Research Supporting Nuclear Energy Future

Research supporting nuclear energy future


Economic growth and job creation are heavily dependent on the availability of a reliable and affordable electricity supply. I have no doubt that for South Africa the best option for base-load energy is the proven technologies of coal and nuclear.

Scientists and postgraduate students at the Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (C HRTEM) focus on the development of advanced materials and research technologies for future nuclear reactors and coal-fired power stations. Cutting-edge electron microscopy techniques are combined with materials knowledge to achieve these goals. The Centre collaborates with leading institutions in the UK, USA, Russia, Sweden, Japan, Germany, France and Austria on different aspects of materials used in energy generation technologies. The Centre for HRTEM also provides high level materials research support to Eskom.

The coastal areas of our country are situated far from our coal-fired power stations. This is one reason why there are plans to build nuclear plants along the coast in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Furthermore, a nuclear reactor built at the coast will not use fresh water for cooling; instead it uses sea water. These reactors are also well suited to produce desalinated water from sea water, which is very important in a water scarce country such as South Africa. The small modular high temperature gas cooled reactor is another exciting development that is of current worldwide interest. These reactor designs use helium gas to cool the graphite fuel spheres and therefore it does not need water for cooling. It can therefore be built anywhere in a country where electricity is needed.

The amount of energy released by nuclear fission (splitting of uranium) is mind boggling. A typical fission event releases a few million times more usable energy per unit mass than chemical reactions such as the burning of coal. For example, one kilogram of uranium can generate the same amount of electricity as 14 000 kg of coal. Conventional nuclear energy, using uranium and eventually thorium as fuel, can therefore generate reliable and affordable electricity, without green-house gas emissions, for hundreds of years.

Materials used in nuclear reactors are exposed to challenging conditions such as neutron irradiation, high temperature, stresses and chemical reactions. In order to develop more efficient and safer reactors for the future, scientists across the world are involved in research and development of new and novel materials that would increase the overall performance of nuclear reactors. Expertise in fields such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer modelling is required to develop the materials and fuel for these advanced reactor designs. The establishment of a nuclear industry in South Africa would have many positive spinoffs. Past experience has shown that a national flagship programme, such as nuclear energy, leads to the creation of multidisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers with critical mass that can make significant international and local contributions. Furthermore, the research infrastructure created for such a programme would also greatly enhance the research capabilities of other disciplines such as the biomedical, life, earth and physical sciences. It will support national priorities such as beneficiation, manufacturing and nanotechnology.

The significant localisation target set for the South African nuclear reactors will boost local industries and create jobs for a long period. South Africa would also be ready to play a leading role in the development of nuclear energy in Africa since it has many years of experience in uranium (and thorium) mining, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor operation and waste treatment. If Africa is provided with clean and reliable nuclear base-load power, it will without doubt catapult industries in Africa to an internationally competitive level.

The Centre for HRTEM staff trains scientists and postgraduate students from across South Africa in the theoretical and practical aspects of advanced electron microscopy techniques applied to the characterisation of a wide range of important materials. These materials include ceramics used in fission reactors, steels, metal alloys, nuclear grade graphite, oxide dispersion strengthened ferritic steels nanoparticle catalysts, semiconductors, polycrystalline diamond products, natural diamond, graphene and platinum alloys. Our priority is the development of highly skilled scientists and engineers who will be ready to contribute to the renewed industrialisation of the country backed by reliable, affordable and clean base-load energy.

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Issue 39