Go back

South Africa’s nuclear sector ‘haemorrhaging’ skills


Nuclear engineering departments in “partial collapse”, and few graduates find employment in sector, report warns

South Africa is rapidly losing the skilled people it needs to work in the nuclear technology sector, a report by the country’s academy has warned. 

The warning comes as South Africa plans to keep nuclear power in its generation plans for the foreseeable future, and as the country aims to ramp up its production of radioisotopes for medical use.

Graduates trained by the national Nuclear Technologies for Medicine and Biosciences Initiative (Ntembi) are failing to be absorbed into the nuclear medicine sector, according to the report by the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), released on 5 December.

That failure is happening against a “partial collapse” of many nuclear engineering departments at South African universities, it adds. Fewer students are pursuing nuclear engineering studies, while many lecturers and trainers in the field have resigned or changed career paths, it says.

“Stagnation of the nuclear energy industry has reduced the job opportunities available to graduates and emerging professionals,” the Assaf report says. As a result, graduates who have spent years studying nuclear engineering cannot enter the workforce, it adds.

Broken pipeline

Assaf’s report reviews research, development and innovation of the peaceful uses of nuclear technologies in South Africa. 

Written by a multidisciplinary panel of experts and supported by an Assaf programme officer, it aims to provide a foundation upon which South Africa can build a national strategic framework on the peaceful uses of nuclear technologies.

It says that the country’s Ntembi initiative, a national technology platform created in 2010 and managed by Necsa, a government-owned nuclear energy corporation, and supported by the Department of Science and Innovation, has been highly successful at training nuclear skills. The programme has trained over 50 postgraduate students to date, of whom 55 per cent have been Black and 65 per cent women.

However, the Assaf report says none of these graduates have been absorbed into South Africa’s hospitals, universities, Necsa, or the national iThemba Labs, which has a radioisotope production facility for nuclear medicine uses, and which is looking to scale up its production.

A fragmented sector

The report states that nuclear research, development and innovation is fragmented in South Africa, with little coordination or strategic direction. “This leads to diminishing human capital development, as well as RDI in nuclear technologies, with fewer master’s and doctoral graduates, thus losing critical skills in this area,” the report says.

It warns that South African leaders in nuclear technologies such as iThemba Labs and Necsa face infrastructural challenges that impede the country’s nuclear technology development. This is due to failures to integrate nuclear technology programmes, to capitalise on the country’s academic strengths in the field, and to get the private sector on board. 

The report recommends that South Africa’s government put more effort into guiding the development of nuclear research, development and innovation in the country, and that it improve its current plans. It also highlights the benefits that can be derived from the development and peaceful use of nuclear technologies in South Africa.