African Scientists Learn about Nuclear Research Reactors First Hand in South Africa

Participants learn about South Africa’s SAFARI-1 research reactor during a course organized by the IAEA in Pelindaba. (Photo: Necsa)

For the first time, scientists from across Africa have come together to learn about the diverse uses of research reactors at an IAEA course earlier this year in Pelindaba, South Africa. The Research Reactor School was organized in cooperation with the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa).

Research reactors play an important role in the development of nuclear science and technology. They provide a source of neutrons for research, testing and analysis. They are also used for various applications in the fields of nuclear engineering, particle and nuclear physics, radiochemistry, materials sciences, nuclear medicine, biology, agriculture and more.

“Each participant got an insight into the many spinoff technologies that research reactors offer,” said Gawie Nothnagel, Senior Manager at Necsa. “This includes isotope production, neutron beams science, or materials testing, where neutron based techniques can bring some unique advantages that other radiation types cannot.”

Of the world’s 243 operational research reactors, ten are in Africa. In general, research reactors are much smaller than power reactors, and many are located on university campuses. They contribute significantly to governments’ efforts to integrate science in higher education, particularly at the post-graduate level.

For countries considering introducing nuclear power, a research reactor generally serves as a platform to facilitate the development of necessary infrastructure. Today, South Africa is the only African country with operating nuclear power stations, but others are also considering nuclear energy. In a continent with vast uranium resources, they see nuclear power as a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, particularly at a time when countries are working to fight climate change and cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris climate change agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition to lectures, the course included practical training in Necsa’s research reactor and laboratories. This gave students the opportunity to observe and participate in exercises at various work positions, to test different instruments and laboratory equipment and to observe good practices and safety culture first-hand at a nuclear installation.

“It is very important to us, as young people from Africa, to learn more about opportunities to follow in the field of nuclear science and technology,” said Ghamad Youness, from the National Centre for Nuclear Energy, Sciences and Techniques in Morocco. “I find it very encouraging to get to know other professionals in this field.”

Safari in South Africa

All exercises were conducted at South Africa’s SAFARI-1 research reactor, chosen for the diversity it offers: “SAFARI-1 is an extensively and effectively utilized research reactor,” said Danas Ridikas, research reactor specialist at the IAEA. “Its applications are very broad, so it’s a good starting point for anyone learning — they can get the full picture.”

SAFARI-1 is one of five main producers of the radioisotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) in the world, an important medical radioisotope used in nuclear medicine. The reactor is also a leader in neutron transmutation-doping of silicon, a semiconductor material used in the electronics industry.

With this type of course, the IAEA and its partners aim to ensure that IAEA Member States with research reactors —Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa— share their experience with those without, creating a regional network for research reactor products and services, said Felix Barrio, IAEA programme manager responsible for the course. Based on the success of this first school, the IAEA will regularly organize similar schools in different countries around Africa, taking advantage of the unique features and application areas specific to each national research reactor facility and bringing young researchers from all over the continent together.