan undergoes a strict peer-review process, which includes local and international leaders in the specific research field. The contributions of each chair are also closely monitored on a yearly basis and are also peer-reviewed.
Further, he says the research group and the chair work in support of South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Policy, which outlines a vision to become globally competitive through the use of innovative technology for the design, manufacture and deployment of high-tech nuclear energy systems, power reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle. The IRP 2010 outlines government’s plans for nuclear power to contribute 9.6 GW of the planned 40.3 GW of new electricity generation capacity to be constructed by 2030.
Rousseau says the main challenge in bringing nuclear power generation on line is whether or not government can commit and successfully manage the procurement process within a reasonable time.
Other challenges are obtaining sufficient funding, lengthy construction lead times and achieving localisation goals, as well as managing the negative public perceptions about nuclear safety and waste management.
Rousseau says Generation Four reactor technologies are at the forefront of nuclear power research.
“Generation Four reactors provide significant advantages with regard to sustainability, such as uranium resource use and waste reduction, safety and reliability, as well as proliferation resistance,” he states.
The research done by the NWU research group supports the development and improvement of the existing Generation Three systems and specific Generation Four reactor concepts.