Stakeholder Liaison Officer at The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation
In this episode, Princess Mthombeni explains how she entered the South African nuclear industry as an outsider and has been working to educate the African public on how the issues of climate change, nuclear energy, and quality of life intersect.
Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.
Princess Mthombeni (0:00):
South Africa, is Africa, and we need to implement energy solutions that are socially, environmentally, and economically acceptable.
Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company.
Jessica Chow (01:19):
Hello, I’m Jessica Chow, Deep Isolation, Technical Marketing Analyst, and a nuclear engineer. My guest today is Princess Mthombeni, a nuclear communication specialist from South Africa and winner of the 2021 Women in Nuclear Global Global Excellence Award. Her career has focused on addressing the socioeconomic issues of the African continent through promoting the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology. Welcome, Princess. Thank you so much for joining us.
Princess Mthombeni (01:50):
Hi Jessica. Thank you for inviting me. I’m happy to be here and hi to your viewers.
Jessica Chow (01:58):
Great, thanks. So we always like to start by asking, how did your career path lead you to work on and support nuclear energy?
Princess Mthombeni (02:09):
Well my journey in the nuclear industry is a bit interesting and it’s interesting in such that it’s not something that I planned. I landed in the nuclear by mistake and by mistake because I received a call from the recruitment agency to say, you have an interview in this company which you need to go to tomorrow. Then I went to this organization and I found myself in the village. Then as I got into the village and I was told that it’s a nuclear industry and something that really I have never heard of before, but as soon as I arrived, I started working there. I realized that basically there’s a lot that people do not know and still need to be educated on. And one of them is nuclear technology. So I said to myself, you know what, I will show that the responsibility of taking nuclear to the people, because I realize that since I don’t know about it, I mean, chances are 80% of the country doesn’t know anything about nuclear technology. So yeah, I decided that I am not only going to focus on developing my career but also maybe making an impact, you know do something so that I create awareness of nuclear technology in South Africa and in the African continent at large. So that’s how I became a nuclear communication specialist and also a lifelong nuclear technology advocate.
Jessica Chow (03:52):
So South Africa is the only African country with a nuclear power plant near Cape Town. Can you tell us why having this clean source of power is important for South Africa or why it’s the only African country with its own nuclear power plant?
Princess Mthombeni (04:10):
Yes, it is the only African country with a commissioned nuclear power plant, but soon it’ll not just be the only country in Africa because Egypt is about to start the construction of the nuclear power plant. The, I think it’s a 4,000-megawatt nuclear power plant that Egypt is about to build, which is a major development in the African continent that deserves to be celebrated. And why having this technology is important in South Africa, you know just like many developed nations, South Africa was able to industrialize through coal. So they built many coal power plants, which are now aging, you know by 2030, not by 20 post 2030 South Africa will be decommissioning about 20 to 24 gigawatt of coal power plants and coal is the base load electricity. It offers the baseload, electricity, and nuclear in South Africa and coal offers the most total electricity in South Africa, with nuclear just being 5%.
Princess Mthombeni (05:23):
So when these age when these coal fleets are being decommissioned and they need to be replaced by something else and not only any technology, but the, any, any power source, but the power source that is able to offer the base load and, and stabilize the grid. So I think that it’s, it’s important that we start as a country. We start looking into the, you know, the solution to the aging coal fleet of which really they have been offering a lot for the country. And also it’s important because currently nuclear offers the cheapest electricity in the country. It’s per kWh cheaper than coal. So those are things that people need to know that nuclear is when nuclear is also cheap in terms of per kWh, unlike other sources. And especially those sources that are, are not baseload, which is available only or are controlled by the weather.
Princess Mthombeni (06:32):
So it’s important that as South Africa, we also look into the challenges that we are facing as a country. South Africa faces the load shedding challenge, the power cuts which are mainly due to those aging coal power plants. So if we were to actually solve the load shedding in South Africa would need to build or introduce more power sources into the grid. And specifically, the power source that is able to offer baseload electricity. And in this case, it’s only nuclear because, in South Africa, we do not have hydropower. We have water scarcity problems. So we will not be able to actually build more hydropower plants, which are also valuable to you know mitigating or helping contribute to reaching the net zero carbon emission. So, yeah, I think that nuclear is important because right now it offers the cheapest electricity, per kWh in South Africa. And also that it’ll be able to replace those aging coal fleets.
Jessica Chow (07:45):
Right. Right. So what are the challenges that the nuclear industry faces in South Africa, as well as Africa as a whole, as it relates to politics, economic development, and social issues?
Princess Mthombeni (08:03):
The main challenge is the lack of knowledge that persists around nuclear technology in the industry. Not only in South Africa, but globally, but I think that in South Africa and Africa, it’s worse, you know I’d like to say the quote by former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, who said: “the enemies of people are those who keep them in ignorance”. So yeah, I feel that people get away with, you know, implementing the solutions that are not socially acceptable because they know that no one will hold them to account because people really, do not have knowledge of this. Hence I took the responsibility to educate people because I believe that when you educate people and give them enough information so that they are able to debate from a, you know, an informed perspective and hold the leaders accountable and be part of the conversations when it comes to energy solutions.
Princess Mthombeni (09:16):
So, yeah. I think that the challenge is mainly the lack of knowledge, but another challenge that we have, which basically has been perpetuated by those who are against nuclear, the anti-nuclear lobby groups, they have spread the information that nuclear is expensive, building nuclear power plants is expensive and have done a lot in influencing policies in terms of, you know, least costly that they use. So, yeah, it’s that to say, South Africa and Africa, African countries cannot be able to afford to build nuclear power plants because they are expensive which I also find very unfair because that means now people are dictating as to what energy sources that as an African continent, we should be able to implement, regardless of whether those energy solutions that they are bringing on the table will be able to solve our problem.
Princess Mthombeni (10:27):
And the most problem that I usually speak about is the challenge of industrialization. We as the African continent and as South Africa, need to industrialize, I think being comfortable to be called underdeveloped nations, should come to an end. We should come up with solutions that will also put us in the, you know, up there to say, we have managed to develop as a country. So really, I think it’s unfair to dictate in the African continents or African nations as to which energy solutions they should be implementing. And also I find it very strange that those who are benefiting from, you know, from selling these renewables, you know solar panels and wind turbines, they have actually managed to convince African nations that and made Africa the canvas area for their renewables solutions of which also I find it very concerning to say, it’s fine.
Princess Mthombeni (11:39):
Why can’t we implement the energy solutions according to our, you know, social and economic challenges as nations? And that is to come up with an energy mix that actually includes all of that and including nuclear, because I believe that if we want to talk industrialization, if we to talk job creation, we will need to actually, yeah, industrialize as a country, we would need a baseload electricity source. And that we can only get that from nuclear hydropower and you know, gas. But we also need to keep in mind that gas is not available. Gas infrastructure is not really available in African countries. Yes. Countries such as Mozambique, do have gas, but it’s not fully harnessed. And in order to get that gas to reach other African countries, you need to build a lot of infrastructures, which really is currently insufficient. So, yeah, that’s just my take to say, as South Africa, as Africa, we need, we need to implement energy solutions that are socially, environmentally, and economically acceptable.
Jessica Chow (13:05):
Great. So as you just said, that one of the misconceptions about nuclear is that it’s really expensive. So as someone whose career focuses on communicating about such a challenging and difficult topic, what have you learned are the other most common misconceptions people have about nuclear and how do you try to overcome those in the community?
Princess Mthombeni (13:31):
I think one of the famous ones is that nuclear power plants are not safe and they base this on historic events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima incidents. So, yeah, it’s also, again, it’s people trying to push their own, you know, personal agenda. But how we try to overcome such challenges is that we try to communicate, especially on the safety aspect of it. I mean, we know that technology evolves, all the technologies evolve and that includes nuclear is not immune to evolving. So if we are saying that the technology evolves and we are going to still, you know, defer to the historic events that happened way back without even considering what is, you know, the technology innovations that are currently being implemented.
So and also nuclear is nuclear power plants are, you know, highly regulated by, you know, local regulators over and which are overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So in terms of safety, nuclear plants, or nuclear power plants are highly regulated chances of, you know, nuclear, you know, radioactive material escaping, or being taken out of the nuclear power plants are very slim based on the security, the high tech security that is there in the nuclear power plants. So those are things that we try to communicate. And also we face an issue of you know, waste nuclear, radioactive waste is dangerous. And in our communication really it’s, I don’t even think that when it comes to waste, we should be making such a huge goal.
Princess Mthombeni (15:33):
And considering that I have never heard that nuclear waste killed anyone anywhere, anywhere else in the world. But then we also, you know, try to communicate that how we, you know, how the nuclear waste is disposed of in different countries, including in South Africa which is done in the Northern Cape. So those are things that we try to take to the public to say, yeah, yes, we have nuclear waste is radioactive, but there are means that are being done in order to make sure that you know, people and the environment are not exposed to that radiation.
Jessica Chow (16:15):
So South Africa is currently temporarily storing its spent nuclear fuel. Can you update us on what the country’s planning to do for permanent disposal or long-term disposal?
Princess Mthombeni (16:30):
So yes. Yeah, in South Africa, we have a low-level waste disposal area, which is called Vaalputs in the Northern Cape one of the provinces in South Africa. But what has happened recently is that the government the cabinet has approved the central, the interim centralized storage facility, which will be built actually away from Koeberg and they will store it for a long time, they will store the spent fuel in the, and I think that that’s one of the things that it should or the innovations that we should be proud of as a country that at least for now, for a long time, we are going to have this solution for the spent fuel. Well, and I always say the nice part about science is that scientists are always hungry to come up with research and solutions and long-term solutions, or even permanent solutions. So with regards to nuclear waste, the permanent solution, I believe that it’ll be found and that will it’ll happen soon.
Jessica Chow (17:51):
So do you think finding a permanent solution for South Africa’s spent fuel would help lead to an expansion of nuclear power usage in South Africa, or even Africa as a continent as a whole?
Princess Mthombeni (18:10):
Well, that would be great to find a permanent solution, but it’s not the only hindrance or the main hindrance when it comes to nuclear development in South Africa and Africa, as I mentioned earlier the challenge is the issue of cost. They have really, I think that the anti-nuclear lobby groups have moved away from, you know, focusing on nuclear waste, but they’re now focusing on the cost of nuclear to better block the development of nuclear. So, yeah, it would be great to find a solution by it’s really not the hindrance when it comes to the development of nuclear in, in South Africa and in the African continent.
Jessica Chow (18:54):
So to help educate the public about nuclear energy in conjunction with the work that you already do for the South African government, you founded a nuclear energy series on YouTube called Africa for Nuclear under the theme, nuclear energy, and nexus of life. So what prompted or inspired you to launch the series? How do you see this form of energy as a nexus of life?
Princess Mthombeni (19:21):
Well having joined the nuclear industry, I was lucky to be part of the international network of nuclear professionals across the world and being part of them. I learned how other professionals are doing it in their own countries. And then I said to myself, I mean, Africa cannot be left behind. And then that’s really when I started the idea of Africa for Nuclear, it remained an idea until I was forced to implement it because I happened to be part of this course, which was a training course for women. It says that women in communication science or, yeah, something like that, it was offered by ANSTO and IAEA, I was part of it. And then we were tasked to go back to our countries and develop and implement this, you know, big awareness campaign so that I implement it in our country.
Princess Mthombeni (20:26):
So Africa4Nuclear idea now had to come to life. Then I implemented or I developed a conceptualized it, and then I together with my colleagues and we tried to actually, yeah, come up with nice scripts and, and all that. But why I’m saying there is a nexus of life it’s because it is exactly that nuclear is the nexus of life. We see that through many applications that are available and that are using, that are used in different sectors, such as the food and agricultural sector, and medicine. I mean, we save lives using nuclear medicine, also in the non-destructive non-testing, oh, non-detective testing, they call it that. And then we also water resources, you know, the application of water desalination. So those are all applications that are available in the nuclear industry. And that shows that really this nuclear technology is in our life.
Princess Mthombeni (21:30):
There’s one application or innovation that has been current, that has in recently, you know found actually it’s, it’s called the Rhisotope Project. They, you know, using nuclear technology or nuclear application, we will be able to save rhinos from being poached. That’s just amazing. And I think anyone should be, you know, should look, should, should look out for the developments of that innovation in South Africa and in Africa as a whole. So yeah, that’s basically why I’m saying nuclear is the nexus of life, because all these applications that you find nuclear applications, they prove to us that really this nuclear is what we live in every day.
Jessica Chow (22:23):
So the average annual temperature in South Africa is predicted to increase by 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100 if emissions aren’t reduced. So how is global warming affecting the country currently, and are public concerns about the environment leading to more discussions about deploying more clean energy, nuclear, or other sources?
Princess Mthombeni (22:51):
Well, Jessica, you know, climate change is already a measurable reality posing significant economical, environmental, and you know, social risks and challenges, not only in South Africa but in the whole world globally. And South Africa also like other nations has, you know, the task of balancing the acceleration of economic growth and transformation. And they should do so in a manner that is environmentally acceptable so that they are able to contribute to helping the world in reaching net zero carbon emission, carbon emissions by 2050. And water has been retired. You know, the primary medium through which the effects of climate change are being felt is South Africa. And that’s according to the department of water report in 2013, and they are saying the increases in climate variability and impacting both water availability and water quality through changes in rainfall patterns and more intense storms.
Princess Mthombeni (24:12):
So I think I will speak from the energy perspective, the industry, which I’m, you know, clued up about what South Africa has done in terms of addressing the issues of climate change. In 2019, they created what is called the integrated resource plan, which is a, you know, an energy master plan for the country, and that IRP in short, we call it, IRP south African IRP actually calls for a balanced energy mix that includes nuclear, renewables and gas, and others. And so more and more renewables are being introduced to the grid. And as I mentioned earlier the coal fleet is aging, and it’ll be decommissioned post-2030. And the plans are to actually replace those coal power plants with either nuclear, gas, or renewable. So we’ll see.
Jessica Chow (25:30):
Perfect. Is there anything else, you’d like to tell our viewers today about your work that you’ve been doing or any new initiatives you’re starting?
Princess Mthombeni (25:43):
I’d like to invite them to come and follow us on social media at Africa4Nuclear. We are on TikTok on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. And I can assure you that we are planning nice things. We are planning exciting things going forward as after pro-nuclear, we will be introducing television. We’ll be introducing outreach programs in the whole of our African continent will be introducing CSI, corporate social investment programs. So, yeah, lots and lots of exciting stuff is going to happen, and I’m inviting them to come and be part of this journey and be part of the conversations as well, because we do need nuclear professionals to be able to, you know, respond on our behalf.
Jessica Chow (26:22):
Well, thank you so much Princess for joining us today.
Princess Mthombeni (26:26):
Thank you so much, Jessica, for inviting me and I wish you all the best for what you are doing, it’s really an amazing initiative that you guys are involved in.
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