Cabinet approval for new South African research reactor

30 September 2021

The South African cabinet has approved the construction of the Multipurpose Reactor (MPR) to succeed the Safari-1 research reactor which is located at Pelindaba. Safari-1's operator, Necsa, said the cabinet approval allows the lead-time needed to ensure radioisotope production is not interrupted. The company has also expressed its support for the recent approval by the country's energy regulator of a ministerial determination to procure new nuclear generation capacity.

Pelindaba (Image: South African Tourism)

The South African cabinet on 14 September approved the project to replace the 20 MWt Safari-1, which has been in operation since 1965 and is scheduled to retire in 2030. The reactor is operated by Necsa - the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation - with isotope production through Necsa's wholly-owned NTP Radioistopes subsidiary.

Safari-1 is one of the four leading producers of medical radioisotopes in the world used to treat millions of patients annually, the cabinet noted. It also provides support for scientific research, development and innovation in medicine, agriculture, palaeontology and bioscience.

"The replacement will ensure South Africa remains one of the leading countries in these fields and benefit from the new technologies in this environment. The project will be led by a number of related departments and Necsa as the main client," the cabinet said in a statement summarising its 14 September meeting, published on 20 September.

The cabinet approval allows for the lead time needed to roll out the procurement and construction of the MPR so that radioisotope production can continue without interruptions, Necsa said.

"Cabinet approval of Safari-1 replacement is a major milestone for South Africa, the continent and the whole world," Necsa CEO Loyiso Tyabashe said. "The realisation of the MPR project will ensure South Africa remains amongst the top four global radioisotopes producers as well as ensuring continuation of research and development on nuclear technology," he added.

Safari-1 is the main supplier of medical radioisotopes in Africa and can supply up to 25% of the world's molybdenum-99 needs. It has been converted from highly-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium and has been using low-enriched uranium targets for radioisotope production since 2010.

In addition to radioisotope production, the MPR will substantially expand research capabilities and outputs, Necsa said. The new reactor is to be equipped with a cold neutron source, which will be the only one available in Africa, it added.

"The MPR project is expected to have significant social, economic and environmental benefits for the country," Necsa Chairperson David Nicholls said. A "substantial portion" of products used in its construction will be sourced locally, some 5000 direct and 26,000 indirect jobs will be created during construction, he added. The reactor will provide around 750 full-time jobs and 38,000 for its operation and in fulfilment of its research mandate during its operational lifetime.

Step in the right direction

Separately, Necsa today said the recent decision by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) to approve ministerial plans for the procurement of 2500 MWe of new nuclear generation capacity is a "step in the right direction" to ensure nuclear energy forms part of the country's future energy mix.

"Nuclear energy currently plays, and will continue to do so, a major role in resolving the energy crisis in the country, as it is one of the reliable sources of energy and has a high availability. Going ahead with this plan, will mean some relief on the national grid," the company said.

Nersa's approval comes at a critical time for the South African economy, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also benefits for the continent as a whole, Nicholls said. "If South Africa builds a second nuclear energy power station then it will continue to be in the lead in Africa, with countries such as Egypt and Nigeria following suit," he added.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News