Nuclear technology has a long track record of positively contributing to global social and economic development. For more than 70-years nuclear research reactors have proven to be cornerstones of innovation in the global development of science and technology.
The African continent is no exception, the continent has 10 out of more than 240 research reactors operating globally. In 2009, Africa passed a milestone of half century of involvement with nuclear technology, dating from the initial criticality of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first research reactor (RR) at the University of Kinshasa. The construction of Congolese RR ushered in a new era of scientific development in Africa.
Africa’s RRs are a vital component of the evolving role nuclear science and technology play in the development of society. These reactors have significantly contributed to the scientific progress made in a wide range of spheres. Moreover, RRs are an indispensable tool in the education and training of future Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) operators and engineers as well for the production of scientifically and technologically important materials, such as radioisotopes. These reactors are also used for testing new types of nuclear fuel and studying the radiation resistance of new materials and electronic devices.
For instance, South Africa can be considered a true role model for emerging countries on how nuclear science innovations can be employed to improve the quality of human lives. The SAFARI-1 RR, one of Africa’s first 20 MW research reactors, which already marked its 50-year milestone, successfully provides high quality products and services for domestic and international needs. Being the only nuclear research unit in SA the SAFARI-1 reactor is renowned as one of the leading producers of medical isotopes in the world, in particular molybdenum-99, which is a key isotope used in 40-million diagnostic procedures per annum worldwide. It is estimated that medical products, produced by the SAFARI-1, are used in approximately 10 million medical procedures in more than 60 countries per year, saving countless lives.
Nuclear innovations from Africa have made it possible to eliminate a range of harmful pests, which previously destroyed entire crops of fruits such as oranges and grapefruit. Due to nuclear technologies the tsetse fly no longer poses serious risk to famers and cattle in many previously effected regions. Moreover, nuclear techniques have enabled the increased productivity of the agricultural sector in many regions which has reflected positively on farmer’s incomes.
Ghana has successfully been operating its RR since 1994, apart from research purposes, the Ghanaian RR is utilized in support of the oil and aluminum manufacturing industries. The reactor is also used in geochemistry and hydrochemistry, soil fertility studies as well as mineral exploration.
Global experience of using nuclear technologies has shown that the research units are also widely applied for environmental monitoring and pollution assessments (air, water, and soil), food and agriculture, health, medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Nuclear-derived technologies, have for instance, helped the Central African Republic’s researchers to detect rich bodies of water in the deserts of Sahel. This region is a home to roughly 135 million people, whose biggest challenge is access to clear water, which is essential not only for drinking, but also for food production and sanitation.
In recent years, more and more African countries have seen the substantial benefits of modern nuclear technologies and realized that large-scale national nuclear programmes are able to stimulate sustainable and dynamic development in other important spheres, such as industry, agriculture and medicine.
Research reactors have the potential to adjust nuclear technologies for social development. For instance the production of medical isotopes to treat cancer and other diseases would not be possible without research reactors.
According to the World Health Organization, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, and the rate of cancer cases is expected to rise. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than half million people die from cancer every year. Such a tragic tendency can be considerably leveled down by the availability of nuclear medicine, through the development specialized local isotope production facilities and medical centres.
The establishment Ghana’s RR made it possible for the country to open a radiotherapy centre in collaboration with the IAEA. With the help of the radioisotope production facility the radiotherapy center has proven to be highly effective not only for Ghanaian citizens, but also for cancer patients from neighboring countries. The center treats nearly 15 000 patients per year.
Prior to the centre, Ghanaian cancer patients had to travel abroad to India, the Americas and Europe to access treatment. A second center in Kumasi was established in 2004 again in collaboration with the IAEA, whilst the Swedish Ghana Medical center in Accra, a private venture was established in 2013. All three facilities in the country have capabilities for 3-Dimensional treatment planning.
Today there are only three radiotherapy centers in the country which do not cope with growing cancer incidence. In order to increase the efficiency rate of cancer treatment, Ghana needs more centers in different regions of the country to treat the growing number of patients.
The National Centre for Radiotherapy in Accra experiences some challenges. On average, 1200 new cancer cases are referred to the facility every year with about 70% requiring radiation treatment, however, less than 50% of these patients complete their treatment.
A shortage of skilled man power in the Centre hampers the full potential of the establishment and limits the delivery of state of the art radiation treatment aimed at improving outcomes and reducing side effects.
The modernization of the research facility and the construction of a Center of Nuclear Science and Technology will certainly have a positive effect for Ghana’s social and economic development.