A Review of Research, Development, and Innovation of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technologies in South Africa – Study Launch

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) assigned the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) through the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) to commission and conduct a study to evaluate the state of research, development and innovation (RDI) with regard to peaceful uses of nuclear technologies in South Africa. The aim of the study was to support the high-level agreement between South Africa, via the DMRE, and the IAEA by providing a solid foundation upon which a national strategic framework on peaceful uses of nuclear technologies in South Africa can be built. An important objective of the study was to develop baseline information around the nuclear technology landscape and thus assist with targets and indicators for monitoring and evaluation of potential benefits that can be derived from the peaceful use of nuclear technology in South Africa.

One of the major study findings was that South Africa’s participation in the IAEA the Technical Cooperation Projects (TCPs) and Coordinated Research Projects (CRPs is sub-optimal and can be improved. This includes involvement in critical topics such as Nuclear Power Plant Lifecycle, Nuclear Infrastructure, Land and water management (food and agriculture), Nuclear fuel cycle and Biodiversity loss.

Whilst the country has several global leaders among its infrastructures such as iThemba LABS and South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), there are infrastructural challenges impeding nuclear technology development, RDI and nuclear economy. This is due to lack of integration of nuclear technology planning in the RDI, failure to capitalize on the strength of the highly regarded nuclear programs of several universities and little contribution of the private sector.

The recommendations are to help guide strategic development of the nuclear RDI, improve current plans and highlight sectorial benefits that can be derived from development and use nuclear technology in South Africa. 

General Recommendations:

  1. To prioritize and improve integration, collaboration, and interdepartmental approaches in RDI of nuclear technologies through the establishment of a central coordinating desk.
  2. To increase the number of institutions and RDI projects collaborating in the IAEA TCP’s and AFRA, based on national priorities.
  3. To formulate a Human Capital Development Strategy for Sustainable Nuclear Applications using existing and new interdisciplinary Centers of Excellence and South African universities.

Sectorial Recommendations: 

Agriculture and Food Security

  • Improve routine practices for soil and water management with combinations of nuclear techniques (such as novel uses of isotopes) through a dedicated RDI programme.
  • This will provide direct benefits to farmers in enhancing agricultural productivity.
  • Develop Human capacity and RDI to increase the application of isotope ratio mass spectrometry for efficient monitoring, food authentication and traceability.  
  • Use nuclear applications for an integrated approach to animal health and zoonotic infections monitoring.


Human Health

  • Introduce nuclear medicine departments in Level II hospitals – health technology assessments have demonstrated benefits and cost-effectiveness of making nuclear medicine and theranostics procedures available outside central hospitals.
  • Develop a comprehensive national cancer control program (NCCP) to address optimal usage of radiation medicine (radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, radiology, medical physics and radiobiology)
  • Develop a comprehensive NCCP with actions based on the IAEA Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) mission – necessary to reduce the cancer burden globally and enable better support for the IAEA Ray of Hope Initiative – Cancer care for all.


Radiation Protection 

  • Develop and implement a strategy including a public-private partnership model for education, training and research for radiation protection – Necessary to maximize usage of the limited skills and infrastructure.
  • Design a framework to harmonise the functioning of the NNR, the Directorate of Radiation Control and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). 

Water and Environment

Improve the integration of management of RDI on isotope hydrology of water resources – Isotope hydrology is a very cost-effective means to assess the vulnerability of groundwater sources to pollution.

  • There is a need to support collaborative RDI projects in this regard.
  • Develop new and more sustainable methods for water production by desalination.
  • Consider nuclear power for water desalination by reverse osmosis to increase water production. This is an urgent matter noting water security issues in the country and the projections of a water deficit in the future.


  • Strengthen the analytical capacity for developing energy supply and demand models, and medium to long-term energy scenarios.
  • Detailed studies are needed to provide evidence-based justification for the inclusion of nuclear energy in future developments. This will provide clarity on whether South Africa can afford to build new nuclear energy capacity and provide a better understanding and planning for small nuclear units (i.e. small modular reactors) which are considered more manageable in terms of financial investment.
  •  Improve communication and education on nuclear energy – There is currently a negative perception of the nuclear energy industry in South Africa, thus there is a need to increase the understanding and education of the public with regards to nuclear energy benefits and risks.


  • Increase the competitiveness of nuclear technology within South African industries and contribute to combating climate change – Several industries (mining, agriculture, etc) face problems in the realm of climate change and inefficient energy consumption.

Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards

 Increase nuclear reactor RDI to promote high standards in safety, security and safeguards – Cabinet approval of the Multipurpose Reactor (MPR) proposal allows South Africa to retain its nuclear technology global footprint so that the radioisotope production, R&D and related nuclear technology innovations can continue without interruptions. We should encourage the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) to be signed, and the actions highlighted in the amendment should be addressed by the relevant departments of the government.

While the above recommendations are not exhaustive, they help to develop a national strategy which articulates the priorities of the country in line with existing policy documents. Application and integration of nuclear technologies will result in the identification and implementation of their appropriate utilization. These will be the research focus areas aiming to contribute to both global and local arenas, identifying low hanging fruits (opportunities), and providing avenues for building partnerships between institutions (both national and international) and individual researchers. The above recommendations define a South African nuclear technology RDI flagship programmes Agenda 2030, thus informing the Country Programme Framework (CPF).   Importantly, South Africa should leverage on the strong and healthy relationship with the IAEA to address the national needs and priorities via the CPFs and its individual projects. 

ASSAf is through the study panel and all stakeholders involved is planning to officially launch the study report at the Science Forum South Africa (SFSA 2023) conference on 5 December 2023, at the CSIR International Convention Centre, Pretoria. The panel of experts for this study were: Prof Mike Sathekge (UP – Panel Chair), Prof James Larkin (Wits), Prof Dawid Serfontein (NWU), Dr Faical Azaiez (NRF), Dr Moses Modiselle (Centre of Molecular Imaging and Theranostics), Mr Gaopalelwe Santswere (NECSA) and Ms Tebogo Motlhabane (National Radioactive Disposal Institute).