Learning Nuclear

Published: 8 June 2012

<strong>YES,</strong> there's really a place called Proton Street. <br /><br />

It's at the entrance to the School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences at the University of Ghana in Accra. The school, which was started in 2006 with the IAEA's help, has trained more than 200 students, and is one of the best African institutions, with the right equipment and qualified staff necessary to provide nuclear education. <br /><br />

So why should you be interested?<br /><br />

People all around the world use radioactive materials in industry, medicine and research. And without qualified, competent staff to operate and handle them safely and sustainably, we would have less access to sterilized syringes, cancer care, safe food and even working smoke detectors... <strong>IN AFRICA</strong> alone, there are nine nuclear research reactors, 143 medical radiation installations, two operating nuclear power plants, and about 100 000 sealed radioactive sources. <br /><br />

All of which need staffing and monitoring.<br /><br />

The IAEA helps African countries train and hold on to the skilled professionals they need by providing fellowships to students interested in the nuclear field. John, Candy, Annie and Alex are four such students who are pursuing Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degrees in Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Ghana's School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences. <strong>JOHN JABATI</strong>. 'When I was little I wanted to be a pilot. I never thought I'd become a nuclear regulator,' says John. <br /><br />

But over time, physics became more interesting than aircrafts. John earned a BSc in Physics and Mathematics, then a postgraduate degree in Physics. Now he works at the Radiation Protection Board of Sierra Leone. <br /><br />

'When war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1992, most of the companies that were using radioactive sources fled the country. Even when some of these companies came back after the war, they didn't reclaim the sources, which pose a real threat to people and the environment.' <strong>ABANDONED</strong> sealed sources or their containers, which look quite valuable, can be attractive to scrap metal scavengers unaware of the danger they pose. When tampered with, these sources can seriously injure and even kill. <br /><br />

'That's why we need trained nuclear regulators to ensure the safe management of these sources,' says John. <br /><br />

But in Sierra Leone there just aren't enough staff or training opportunities.<br /><br />

'Also, we have many new mining operations going on in my country, and lots of sources are being used. So if there is no adequate regulatory control of their use, it's going to pose a major challenge to human health.' <strong>COUNTRIES</strong> across the region have similar problems managing the growing use of peaceful nuclear technology. <br /><br />

Institutions like the School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences in Ghana, and others in Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan, provide professional education programmes in nuclear science and technology to address this deficit. <strong>THABANG CANDY MOKGOSI</strong>. Candy has always wanted to protect people. That's why her MPhil in Nuclear Science and Technology focuses on radiation protection. <br /><br />

'South Africans are terrified of radiation, not realising that its use, especially in medicine, is beneficial, not harmful. So I'm working on innovative ways to inform illiterate and semi-literate patients about radiation, x-rays, CT scans and such,' she says.<br /><br />

'It's also important to educate medical professionals who, although they order these tests, are unaware of the risks their patients face if there is overexposure to ionizing radiation,' she says. <strong>BEFORE STUDYING</strong> at the University of Ghana's School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences, she interned at South African Nuclear Energy Corporation's (Necsa) education and marketing division, which sought to educate children about radiation; children who would then educate their parents. <br /><br />

'I'm getting a lot of information during this MPhil, but I will still need training as an educator. That's the sort of practical experience I hope to receive when I return to South Africa, and hopefully, Necsa,' she says.<br /><br />

Since 2010, there have been 10 fellowship students sponsored by the IAEA. Four of the 10 have been women. <strong>'ANNIE' MVOUFO FOKOU</strong>. 'When I was little I was fascinated by aeroplanes and electronic things. I wanted to be a pilot so I did an undergraduate degree in physics,' says Annie. <br /><br />

But dreams have a way of changing as we get older. Now she wants to be a radiotherapist.<br /><br />

'My country Cameroon is very new to the application of nuclear science and technology. We lack so many things. So I thought that if I came to study at the School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences in Ghana I could go home after two years and contribute much-needed expertise to Cameroon's nuclear field,' she says. <strong>WITH THE</strong> IAEA's help, Cameroon opened its first radiotherapy centre for the treatment of cancer patients in 2009. But the centre needs more equipment, more publicity - since many citizens don't know it exists - and more trained staff. <br /><br />

In the second year of the MPhil programme, students get more hands-on training in their chosen specialisations. So Fokou is interning at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, Ghana's National Centre for Radiotherapy and Nuclear Medicine, where she works with breast cancer patients like Damienne Ahdihoume from Benin. '<strong>WHEN I RETURN </strong> to Cameroon, the knowledge I gain here will be invaluable.' <br /><br />

The IAEA is working to combat brain drain in African countries. So approximately 80% of all IAEA trainees are now trained in Africa, except in areas where there isn't enough equipment or qualified trainers on the continent. <strong>ALEX PIUS MUHULO</strong>.  'When I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, I had a lecturer who told me there were many job opportunities in the nuclear industry because the current professionals in the field are nearing retirement,' says Alex. <br /><br />

At that time the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission was recruiting young scientists. 'This was the perfect opportunity for me at just the right time.'<br /><br />

Alex is now assistant scientific research officer in the Commission's Department of Research, Environmental Monitoring and Waste Management, which monitors radioactive waste and environmental radiation, and enforces laws concerning radiation protection of staff countrywide. <strong>HE'S TAKEN</strong>  two years off to pursue an MPhil in Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Ghana's School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences, where he investigates the radioactivity levels of environmental samples, like the soils pictured here. <br /><br />

Monitoring environmental radioactivity is a key concern in Tanzania, where gold, nickel, copper, coal and uranium mining is prevalent. '<strong>I'VE COME TO GHANA</strong>  because there aren't many opportunities to study and gain practical knowledge in nuclear science in Tanzania. When I go back to my home country at the end of my studies I'm confident that I will be able to contribute more to the work of the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission,' says Alex. <br /><br />

The University of Ghana's School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences offers Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degrees in fields such as nuclear agriculture and radiation processing, nuclear engineering, medical physics, nuclear safety and security, applied nuclear physics, radiochemistry, environmental protection and nuclear earth sciences. <strong>THERE ARE</strong>  now 12 international students from eight countries attending the school. They're from Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. <br /><br />

The fellowship programme is operated under the guidance of AFRA - the African Regional Cooperative Agreement, which is an intergovernmental agreement established by the IAEA and African Member States to further strengthen and enlarge the contribution of nuclear science and technology to socioeconomic development on the African continent.