The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Physics has already taken steps to make it possible for students to enter a career in the South African nuclear new build programme, envisaged by government through the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), by means of a BSc Nuclear Sciences and Engineering programme.
The IRP calls for 42.6 GW of new power generation capacity to be brought on line by 2030 to meet expected demand, with nuclear energy expected to contribute at least 9.6 GW.
Head of the School of Physics, Professor John Carter, says the university has already produced graduate students from its Nuclear Sciences and Engineering programme. These graduates are now set to enter the nuclear new build industry.
The Wits School of Physics Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment, Professor Beatrys Lacquet, and the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering created the programme three years ago. It was established within the university’s generic BSc structure, enabling students to graduate with a BSc degree in Nuclear Sciences and Engineering after three years.
“In a way, we are trying to grow our own timber for the nuclear build programme through our Nuclear Sciences and Engineering BSc. As far as I am aware, this is the only undergraduate degree structure, set up by a South African university, which has such a directed theme or title,” notes Carter.
Many other universities tend to graduate students first with an engineering or physics degree and then offer training or education within the nuclear field, as an add-on to their previous qualifications, he says.
Carter points out that the Wits programme is a fusion of the physics majors curriculum and engineering components relevant to the nuclear field.
Currently, after obtaining a three-year BSc degree with physics as a major, graduates can enter the nuclear industry or continue with an honours degree in physics. Thereafter, they can choose to enter the industry, or study for a diploma in power reactors or radiation protection, or enrol for an MSc, which can culminate in a PhD in physics.
Alternatively, with this BSc degree in nuclear sciences and engineering, graduates can choose to continue with engineering by enrolling for the third year of a four-year BSc Engineering degree in Mechanical or Industrial Engineering. Graduates can then enter the industry or study further for an MSc or PhD in engineering. Graduates can exercise a number of career options.
The entrance requirement for the programme is high and Wits accepts nothing fewer than 44 points, which are calculated by using the matric results, with mathematics being a requirement for acceptance into the maths course, which is a mandatory major and runs parallel to the programme.
The yearly intake limit for the programme is 30 first-time students., Carter says, which has been sufficient up to now and has attracted the top matriculants
Over the last three years, student numbers in the programme have slowly decreased and Carter attributes this to the lack of awareness about the continuation of the South African nuclear new build programme.
Further, he states that there are an insufficient number of educators in the nuclear field and he predicts that South Africa will not be able to produce the skilled workforce required to build, operate and license the nuclear new build programme.
However, he says many other tertiary institutions are interested in the nuclear field, with the North-West University having built a heat transfer test facility for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. This university is also collaborating with Wits on a number of short courses in this field.
The iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (iThemba LABS), multidisciplinary research laboratories administered by the National Research Foundation (NFR), with branches near Cape Town and in Johannesburg, has, in its mission statement, the mandate to provide education and training courses in this area.
Wits’ Schonland Research Institute for Nuclear Sciences, which was inaugurated by the Nuclear Physics Research Unit in 1958, was one of the first at a South African university to obtain a modern accelerator and develop areas of basic nuclear research.
The historic institute was donated by the university to the NRF in 2004 and is now managed by iThemba LABS.
Programme Challenges and Safety
Carter states that one educational challenge of the programme is that some students struggle with mathematics, as a result of their previous schooling.
“The basic education system doesn’t bring learners to a level that is high enough. In bridging this gap, Wits has various mechanisms in place to assist students who are underprepared and who enter the programme,” he says.
Carter says safety is of the utmost importance and, although the practical work of the course only involves radiation sources from X-ray machines and very low activity sources, these are used in a controlled environment and are closely monitored by the university’s radiation safety officer, James Larkin.
Larkin has also played a leading role within the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa in establishing education and training programmes for the industry. The students are also participating in field trips to national nuclear facilities.