SOUTH AFRICA: Universities prepare for nuclear future

The South African government is keeping its nuclear energy plans under
wraps. But leading scientists and researchers are moving ahead with an ambitious project, organised through a network of universities and technical institutions.

At the end of the month, the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa, or NIASA, a Pretoria-based research body spearheading the preparation efforts, will release a document outlining the professional skills in areas such as engineering, physics and chemistry required for expanded nuclear energy production.

Key to this is the part tertiary institutions will play in research, teaching and equipping the brains trust that could one day drive a large-scale nuclear energy industry.

"We need to do as much as we can to support the preparation of a possible nuclear roll-out," said Gert Claassen, of the association's secretariat.

South Africa's energy supplies are mostly based on coal. The country has a nuclear power plant with two reactors at Koeberg near Cape Town that began in 1984 and now generates 5.5% of its electricity. To meet the rapidly growing energy demand, the government has committed to major growth in nuclear energy production but faces financial constraints.

As it has so far declined to say what its plans are, the association has taken the initiative, convinced that a substantial nuclear roll-out is inevitable.

"We are operating on the basis that nuclear is the only long-term low carbon source of base load electricity," said Johan Fick, acting director of the postgraduate school of nuclear science and engineering at North-West University's Potchefstroom campus. At present, the university has the only postgraduate programme in nuclear engineering in South Africa.

So far NIASA's efforts have concentrated on compiling a skills document and helping develop a skills-based nuclear curriculum for most higher education institutions. This follows two ongoing collaborations between tertiary institutions and the public and private sectors.

In 2005, the Department of Science and Technology launched a programme to address the skills need of the nuclear industry. The South African Nuclear Human Asset and Research Programme provides bursaries and scholarships in selected areas of science and engineering at various universities at home and abroad. It is also establishing new chairs in specific nuclear capabilities at tertiary institutions after the 2005 award of a research chair in nuclear engineering at the North-West University.

The second initiative is a series of collaborative programmes between universities and iThemba labs, a group of multidisciplinary research laboratories with headquarters in Cape Town. The organisation is developing a masters degree in the science and organisation of nuclear energy, in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology and the distance University of South Africa.

The nuclear industry association's skills guideline document presents different scenarios of what a future nuclear programme could consist of and details the specific skills requirements of each. A key focus is on the number of high-skill workers such as engineers and technicians needed to run a successful nuclear facility.

"It gives a good indication of what numbers we need, which will help guide the higher education sector to get its numbers right," said Jeff Victor, a member of the association's education sub-committee, who compiled the skills document.

Victor, an employee of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, a nuclear reactor manufacturer, said the intention was to give some direction to NIASA members who have an interest in the industry. The most significant new development was the creation of a collaborative tertiary education model to promote information-sharing and encourage integration of a number of highly complex academic programmes.

The model links various higher education institutions as a way of sharing costs and resources, a necessity because of the inadequate funding from the Department of Higher Education and Training for programmes with small numbers of students as is the case with nuclear training.

Many of the existing nuclear education initiatives are uncoordinated so the model provides a structure and would give higher education institutions the opportunity to establish or expand nuclear training programmes.

"We've realised that all of the universities have a major contribution to make and not one institute can cover the complete spectrum," Victor said.

The plan is not without glitches. Financing such collaborative efforts is a challenge because universities receive funding as individual institutions and organising a budget across multiple areas of expertise could be difficult.

"The way that universities are funded, especially the way that government subsidises them, goes against collaboration," said Claassen of NIASA.

And, like in any collaborative exercise, individual egos and areas of interest are bound to come into conflict, especially in an area as sensitive and with such high stakes as the nation's peaceful nuclear programme. "Not every professor agrees about what goes into a course," Claassen pointed out.

Other obstacles include the equitable sharing of overseas visiting lecturers, as well as deciding from what institution a degree is obtained if a student is takes classes at a number of different institutions.

However, by and large the effort represents a significant step towards helping to realise South Africa's nuclear aspirations. "Everybody sees nuclear as growth and everybody's trying to get a competitive advantage in the industry," said Victor. "Rather than just sit back and wait for someone to make a decision, we chose to engage and be active."