Loyiso Tyabashe

CEO | The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA)

“Innovation is lifeblood. Without innovation, stagnation follows. It’s integral to progress and staying relevant.”

Key Points

  • NECSA’s Historical Evolution: NECSA has evolved into a key player in nuclear technology globally, emphasizing nuclear medicine and cancer treatment through subsidiaries like NTP, producing vital isotopes for targeted therapy.
  • South Africa’s Nuclear Potential in Healthcare: South Africa plays a significant role globally in nuclear medicine, particularly through isotopes like molybdenum-99, essential for cancer treatment, highlighting the country’s potential to be a hub for nuclear technology in the healthcare sector.
  • Game-changing Small Modular Reactors: NECSA is dedicated to harnessing nuclear power for South Africa’s energy mix, aiming for a balanced energy portfolio and emphasizing the role of small modular reactors (SMRs) to meet the diverse energy needs on the continent efficiently.
  • Is nuclear part of South Africa’s future? My advice would be to give nuclear a more substantial allocation in the plan, commensurate with other technologies.”

Interview held by AfricaLive.net Editor, Fraser Mitchell. 


Fraser Mitchell: I’d like to begin by looking into your research activities and the role you play within the healthcare and life sciences sectors in South Africa. Could you describe the impact NECSA has had as an organization in South Africa until now?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Thank you. Let me provide a bit of history about NECSA. It originated in 1948, initially known as the Atomic Energy Board (AEB), with a primary focus on regulating and controlling uranium production and sales in South Africa. Over the years, it evolved and played a significant role in nuclear technology, even becoming a founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1956-1957. This recognition marked a pivotal moment for South Africa, acknowledging its potential in nuclear technology and its significant role on the international stage.

NECSA’s journey continued with the development of a research reactor in 1965, dedicated to pure nuclear research and materials testing. Subsequently, NECSA expanded its activities, including the production of nuclear fuel for the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in Cape Town.

In the late 90s, with the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the Atomic Energy Corporation transformed into NECSA, consolidating growth and establishing subsidiaries such as NTP, a key nuclear technology products provider. Additionally, focusing on chemicals led to the creation of Pelchem.

Moving forward, NECSA emphasized nuclear medicine, notably producing molybdenum for cancer detection and treatment. Today, NTP ranks among the top four nuclear medicine producers globally, solidifying NECSA’s position as a significant contributor to nuclear medicine.

Fraser Mitchell: Could you elaborate on South Africa’s significant role in the global nuclear arena, particularly in healthcare and life sciences?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Certainly. We need to advocate our role globally. Our products, notably molybdenum-99, are vital in nuclear medicine. It decays into technetium, targeting specific cancer cells for treatment. Necsa, through NTP also has other products such as Iodine-131, another product, that is gaining traction for thyroid cancer and metastatic diseases and Lutetium-177 used for prostate and neuroendocrine cancers. In the pharmaceutical space, we’re involved in both active pharmaceutical ingredients and fully developed medicines. We’re advancing into injectables, particularly for prostate cancer treatment. The world is shifting towards nuclear medical devices that detect and treat, offering targeted therapy and diagnostics.

Fraser Mitchell: Indeed, this demand is rapidly growing. Infrastructure and skills are crucial. With more investment, South Africa could be a global hub.

Loyiso Tyabashe: Absolutely. Globally, people are living longer and therefore there has been an increase in cases of lifestyle diseases like and more cancer cases. Africa isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. We therefore anticipate exponential growth in the role of nuclear medicine. NTP is at the forefront, collaborating with academic hospitals, not just locally but globally, fostering a collaborative environment for nuclear doctors in the care of patients. Infrastructure, especially in cancer treatment through nuclear medicine, is burgeoning in South Africa and our neighbouring countries. The demand is evident, and this trajectory will persist.

Fraser Mitchell: Let’s delve into nuclear energy and NECSA’s aspirations for a significant role in South Africa’s energy sector. Could you outline NECSA’s current goals and objectives in this regard?

Loyiso Tyabashe: NECSA holds a critical mandate in the nuclear energy sphere, aiming to harness nuclear technology for human benefit. Over the past two decades, our focus has shifted towards active participation in the nuclear power domain, aligning with global trends favoring cleaner nuclear forms. 

Our core focus stems from South Africa’s nuclear energy plan and Integrated Resource Plan for electricity. Both emphasize a balanced energy mix, striving for a low carbon footprint to combat global warming. Nuclear power perfectly fits this vision, encompassing environmental responsibility, security of supply, and economic viability. It stands out with zero carbon emissions, consistent base load supply, and cost-effectiveness, emerging as the cheapest form of electricity generation in South Africa. NECSA is dedicated to propelling the success of nuclear power within the nation and the continent.

Fraser Mitchell: Small modular reactors and micro reactors seem promising for Africa’s nuclear potential. How does NECSA plan to engage with this aspect?

Loyiso Tyabashe: While conventional large-scale reactors dominate today, the landscape is evolving towards small modular reactors and micro reactors. 

Various African countries possess smaller power grids, necessitating the matching of unit sizes to suit their needs. NECSA recognizes the diverse energy requirements on the continent and supports both conventional large plants for reliable base load and smaller modular reactors. The latter offers advantages of lower capital costs and modular construction, making them attractive for investors. This dual approach ensures the continent’s energy needs are met comprehensively, allowing for industrialization and sustainable growth.

I believe the continent, depending on the grid size and each country’s specific needs, should pursue both approaches. It should be the sovereign responsibility to decide on which way to proceed.

Fraser Mitchell: As you’re well aware, energy supply is not reliably meeting demand in South Africa. This prolonged situation has hindered the country’s industrial potential. It’s not only about the situation on the ground but also about investors’ concerns when there’s this level of energy insecurity. 

However this is an exciting time for South Africa with investments, for example, in the Just Energy Transition Fund. It’s a critical time globally to make the right decisions regarding our energy mix and sustainability. I would like to ask you about the pathway you see ahead.

Specifically, what impact do you believe nuclear can have over the coming decades? What role could nuclear play and how can this benefit the South African people economically and socially?

Loyiso Tyabashe: I think the government of South Africa has emphasized at the highest levels that energy or power is one of, if not the, handicaps to further industrialization. This is a concern echoed by many. It’s something that needs a turnaround and forward movement. 

Currently, nuclear energy constitutes about 3.6% of installed capacity in South Africa. The current electricity plan aims to reduce this to about 2.5% by 2030. However, this plan is being reviewed. My advice would be to give nuclear a more substantial allocation in the plan, commensurate with other technologies.

Nuclear provides energy security, the most crucial aspect, followed by environmental responsibility and economic benefits for the country and its people. Looking at countries in Europe with the cheapest electricity, it’s noticeable that those with nuclear and hydro are the most cost-effective. Nuclear offers a cheaper form of electricity worldwide. Skills always follow projects, and as we build more nuclear plants, more people are attracted to the program. Good skills, benchmarked internationally, are essential, especially in operating nuclear power plants. South Africa has played a strong role and gained recognition globally in this aspect. It’s beneficial in many ways.

To summarize, we have a pathway of enhancing skills in the market by converting conventional skills to nuclear. This leads to cheaper electricity, a more stable grid, and enhanced supply reliability, highlighting the positives of nuclear for the country.

Fraser Mitchell: And the best time for building this infrastructure, if it doesn’t exist, is now.

Loyiso Tyabashe: Agreed.

Fraser Mitchell: We recently published an article with Prof Tyobeka, vice-chancellor of South Africa’s North-West University where he called for investment into nuclear skills and infrastructure as a priority.

Do you agree that if South Africa does not invest in these skills it risks losing them?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Absolutely, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to take action and move forward. Nuclear plans in this country have been delayed for various reasons and there has been some hesitancy around nuclear technology.  It is crucial to have an energy plan that is approved and supported by South Africans. However, once these plans are authorized after stakeholder engagement, it’s time to implement. Indecision won’t lead us forward. 

Secondly, this effort cannot be the responsibility of a single entity; it requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders. Starting at a global level, South Africa’s membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency ensures we align with global movements and shifts related to nuclear technology, safety and security. 

We work closely with the IAEA, focusing on African development in alignment with global initiatives. This involves projects of nuclear nature and skill development. Additionally, we collaborate with the African Union through the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) and the African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training AFRA, ensuring nuclear’s supportive role within the continent. Internally, several universities, like North-West University, emphasize nuclear in their curriculum. We work closely with them and other universities involved in sciences and engineering, even those without dedicated nuclear departments. 

We facilitate exposure to the nuclear domain for individuals from various sectors through specific units within the Necsa campus including our Visitors Centre. Engaging with communities, vocational schools, and other stakeholders is essential to address diverse skill needs in partnership with the country. It’s a joint effort for success.

Fraser Mitchell: Certainly, a collective approach is vital. On a personal note, could you share what drew you to nuclear in your career?

Loyiso Tyabashe: My entry into the power industry led me to the nuclear sector. Its unique aspects, international connections, and the need for highly skilled individuals captivated me. Despite being a mechanical engineer, I chose this path due to its positive impacts and niche market.

Fraser Mitchell: It indeed holds immense potential. Shifting slightly, within the South African and African context, how do you define innovation?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Innovation is lifeblood. Without innovation, stagnation follows. It’s integral to progress and staying relevant. Across industries, innovation is about continual improvement and adaptation. Take the telecoms sector—innovation transformed simple phones into multi-functional devices, embodying progress and adaptation.

In the nuclear domain, we’re witnessing a pivotal market shift towards small modular reactors (SMRs), a departure from traditional fuels. In cancer treatment, we’re moving from general chemotherapy to targeted isotope treatments. Innovation is vital, and being at the forefront today doesn’t mean stopping; continuous innovation is crucial.

Fraser Mitchell: Looking ahead, what message would you like to convey to both African and global audiences?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Electricity access and affordability are pivotal for development. Africa must enhance access through effective generation, transmission, and distribution. Nuclear energy offers clean electricity access. While the continent is making progress, swift action is essential to move in the right direction and ensure reliable and sustainable electricity sources.

Fraser Mitchell: When you balance the opportunities and challenges facing South Africa now, how confident are you in the future?

Loyiso Tyabashe: Confidence is high, provided our energy plan prioritizes reliable and sustainable electricity sources. We must stay focused on this fundamental principle amidst considerations like cleaner energy forms and load shifting, ensuring our development aligns with a sustainable energy future.

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