Of the 220 research reactors in operation today, only seven are on the African continent. In other words, with 17.2% of the world population and the strongest expected growth in the coming years, Africans have access to only 3% of the world's nuclear research reactor capacity. Marguerite Leonardi, senior advisor at NPC Consulting & Engineering, and Professor Vincent Lukanda Mwamba, Commissaire Général of the Commissariat Général à l’Energie Atomique, explain why that is a concern and why the research reactor in Kinshasa should be restarted urgently.Marguerite Leonardi and Vincent Lukanda Mwamba
"One might think that 'nuclear research' is not a priority for African countries. The term 'research' reactor is in fact misleading because these facilities cover more than just research and development. To effectively benefit from the many peaceful applications of nuclear energy, particularly in health, agriculture, education and general industrial development, research reactors are indispensable.
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.
Africa is the continent having the largest energy gap to be closed in the coming years. According to the International Energy Agency, 55% of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity and in 13 African countries more than 75% of the population do not have access to electricity. In this context, nuclear energy, especially with the advent of micro and small modular reactors, is expected to play a key role, together with the other low-carbon sources of energy.
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.
Most research reactors are within or closely linked to universities for education, training and research. If African students interested in nuclear science and their applications do not have access to the right facilities in or near their home universities, they must move to universities abroad. While spending time abroad is enriching (in a cultural sense and in other ways), it also comes with the risk that the most talented and skilful African students will be enticed to remain abroad. The lack of opportunities close to home is a strong factor in facilitating the brain-drain from developing countries. Operating more research reactors in Africa, would greatly contribute to motivating African students and scientists to stay at home or return to their home countries and contribute to the economic growth of the continent.
Not least among the benefits of research reactors is the fact that the products and services that they can offer, such as irradiation of materials or production of radioisotopes, can be marketed to generate income to finance at least part of the operation of the research reactor.TRICO-II
Building new research reactors takes years and is costly. The refurbishment and restart of the Mark-II TRIGA research reactor that is currently lying dormant in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is an opportunity that could be leveraged in the near future to begin to remedy this situation, where there are no operating research reactors in central and east Africa, nor in any French speaking Sub-Saharan African country.
The first nuclear research reactor in Africa was built in the Belgian Congo in 1958. It was a 50 kW TRIGA reactor supplied by General Atomic (USA), named TRICO-I. In the 1960s, in the independent Republic of the Congo, TRICO-I was safely operated to provide research and training in the nuclear sciences, as well as radioisotope applications in agriculture, biology and medicine. TRICO-I was permanently shut down in 1970, and was replaced in 1972 by TRICO-II, another TRIGA research reactor, with a higher power capacity of 1000 kW and located at the Centre for Nuclear Studies in Kinshasa (CREN-K).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the activities at CREN-K included R&D and education in traditional areas such as nuclear engineering, nuclear chemistry and radiobiology; as well as the applications of nuclear techniques in agriculture, medicine, material science and industry. One original area of research worth mentioning was the systemic taxonomy of traditional African medicinal plants that was recommended by the scientific council of the Organisation of African Unity in 1972 as a way to develop and market drugs based on traditional African medicine.
In 1994, regular operations of TRICO-II stopped due to lack of governmental funding, after 22 years of safe operation without incident. The shutdown of the reactor was followed by two wars between 1996 and 2003, periods of political instability and random funding. Following an Integrated Safety Assessment of Research Reactors mission by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2004, it was decided to put the reactor into extended shutdown.
The present political situation with President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, who was officially sworn in on 24 January, 2019, is raising hopes. The new government has defined ambitious objectives in its National Strategic Plan for Economic and Social Development (PNSD), and on 20 February, 2020 , took a firm decision to refurbish and restart the reactor in accordance with international standards of nuclear safety, security, radiological protection and regulatory control.
The commitment of the government is strong. The project team of the reactor developed a detailed strategic action plan, incorporating lessons learned from the past operation of the reactor and previous attempts to restart it, as well as recommendations from the IAEA and other expert missions. It was presented to the IAEA during its General Conference last month in order to obtain the full support of the international community.
The research reactor would offer the following services and products for commercial purposes: production of radioisotopes for mining (e.g. Au-198), for nuclear medicine (e.g. Tc-99m and I-131) and for agriculture (e.g. P-32, K-42 and Na-24); neutron activation analysis for applications in agriculture (soil fertility), medical diagnosis, mining (mineral characterisation), or environmental pollution measurements; and the production and characterisation of reference materials.
The team for the reactor is ready to proceed. There are still technicians and scientists there who remember operating TRICO-II and who dream of seeing their workplace come back to life. If the restart of the reactor is further delayed, this valuable human resource will be lost, costs will certainly increase, and opportunities for national and regional sustainable development will be compromised.
Since the extended shutdown of TRICO-II in 2004, the DRC and its partners have invested in the maintenance of the research reactor’s structures, safety and security, despite the many challenges that they faced. Thanks to that effort and a number of dedicated individuals, the main structural elements and the low enriched uranium fuel elements are still appropriate for nuclear service. It would be unfortunate if all these efforts would be in vain and not lead to the restart of this national and regional asset.
If the commitment of the DRC government is supported by the IAEA and the international community, this research reactor could be restarted in as early as 2022 and, in so doing, establish capability in modern nuclear analytical techniques in the DRC and in the entire Central and East African sub-regions. It would reopen access to currently unavailable peaceful applications of nuclear energy in these countries.Why Kinshasa?
To understand why Kinshasa is geographically a good location for a reactivated research reactor, one just needs to look at the map of research reactors in Africa. There is an obvious void to be filled: Kinshasa is almost at mid-way between Zaria, home to NIRR-1 - the Nigerian 34kW tank-in-pool research reactor - and Pelindaba, the location of the South-African 20 MW pool type SAFARI-I research reactor, which are 4.600 km apart. Not only the DRC, but all the central eastern and western African countries, especially the francophone ones, would benefit from the availability of an operational research reactor in Kinshasa.
The idea of establishing a nuclear hub in Kinshasa is not new. In June 1964, the IAEA endorsed the establishment of a regional centre for nuclear studies for tropical Africa, in Kinshasa; and in September 1967, African heads of state, on the occasion of the fourth Organisation of African Unity Meeting, approved the establishment of the regional centre for nuclear studies in Kinshasa (CREN-K). Refurbishing TRICO-II would also be a fair recognition of the role of the DRC in the early development of nuclear energy in the world and would offer the country an indispensable tool to make the best use of its important uranium deposits.
Identifying and convincing the right international partners is now the challenge facing the Ministry of Scientific Research and Technological Innovation and the Commissariat Général à l’Energie Atomique. Building on the symbolism of resurrecting the country's prestigious scientific past, the restart of the nuclear research reactor would be a strong motivation for the development efforts of an entire nation.
Marguerite Leonardi and Vincent Lukanda Mwamba