Why the dissemination of factual information on nuclear issues is so important
By Gaopalelwe Santswere
Firstly for the sake of this opinion piece I think it’s important to introduce myself and my background. I am currently the president of a non-profit organisation called African Young Generation in Nuclear (AYGN). As a group of proactive young Africans we have realised the immense value that nuclear technologies can bring to our beautiful continent as well as the critical role it has to play in achieving our continent’s huge economic potential. We have therefore dedicated our lives to this exact cause. I hold a MSc in Applied Radiation Science & Technology from North West University and a Registered Professional Scientist with South African Council for Natural Scientific Profession (SACNASP), therefore I feel I am truly qualified to discuss this hugely important topic.
The reason for me writing this response is to highlight the utmost importance of factual reporting on incredibly important topics such as nuclear. While I support the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I truly feel we need to provide the general public with responsible, factual and unbiased information to allow them to make up their own minds through educated decisions when it comes to these highly mystified topics.
I will begin by acknowledging the truth behind South Africa developing nuclear weapons during a troubling period of the country’s history, but for me it is very difficult to grasp the author’s link between this and the very valid and forward thinking ambitions of Zambia moving towards the establishment of nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes. I fear this introductory background was provided merely to “muddy the waters” as they say. One then needs to point out that while nuclear facilities do require a great deal of highly qualified and experienced skills for their safe and efficient operation, as pointed out by the author, what is not mentioned is that this provides immediate benefits for the youth of our great continent. It is important for me to highlight that approximately 60 of Zambia’s best and brightest young minds are already studying in various nuclear fields under full scholarships in Russia. Another very vital – and I am hoping ill-informed error – made by the author, was implying that the nuclear facility earmarked for Chongwe is for the production of electricity. This could not be further from the truth. The facility to be built in Chongwe is known as a Centre for Science and Technology (CNST) and will not produce any electricity.
So what exactly is a CNST and what will it be used for? Well at the heart of the centre will be a small research reactor, with a thermal capacity of roughly between 10 – 20MW. Please at this point take into account that large-scale electricity-producing nuclear reactors, which require large bodies of water for cooling, have a thermal capacity of generally around 3000MW, magnitudes larger than the reactor that Zambia plans to construct in Chongwe. The primary purpose of research reactors is to provide a neutron source for research and other peaceful purposes, such as the production of life saving nuclear medicine. Research reactors are far simpler than power reactors and operate at far lower temperatures. They use far less fuel, and therefore far less fission products are produced as the fuel is used. They are a very sensible first step for any nation embarking on a nuclear journey, in terms of capacity building in nuclear skills and infrastructure.
So you may rightly ask, if it is not for the production of electricity, what are Zambia’s ambitions for the proposed CNST? Well this is a rather complex question, but I will try my best to make the answer as easy to understand as possible. From my analysis, the CNST will boast a wide range of applications of radiation technologies in medicine, agriculture and industry, which include a technological industry platform to enhance national industry development. The CNST also promises to promote the enhancement of national education and science through the training of highly qualified experts in various fields. The CNST comprises of several departments such as laboratories, a research reactor, which we already discussed, a multipurpose irradiation facility as well as educational facilities. Students and specialists in various fields will have first-hand access to nuclear science and technology, which will allow them to conduct research using high tech equipment as well as complete theoretical and practical training at the facility.
The CNST will also bring various economic and social advantages, such as new technological industry platforms, national industry development, improving regional investment climates, agricultural export growth, new jobs as well as increased life expectancy and improved quality of life for the general public.
It is also important to note that there will also be other resultant benefits such as increased foreign exchange earnings, creation of employment opportunities, gaining access to the international markets for Zambia’s agricultural products and increased competitiveness and viability of Zambian industries.
I would like to single out two facilities at the proposed Zambian CNST that I feel are the most important for the general public of Zambia to understand, these being the nuclear medicine facility and multipurpose irradiation centre. The first mentioned is intended to diagnose and treat cardiac, oncological and neurological diseases, most importantly various cancers, using a variety of high-tech equipment which will be included in the proposed centre.
As for the multipurpose irradiation centre, this will be used to perform radiation processing of food and materials to enhance their safety and quality. Irradiation is considered by the World Health Organisation as a safe and effective method of preserving food stuffs because it destroys disease-causing bacteria and reduces the risk of food-borne illnesses. The use of radiation for food processing will improve food safety, extend shelf life and create conditions for the increase of Zambian agricultural exports.
At this point I feel it is very important to note that while the author pointed out a number of negative elements of South Africa’s nuclear programme, they neglected to note that South Africa’s research reactor, Safari 1, has been safely operating for well over 50 years and that at one point in the very recent past, it was the second largest exporter of life-saving nuclear isotopes in the world. It was purported in 2018 by the Chairman of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa that nuclear medicine produced at Safari 1 was injected into someone somewhere in the world every three seconds and that every three hours a life was saved.
The establishment of the Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology in Zambia will also be used for training of personnel for future nuclear energy programmes. So does this mean that Zambia is indeed planning to build nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity? In a simple answer, yes, but I can assure you that they will not be built at the site in Chongwe. In my next opinion piece I will tackle the need for nuclear electricity in Zambia and why relying on only hydro and other renewable sources is simply not possible if Zambia is to meet its ambitious industrialization and economic goals. I will however leave you with these thoughts: it is statistically proven that nuclear power is the safest method of producing electricity known to mankind today and it also emits zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during its operation. Finally back to South Africa, Koeberg nuclear power plant just outside the beautiful city of Cape Town has the only two nuclear power reactors on the African continent, and has been operating safely and effectively for well over 30 years. It is well documented that Koeberg currently produces the cleanest and most affordable electricity in South Africa.