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Opinion – UJ’s Prof Tshilidzi Marwala explores nuclear energy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the co-author of the book Artificial Intelligence and Economic Theory: Skynet in the market, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion piece, Peaceful use of nuclear technology, published by the Sunday Independent, 19 August 2018.


Peaceful use of nuclear technology – Learn more about nuclear energy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Last week, while I was addressing a women’s event at the University of Johannesburg, I was reminded of the saying: “A nation that does not honour its women cannot expect to achieve its full potential”. I could not help marvelling at the fact that we have in our country more women at universities than men.

In many advanced countries, we have more women graduating from university than men. It is also pleasing that many women are making strides in fields traditionally dominated by men.

However, there is a sad reality that continues to blight us as a nation. Women still suffer more discrimination than men. More women are subjected to violence than men.

As I was studying the struggle for gender equality, I was reminded of Marie Curie, who made the greatest contribution towards nuclear technology.

Born in Poland in 1867 at the time when women could not be educated, Curie went to France, where she became successful as a physicist. She was initially excluded from the Physics Nobel Prize in 1903 because of her gender.

After protestation, she was awarded the prize. Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and remains the only person in history to win two Nobel Prizes in two different science fields – chemistry and physics.

She was so much discriminated against that Albert Einstein wrote a letter to her titled “Ignore the haters” to motivate her to continue to play a leading role in science.

In this letter, Einstein said: “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty”. Indeed, her intellect bequeathed us nuclear technology.

I was reminded of Curie’s contribution to this field of science when the President of Russia Vladimir Putin visited South Africa for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) meeting, which ignited the matter of the expansion of our nuclear capacity.

The big question for us as a country is whether we can afford additional nuclear capacity. There has been a debate on the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and whether they are more viable than nuclear technology. While IPPs are relatively easy to understand and manage, nuclear technology is complex and if not managed well, it can be catastrophic.

It is important for us to understand nuclear technology.

South Africa has two nuclear reactors located at Koeberg in the Western Cape, and these contribute 5% towards our energy needs.

According to the World Nuclear Association, South Africa generates 250 Tera Watt Hour (TWH) of energy, 229 TWH from coal, 12 TWH from nuclear, 4 TWH from solar and wind, as well as 4 TWH from hydro. With the exception of solar energy, all these technologies generate electricity by using water, coal or wind to move an electric conductor, usually copper, located next to a magnet.

Curie gave us the foundation for nuclear energy. Einstein proposed that mass and energy are the same. This concept is called the mass-energy equivalence and was codified by Einstein’s famous equation. The concept of mass is misunderstood in our society.

For example, if I am asked how much I weigh, the answer I will give is 73kg. This is the wrong answer because I actually weigh 730 Newton. Mass is measured in kilograms while weight is measured in Newton. Mass is a universal concept while weight is a local concept.

My mass stays the same irrespective of where I am, whereas my weight depends on where I am. According to Einstein, my 73kg can generate electricity of 1.82 TWH that can run the City of Joburg for several weeks.

Knowing that our mass (weight in conventional language) can be converted into energy, how do we achieve this? We need to split the atoms that hold us together, and this requires the right material and appropriate technology.

The energy that holds these atoms together is so powerful that only a few materials can break them, thereby releasing energy.

The only material that is unstable enough to be able to release the energy is called radioactive material.

Radioactive materials include uranium (South Africa and Namibia have 10% of the world’s reserve), polonium (named after Curie’s country) and curium (named after Curie). These materials are radioactive as they continually release energy to remain stable.

The process of turning mass into energy in the radioactive material is called a chain reaction. This process of turning uranium into energy can be used for the good (generating electricity) and the bad (nuclear bomb).

When the Germans split the atom, the Americans gathered all their top scientists in a project called the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

Why were the Germans not the first ones to turn this technology into a bomb?

One theory is that their top scientist Werner Heisenberg deliberately miscalculated the amount of uranium needed to make an atomic bomb.

The other theory was that the Nazis were so preoccupied with their pseudo-scientific racial policy that they turned German science into pseudo-science.

This nuclear technology is so powerful that if it is not handled properly, it can lead to catastrophic disasters such as what happened in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where 230 000 people died.

Going back to Curie, she was so fascinated by radioactive materials that emit light for thousands of years that she used to put these into her pockets. This was the cause of her untimely death due to cancer.

Today we know that uncontrolled radioactive material causes cancer. Nuclear technology is so potentially destructive that the UN has created the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to control its spread.

Given the dangers and usages of nuclear technology, how do we handle it? Recently, the technology of the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence (AI), has made great strides in many fields.

For example, self-driving technology is now commonly used in aviation where pilots work alongside machines to fly aeroplanes.

We can access our phones using our fingerprints and faces. AI can now be used in the nuclear industry to perform dangerous tasks that were traditionally performed by human beings.

When the nuclear reactor in Fukushima in Japan was destroyed by the tsunami, human beings worked with robots to control the disaster.

In maths, there is a field called the game theory that was popularised by John Nash, the Economist Nobel Laureate who is fictionalised in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Game theory has been used to understand why 70 years after the invention of the nuclear bomb, there has not been a war between two countries that possess nuclear bombs.

The reason why this is the case is that the game theory concept called the mutual assured destruction (MAD), states that a nuclear power will never attack another nuclear power, as it knows that the retaliation will be just as destructive.

Recent studies conducted by the Rand Corporation concludes that the advent of AI is making such a delicate balance at risk and predicts that there will be a nuclear conflict in the next 30 years.

This study claims that the drive to weaponise AI and the resulting automation of weapons will result in an AI sanctioned nuclear attack and the violation of the principles of the MAD.

As South Africa, what do we do to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology?

South Africa has taken the lead in this regard when it voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons. We need to introduce educational programmes that study this technology.

To date, we do not have a single university that offers an undergraduate nuclear engineering programme.

We need to accelerate the participation of women in science, engineering and technology in order to create our own Curie.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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