The vital power of nuclear objectivity

Eskom operates South Africa's only nuclear station, Koeberg. Now the government has handed the reins of nuclear decision-making to Cabinet's energy and security subcommittee. (David Harrison, M&G)

Eskom operates South Africa's only nuclear station, Koeberg. Now the government has handed the reins of nuclear decision-making to Cabinet's energy and security subcommittee. (David Harrison, M&G)

As South Africa prepares to spend up to R1-trillion on a fleet of nuclear power stations, amid rumours of political lobbying, one organisation is refusing to be drawn into the fray.

Bismark Tyobeka, chief executive of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), says that, for the public entity to fulfil its mandate as an independent regulator, it cannot be part of the discussion on which technologies to use, or which country should get the contract.

“If you look at international best practice, the regulator is right at the receiving end,” he says, at the regulator’s offices in Centurion. “You don’t get involved because then you can get contaminated, your judgment becomes suspect.”

In September last year, the Mail & Guardian reported that President Jacob Zuma had personally negotiated an agreement with his Russian counterpart regarding the acquisition of nuclear technology, and had then instructed Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson to push the deal through.

As part of the Integrated Resources Plan 2010, nuclear energy will account for 23% of South Africa’s energy, at about 9.6GW, and countries – such as Russia, the United States and France – are lobbying to be the provider of the technology.

“If you mix too much with them [the technocrats, operators, politicians and technology providers], then comes that sympathy,” says Tyobeka. “And you say, ‘I think government is more inclined towards Japan’s technology. If I say no, I may be seen to be hampering the process because I was part of these discussions.’ [You will] know the inclination, and it will influence the decision at the end.”

Technology adviser
The government, however, is encouraged to approach the regulator for advice to ensure it is pursuing technology that can be licensed by the NNR.

But even though he is an expert in the field of nuclear technology – before he became NNR chief executive in 2013, Tyobeka was the head of nuclear power technology development at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – he maintains that the regulator cannot be part of discussions about the choice of technology because of lobbying and “inclination”.

These behind-closed-doors discussions are important factors in the nuclear industry, which is renowned for its secrecy, and are a concern for many South Africans, who see this nuclear deal as an avenue for corruption and kickbacks.


National Nuclear Regulator chief executive Bismark Tyobeka.

Last year the government decided to sidestep Eskom as the owner and operator of the new nuclear fleet, even though Eskom is the operator of South Africa’s only nuclear power station, Koeberg. Instead, this decision process will be led by the Cabinet’s energy and security subcommittee and chaired by Zuma.

This situation creates an information vacuum around the acquisition of nuclear technology.

Problem of secrecy
Tyobeka acknowledges that secrecy is a problem in the industry, and something that should be addressed to make the population comfortable with nuclear as an energy option.

He says that when he was an undergraduate student at what is now North-West University, “one of my lecturers used to say: ‘Nuclear remains guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the public’, which is very, very true.

“For us to break that stranglehold, we need to be upfront with information. We don’t need to be chased by the Mail & Guardian.”

There have been a number of instances in which the secrecy of South African operators – and, in the past, the regulator – have added confusion to events just by withholding information.

In 2012, there was a reported break-in at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa’s Pelindaba campus, which is home to the Safari-1 research reactor. Neither the energy corporation nor the NNR would comment, which led to speculation that it was an attack on the main facility, whereas it was a break-in at the adjoining hostel.

Russian agreement
Last year, on the sidelines of the IAEA’s general conference in Vienna, Joemat-Pettersson updated the country’s bilateral agreement with Russia, including the possibility of nuclear reactor procurement from Russia’s nuclear company Rosatom. Both Rosatom and the department of energy issued a statement saying that the agreement “lays the foundation for the large-scale nuclear power plants procurement and development programme of South Africa ... [which would include] new nuclear power plants with Russian VVER reactors”.

This statement intimated that the nuclear deal between Russia and South Africa was a done deal.

Following the public outcry, the department said its comments had been miscommunicated “due to the fact that some information has been shared not in the correct manner and not in the correct context”.

Tyobeka says that when he took over the helm of the organisation he “got the sense that we are not transparent enough as an organisation ... The more transparent you are, the more buy-in you get from the public.”

In the past, there were allegations that the regulator was in the pocket of operators, rather than pushing for them to adhere to legislation. Tyobeka says he does not believe that this was the case, but “it has been a perception that we have helped to nurture”.

Immediate problems
The regulator has more immediate problems, such as a skills shortage and the fact that the treasury has slashed its parliamentary grant, one of its two revenue streams. The other is a fee levied on operators, mines and mineral processing facilities, which are possible radiation sites and so have to be monitored.

“Come 2017 ... the grant will have been cut from about R38-million to under R20-million. That’s a huge cut [which is] obviously not workable,” he says, noting that the regulator and its line department, the department of energy, are lobbying the treasury to alter its decision.

Its two problems are linked, because the regulator needs the grant to develop the specialised skills necessary for regulator employees. “Without human capital, nothing flies,” Tyobeka says, but adds that at universities you can “get the basics in nuclear ... but that does not equip you to be a regulator. You need special training.”

This is why Tyobeka says he has devised a “grand plan”: a centre of excellence in nuclear safety and regulation, based at North-West University to “create a pipeline of skills ... directly to the regulator”.

But this comes with a price tag – R50-million, according to Tyobeka. With plans for the centre to open in April this year, it will be one of the first casualties of the budget cuts. “We are in serious discussions with government to say ‘please reconsider this’ because, with a proposed large-scale nuclear build, the country desperately needs people who can regulate it.”

 
Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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