The successful commercial use of SAFARI-1 has encouraged development and upgrading of the reactor’s facilities and infrastructure, including an extensive ageing management programme.

Although many early nuclear research reactors had planned lifespans of just 40 years, SAFARI-1 in South Africa is one of a handful, worldwide to reach the age of 50 – and it is planned that its operational life will be extended well beyond this, to at least 2030.

Low utilisation of SAFARI-1 between the late 1970s and early 1990s significantly reduced the effects of radiation stress and exposure on the reactor vessel, equipment, and the reactor building. But it was the commercialisation programme initiated in the early 1990s that ushered in a new era of structure, system and component upgrades that would ensure the longevity of this valuable national asset.

Over two decades of intensive commercial operation, SAFARI-1 has become increasingly strategically important to South Africa, not just in terms of revenue generation but, more importantly, in creating millions of life-saving doses of medical radioisotopes used by local and international patients.

In order to ensure uninterrupted supply of the world’s most important medical isotope, molybdenum-99, SAFARI-1’s operational hours were increased to 24-hour, seven-day-a-week utilisation, with all maintenance and upgrade tasks planned for the reactor’s annual ten five-day and one 12-day shutdowns. Parallel changes to NTP’s personnel culture and management processes, ensuring the retention and replacement of skills, resulted in a decreased number of unscheduled reactor shutdowns and increased operation days. SAFARI-1 is currently operational for about 300 planned days each year, and is one of the most highly commercially utilised research reactors in the world.

In 2010, an ageing management programme was developed in accordance with IAEA Guideline SSG-10. Through this programme, which was funded by increased contributions from NTP Radioisotopes, more than 150 different projects were identified to address the ageing of SAFARI-1. These projects are prioritised on a risk basis and implemented accordingly. Ageing management of SAFARI-1 will be a continuous activity for the rest of SAFARI-1’s lifetime.

Necsa and NTP have invested in integrated management systems that cover maintenance, safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ), safe reactor operations, and nuclear and physical security of both the site and SAFARI-1 personnel. These systems comply with the requirements of the South African National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), and with international and IAEA safety standards.

SAFARI-1’s incredible track record and shining future is a testimony to the resilience and professionalism of a generation of South African scientists – many of whom still work at NTP today – who, through their commitment, have ensured that new generations, of all South Africans, can benefit from this proudly South African success story.