I grew up in ru­ral Lim­popo – Nzhelele at Ha-Mavhunga, to be pre­cise. I ini­tially wanted to be­come and aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer, but fi­nan­cial con­straints led me to study­ing a BSc at the Uni­ver­sity of Venda.

En­ter­ing the world of nu­clear didn’t cross my mind un­til my third year, when I had to com­plete a nu­clear physics mod­ule. Grow­ing up, I wasn’t even aware that South Africa used nu­clear en­ergy to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity at Koe­berg Nu­clear Power Sta­tion.

I was fur­ther ex­posed to the nu­clear en­ergy field when one of my lec­tur­ers helped me to ob­tain a va­ca­tion job at iThemba LABS in the Western Cape af­ter I com­pleted my bach­e­lor’s de­gree in 2006. I be­came so fas­ci­nated with nu­clear that I ended up get­ting my PhD with­out tak­ing a break from study­ing. Most of my time in academia was spent do­ing re­search on and study­ing the struc­ture of the nu­clei of el­e­ments on the pe­ri­odic ta­ble and per­form­ing nu­clear ex­per­i­ments at iThemba LABS. I also had the op­por­tu­nity to travel abroad for the first time when I car­ried out on of my ex­per­i­ments at the Uni­ver­sity of Jyväskylä in Fin­land in 2009. Twelve years later, I don’t re­gret any of it.

I’ve al­ways been in­volved in look­ing at the front end of the nu­clear fuel cy­cle. My in­ter­est has been in the as­pects of the process that pro­duce waste; not what hap­pens to it. Now, I’m see­ing what the back end of the cy­cle en­tails and the discovery is in­cred­i­ble. There are so many puz­zles to crack and, as a nu­clear ex­per­i­men­tal­ist, I am al­ways fas­ci­nated.

A hot topic in nu­clear waste man­age­ment across the globe right now is the es­tab­lish­ment of deep ge­o­log­i­cal repos­i­to­ries for the dis­posal of high-level waste, par­tic­u­larly spent nu­clear fuel from nu­clear power gen­er­a­tion re­ac­tors like Koe­berg. The sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is ask­ing ques­tions about what will hap­pen to the spent fuel and whether di­rect dis­posal or re­cy­cling is more ad­van­ta­geous. As an ex­per­i­men­tal­ist, it’s my job to en­sure that South Africa pro­vides safe, sus­tain­able and pub­licly ac­cept­able so­lu­tions to the chal­lenge of spent nu­clear fuel man­age­ment.

Young women who are in­ter­ested in get­ting in­volved in the nu­clear field should make a point of work­ing hard in si­lence and let­ting ei­ther suc­cess make the noise. I live by a say­ing from my Tshiv­enda cul­ture that I was told as a young girl: Munna wau thoma wa mu­sadzi ndi pfunzo. Al­ways re­mem­ber to be­lieve in your­self.

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