SAFARI-1: FIFTY YEARS OF WORLD FIRSTS
South Africa’s SAFARI-1 research reactor is operational for about 300 days a year and is one of the most highly commercially utilised reactors in the world today.
SAFARI-1 (South Africa Fundamental Atomic Research Installation) is a 20MW tank-in-pool high flux research reactor located at Pelindaba in South Africa’s North West province.
SAFARI-1 is one of the highest power operational nuclear reactors on the African continent, and has been in use since first achieving criticality in March 1965. Because of political boycotts and international restrictions on the supply of fuel, between 1977 and the early 1990s SAFARI-1 ran at an adjusted operational level of 5MW, for limited hours during the year. This extended period of reduced activity ultimately allowed the lifespan of the reactor to be greatly extended after South Africa was readmitted into global nuclear structures and trade subsequent to the country’s signing of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1991.
South Africa is the only country in the world to have voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons, and its nuclear weapons programme.
After the end of apartheid and the introduction of a constitutional democracy in South Africa, SAFARI-1 was under pressure to justify its costly infrastructure and operational costs, and was threatened with closure. The reactor was saved through the efforts of the scientists and engineers who had developed and run the facility for many years, and who believed that peaceful applications of nuclear technology would make an important, even essential, contribution to a democratic South Africa.
SAFARI-1 is now one of the most highly commercially utilised research reactors in the world today, and produces about a quarter of the global demand of key medical radioisotopes molybdenum-99, together with other radioisotopes such as iodine-131 and lutetium-177. Many of these batches of life-saving radiochemicals were produced using the very same enriched uranium once contained in apartheid South Africa’s nuclear armaments.
Since 2009, SAFARI-1’s reactor core has been fuelled entirely by LEU (low-enriched uranium) – the first commercial reactor in the world to successfully make the conversion. As of December 2015, more than three-quarter of target plates used in the production of medical radioisotopes have also been made with LEU targets, making SAFARI-1 and NTP pioneers in the commercial production of all-LEU radioisotopes.