Get smart and get the Congo reactor

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The then director of the Israeli Institute of Weaponry, Munya Mardoch, in 1994 reportedly declared that: “The moral and political meaning of nuclear weapons is that states which renounce their use are acquiescing to the status of vassal states.”

He went on, “All those states which feel satisfied with possessing conventional weapons alone are fated to become vassal states.”

Israel is an “unofficial” nuclear power, alongside confirmed nuclear powers China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

While Mr Mardoch from Isreal may have been preoccupied with the military uses of atomic energy, a fixation that has partly contributed to the underdevelopment of nuclear capacity on a global scale, it is a technology which has far more positive uses.

If anything, the future lies somewhere between atomic energy and renewable energy.

According to the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, as of 2019 there were 37 countries in the world that were tapping into nuclear energy by actually running their own reactors.

The IAEA also tells us that only two of the 446 operational reactors that were commercially generating electricity in the world were in Africa. And both of them were in South Africa.

In terms of functional research nuclear reactors, other sources say there are 220 of these in the world and just seven are in Africa. Never mind that South Africa, Niger and Namibia are among the top eight countries in the world when it comes to uranium reserves.

These statistics become even more mind boggling when one considers that Africa actually has a closer association with atomic energy than is generally appreciated today.

Africa’s first nuclear reactor was built as far back as 1958 in what was then called the Belgian Congo and is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Apparently this early entrance into the nuclear age was because a mine in the Katanga Province of the DRC provided the uranium that was used to make the atomic bomb that decimated Hiroshima in 1945.

Indications are that the 50kW TRIGA reactor, which was called TRICO-I, was supplied by General Atomic of the United States as some sort of “thank you” for that little transaction that devastated Japan.

Through the 1960s, the country that was now known as Zaire after securing its independence from Belgium, safely operated TRICO-I for research and training purposes, and for applications in agriculture, biology and medicine.

In 1970, that reactor was permanently shut down, to be replaced by TRICO-II two years later. This new 1,000kW reactor was located in the Centre for Nuclear Studies in Kinshasa, where much great work was done throughout that decade and well into the 1990s in the spheres of research and development, nuclear engineering, nuclear chemistry, radiology, medicine, agriculture, science and several other sectors and for various peaceful, progressive applications.

Then after 22 years, in 1994 TRICO-II was shut down because of a lack of government funding.

It is still not operational today.

Readers can also find an interesting history of development of atomic energy in South Africa, as well as rekindled interest in developing the sector in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Egypt among other African countries.

As we report in this issue of The Southern Times, there is a strong case for Africa to pursue nuclear options for energy, medical and industrial uses, among other applications.

Marguerite Leonardi and Professor Vincent Lukanda Mwamba make a particularly strong case for TRICO-II to come back online, while presenting a broader argument for nuclear development across Africa in general.

“There is consensus that the peaceful applications of nuclear energy are universally beneficial, and even more so for developing countries.

“Think about: radiological imagery for the early detection of diseases; radiotherapy to fight cancers; medical/veterinary and agricultural applications of radioisotope tracers; sterilisation of insects for environmentally friendly pest control; the irradiation of food for better conservation and compliance with export regulations; the use of radioisotope techniques in soil and water conservation strategies; the use of radiation to obtain more resistant crops and better yields; and of course the production of electricity with a low carbon footprint.”

They continue: “Research reactors are a tried and tested first step towards introducing a nuclear power programme. They are essential in carrying out studies that support nuclear power plants during their entire lifetimes, including training for nuclear power plant operators.

“In the context of African countries looking to introduce nuclear power in future, research reactors play an important role in laying the foundation, in facilitating public understanding of the beneficial applications of nuclear energy. Unlike nuclear power plants, access to research reactors by the general public and even school classes is easy and safe to organise. Such access to a nuclear facility plays an important role in generating vocational interest in nuclear sciences and in allaying fears about nuclear energy and radiation.”

With specific reference to the TRICO-II reactor located in fellow SADC member state DRC, Leonardi and Mwamba point out that the facility can provide products and services that are crucial to modern mining, medicine, agriculture and environmental protection.

We are told that a team capable of restarting the reactor has done all the necessary pre-work and is good to go.

They just need financing.

The smart thing for the Southern African Development Community to do is to urgently come up with a plan to get this reactor back on-stream.

If SADC does not get in on this act quickly, there is one thing that is for sure: a smart foreign investor, backed by his/her government, is going to ride in like a knight in shining armour and appropriate use of this facility for his/her own interests.

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