Woman's Work: Building Nuclear Security Culture in South Africa

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Jeaneth Kabini during a visit to Carnegie Corporation's headquarters in New York, June 2016. (Photo: Robert [Nick] King/CRDF Global)

Jeaneth Kabini is from a small village in South Africa called Thabana, meaning “small mountain.” The first in her family to study science, she works at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) in the administrative capital of Pretoria, about 120 km (75 miles) from Thabana. Kabini spent much of the last year even further from home, traveling to the United States as a Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow. This yearlong nonproliferation fellowship, created by CRDF Global and supported by Carnegie Corporation, gives young women from emerging countries the resources, networks, and expertise to become leaders in the field.

Trained as a physicist, Kabini had not planned on getting involved in policy. “I only became interested in international security,” she says, “when I learned about the risk of fissile materials going into the wrong hands.” South Africa may have once been a nuclear-armed power, but today, Kabini realized, her homeland lacks experts in nuclear security. As she explained to Corporation staff during a visit to New York in June, “South Africa has had a strong nuclear safety culture for many years, but security culture is missing.” Safety measures protect people and the environment from the mishandling of sensitive nuclear materials, which are mainly used in the energy sector. Security, on the other hand, is about preventing nuclear materials from being intentionally used for malicious purposes. This can range from measures as simple as requiring IDs for site access to more complicated and technical policies that can be difficult and costly to implement.

Kabini applied for the Copeland fellowship intending “to focus on South Africa’s role in the international community in securing nuclear materials. I wanted to learn nuclear security culture so I could help develop it in my country.” She was “ecstatic” when she learned she had been selected. “I think over the moon is the correct term.” Since then, Kabini has taken impressive steps towards achieving her goals.

In January 2016, she arrived in Monterey, California, for a three-month policy course at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The first lecture (“The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nonproliferation Treaty”) was an eye-opener. As she recalls, laughing, “I didn’t know anything! But the lecturer explained it all really well and by the time it was over I had a good understanding of the topic. There were many more lectures like that.”

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Workers checking radioactive waste drums at a Nesca (Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa) site, Pretoria, South Africa, May 5, 2005. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

During the second phase of the fellowship, Kabini interned as a research assistant at Partnership for Global Security (PGS) in Washington, D.C. Her PGS colleagues helped her prepare for the project she is now carrying out in South Africa for the final phase of the fellowship: a four-day training workshop for about fifty post-graduate students and personnel already working at various nuclear installations, now tentatively scheduled for February 2017. “The workshop has two objectives,” she explains. “First, to raise awareness on the importance of nuclear security and nonproliferation to technical background personnel and students. Second, to initiate some form of coalition between university personnel and those working at atomic commissions and regulatory bodies. This will also pave the way for future meetings and workshops among technical experts in the field.”

Kabini stresses that collaboration must also be strengthened at the regional level, because “there are not enough resources for each country to work on its own in a silo.” For the moment, regional cooperation is limited to workshops that unfortunately do not lead to action—but she has ideas for improvement. “We need to have more communication to ensure that engagement continues after the workshops; for example, to have participants go home and establish some kind of program. We could create a regional center to help coordination so that country centers do complementary work rather than duplicating each other.”Furthermore, she observes, deeper engagement with NGOs—with their valuable research, coalition-building capabilities, and connections to the international community—will be an important key to effective regional cooperation.

As a scientist, Jeaneth understands better than most the dangers of failing to secure nuclear materials. As a South African, she recognizes both the challenges and the opportunities for her country to play a unique role in bolstering regional capacity.As an expert in nonproliferation policy, she knows that it will take everyone working together to create the security the world needs.