Kelvin Kemm says Necsa is a world leader.Photo: Supplied
JOHANNESBURG - The world “nuclear“ is emotive; no doubt about that. Anti-nuclear lobbyists, with great glee, love to stir up images of death and destruction, to scare the public. In that they tend to succeed.

Well, let us ask the question: Is nuclear dangerous? The answer is absolutely yes - if you do something stupid with it. Are sleeping pills dangerous? The answer is yes - if you do something stupid with them.

If you take a whole bottle of sleeping pills to get a good night’s sleep, you will never wake up again ever. But one sleeping pill taken after a stressful day can provide a sound refreshing sleep.

It’s the same with nuclear radiation. Nuclear radiation is incredibly mild and beneficial, when used by people who know what they are doing.

By the way, nuclear radiation is not dangerous in low doses. Low doses of radiation are all around us, all of the time. You know those granite tops that look so beautiful in the kitchen, well they are all radioactive. Every single one of them. All granite is naturally radioactive to a mild degree. But don’t let that stop you from taking your family for a picnic on the world’s second largest granite outcrop. It is in Paarl, the famous Paarl Rock.


Nuclear radiation is used every single day all over the country, in a variety of amazing applications.

For example, there are “nuclear tracers”. These are radioactive chemicals that can be poured into pipelines to find leaks. The specialist will pour in a cup-full and then find the leak kilometres away, by detecting the nuclear signature. I can go on and on like the smoke detectors that you see in hotels and shops. They all have a radioactive mechanism inside. That is how they work.

But one of the most amazing uses of all is in nuclear medicine. Nuclear medicine? What is that? Well one of the best examples is in the early detection of cancer.

What happens is that the nuclear scientists get told by the medical doctors which medical chemicals will be drawn to different cancers. The nuclear fellows then microscopically attach radioactive atoms to these chemicals. At a nuclear medicine centre at a hospital, the nuclear medicine doctor injects the dose. A while later, using a fancy nuclear scanner, the doctor can see where the cancer is located in the body.

This technique is incredibly accurate. It is possible for the doctor to see a cancer long before the patient even suspects that the cancer is even there. Obviously, early detection of the dread disease provides a much better chance of early treatment.

A world-class nuclear medicine centre, with staggering capabilities, is to be found at Steve Biko Hospital in Pretoria. It is skilfully led by a world-recognised authority Professor Mike Sathekge, who is also a man of unbridled enthusiasm. His team produces amazing success after amazing success. But to do that they need a reliable supply of the critical nuclear medicine.

That they get from Necsa (South African Nuclear Energy Corporation). Necsa has a world-class team but it also has a large nuclear reactor called SAFARI-1, about 40km from Pretoria on the Pelindaba site of Necsa.

From the reactor the nuclear medicine goes to Steve Biko Hospital. But large quantities of nuclear medicine also travel by air to over 60 countries, on a daily basis. Not only do the Necsa people know how to make the medicine, but they also know how to move it from the bottom of Africa to the US, to Argentina, to Iran, to Russia, to Belgium, to wherever. The rest of the world is amazed at how we South Africans do it.

In May, in Sochi, Russia, in front of an audience of 1000 people from 72 countries, Necsa was awarded a trophy and described as “the best nuclear medicine company in the world”, to massive applause.


The Necsa reactor is the only reactor in the world which runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year, through the nights, through the weekends, producing life-saving nuclear medicine.

Every three seconds somebody, somewhere in the world, is injected with nuclear medicine from Necsa. Every three hours a life is saved. But we at Necsa are not satisfied. We aim to double our production.

That is not easy, and Necsa Group chief executive Phumzile Tshelane, a nuclear physicist himself, knows that. That is one reason why he tackles the challenge with enthusiasm, ably supported by a great team.

But this challenge is not only a case of making more medicine, it is a case of building new nuclear reactors and integrating them into the nuclear medicine production and packaging system. These plans are under way.

A relatively new nuclear medicine company is Rusatom Healthcare. They are a subsidiary of the giant Russian nuclear technology company Rosatom. Both Rosatom and Necsa have been in nuclear operations for 70 years.

So Necsa has formed a working relationship with Rusatom Healthcare, to collaborate in exploiting the strengths of both companies. This is to jointly develop new facilities at Necsa, bringing some of the Rosatom family technology into existing Necsa developments. Another objective is to take nuclear medicine to a number of African countries where either Rusatom or Necsa have established footprints already. It’s a great relationship.

I’ve discussed the concept of nuclear medical diagnostics. But there is more. Very exciting! New advanced nuclear cancer therapy is in operation in Pretoria. There are people that were given a cancer death sentence by doctors before Sathekge got hold of them. Amazingly, people are now cured of cancer. I mean cured. If you look at scans of a patient a year later there is no sign whatsoever of the person ever having had cancer. Certainly, the future is not what it used to be!

Necsa is a world leader in this business and plans to forge much further ahead.

The word “nuclear” is a life-saver, in the right hands.

So, please in future ignore the nuclear fear-mongering that froths from dubious sources. South Africans know what they are doing in this nuclear technological wonderland.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chairperson of Necsa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.