Physics of learning in Russia
Mapheto Masibane grew up in a small village near Lebowakgomo in Limpopo. Now the 18-year-old is travelling to Russia to study nuclear physics as one of the first students to visit the country since South Africa signed a memorandum of agreement with Russian state nuclear agency, Rosatom.
“I want to work in one of South Africa’s new nuclear power stations,” said Masibane. “That is my dream.”
Three South African students will visit Rosatom sites in Russia, including a nuclear power plant, a nuclear fuel plant – including spent nuclear fuel recycling plants – and other Russian nuclear energy sites.
The students won an essay competition on “fulfilling the energy needs and developing nuclear industry in South Africa”. The competition is one of many outreach initiatives by Rosatom in the country.
Masibane is in his third year of studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is studying for a BSc in mechanical engineering, specialising in nuclear science. He boasts an impressive CV, having matriculated when he was only 15 and getting 100% for maths to boot.
In his essay for the competition, Masibane raised the fear of many South Africans that corruption would dog any nuclear procurement programme.
He said: “Nuclear programmes are expensive to establish, especially the power stations. But despite the price of construction being high, the benefits are never reported.
“The South African public has not been told about the low operating cost, stable electricity prices and also the large power-generating capacity to meet all demands.”
He said nuclear energy was a testament to the idea that you have to spend money to get money.
The winner of the competition was Ebhard Nilsen, a North-West University student who grew up on a farm in Groot Marico in North West.
Nilsen is in his final year of studies. He is studying mechanical engineering at the university, where he received a distinction in nuclear engineering.
His essay focused on how to achieve the maximum level of local input in the building of nuclear reactors in South Africa.
He examined which industries would benefit most from the localisation of nuclear power plants’ construction, and how localisation in the nuclear industry could ignite South Africa’s economy.
Nilsen said he saw himself as a construction or maintenance engineer at any one of the proposed nuclear power plants. He believes nuclear is the way to go for South Africa.
“We have past experiences with nuclear reactors, Koeberg and the Safari reactors,” he said. “Both of the reactors are major successes, which makes passing the knowledge over to the new nuclear power plants so much easier.
“Secondly, with the electricity grid under the current strain, the obvious solution to providing a large amount of base-load electricity is nuclear.
“Nuclear reactors can supply cleaner and more sustainable electricity compared with coal power stations.”
Nilsen said programmes like Rosatom would go a long way to building the skills necessary for South Africa’s nuclear future.
The other prize winner, Sandile Kumalo, a third-year Wits student from Vosloorus, said going to Russia would give him the opportunity to see all the theory that he had learnt become reality.
“I’m excited about seeing a real reactor operating in real time,” he said. “The Russian reactor – the VVR – is totally different from the ones we have here.”
Kumalo, who is studying for a BSc with an engineering option, said his love for physics had pushed him towards the nuclear field. His aspiration, not simply to pass but to excel, attracted him to a tutor who sparked his love for nuclear physics. Kumalo is now a tutor himself and hopes to inspire a new generation in Soweto to become excited about technology.
DUO Sandile Kumalo (left) and Mapheto Masibane