South Africa needs to decide whether it wants to be a dominant player in the world in terms of uranium exports, says South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) scientist and chairperson Dr Kelvin Kemm.
He tells Mining Weekly that, if the country decides to pursue dominance in the industry, it must not allow uranium initiatives, such as uranium mining, to be crippled by “a few activists”. He cites a recent uranium mining initiative, uranium project developer Tasman RSA Mines’s mining project in Beaufort West, in the Western Cape, which was halted largely because of Greenpeace and other activists protesting against it, as an example. Another problem facing the mining was huge regulatory hurdles.
He further stresses the necessity of government support, underscoring President Cyril Ramaphosa’s comments in his State of the Nation address, when he mentioned that the country needed to rejuvenate mining, localisation and expand industry.
Kemm enthuses that the nuclear business – including uranium mining – will achieve those goals and promote skills development.
South Africa is a global uranium supplier, with the country exporting uranium mainly in the form of uranium oxide, or yellowcake. South Africa exported nearly 400 t of uranium, in the form of yellowcake, last year.
“We can go further than just exporting yellowcake, we can go back into the fuel fabrication side of affairs and back into other value addition in South Africa,” Kemm stresses. Fuel fabrication is the last step in the process of turning uranium into nuclear fuel rods.
He highlights that Necsa, for example, has one of the best toolmaker and welding training programmes in the country, to train people to the level of nuclear sophistication. “About 500 people are being trained through the courses every year.”
However, South Africa also developed a uranium enrichment process in the past, as naturally mined uranium is increased up to the isotope mixture level required for nuclear fuel fabrication.
He notes that South Africa perfected uranium enrichment in “record time” – in less than a decade, in comparison with other countries, which have tried unsuccessfully for decades. However, the country stopped uranium enrichment some time before the historic 1994 national elections, with the transition to democracy and, subsequently the election of a new government.
However, uranium enrichment led to South Africa being able to make SAFARI-1 reactor fuel and Koeberg reactor fuel. Kemm notes that one Koeberg fuel element costs about R40-million and that exporting such fuel is a significant potential market. The SAFARI-1 reactor is located at Pelindaba, South Africa’s main nuclear research centre, 30 km west of Pretoria.
He also mentions that Necsa has the ability to produce nuclear fuel balls for pebble-bed type reactors and that a market is opening up again for the nuclear fuel used for such reactors and, therefore, for the fuel balls.
Necsa has been examining nuclear fuel fabrication and export, which could potentially include uranium enrichment, says Kemm.
“Necsa could export pebble-bed modular reactor fuel within a year. Other fuel fabrication initiatives are linked to South Africa’s domestic nuclear programme, but some work is under way now, looking into pressurised water reactor fuel fabrication.”
He says there are many financial spinoffs from pursuing the “whole fuel fabrication cycle”. He adds that general nuclear technology produces many useful and lucrative spinoffs, with nuclear medicine being an example, of which South Africa is the second-largest exporter in the world.
Nuclear medicine is a medical speciality that involves the application of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, such as cancer.
“Uranium mining does not just constitute mining uranium ore and selling it – there is a whole associated business around it,” he adds. There are also applications, such as nuclear industrial processes involving the use of radio-isotopes to look for cracks in pipes, and for monitoring high-precision welding.
Kemm states that South Africa has the ability to design and build complex nuclear systems, including nuclear reactors, and to become a world leader in the uranium business: “The government of South Africa needs to decide whether they will carry on with these policies or if they are going to let uranium and the potential thereof fall into the hands of somebody else.”
“We need to pursue uranium as a valuable resource for the country. It has been government policy from as far back as the 1960s to exploit South Africa’s uranium. “The resource was recognised then and now, as not only a foreign exchange earner, but also as a strategic commodity in the expanding world nuclear power industry and general nuclear technology industry,” Kemm concludes.