Back to Valindaba: SA’s plan to enrich uranium

Valindaba, once the heart of South Africa's nuclear weapons programme, could be dusted off to play a key part in plans to enrich uranium.

But analysts, academics and experts have raised concerns about the possibility of it just being a vanity project – using technology that can be used for fuel or weapons – and whose costs, could be hidden under the shroud of national security.

The costs of major government infrastructure projects and procurements – from the projected nuclear programme and the president's Nkandla residence to the arms deal – have all ballooned beyond initial estimates, and decision-making has been hidden in the name of state security.

Uranium enrichment could provide a viable niche for South Africa but experts are concerned it could follow the same pattern of expensive secrecy – although much more worrying, considering its nuclear weapons applications. They are asking whether it is being driven by politics and egos.

Several issues come to the fore:

  • South Africa's previous enrichment programme, driven by military imperatives and sanctions, had a blank cheque, but revitalising Valindaba would have to be economically viable.
  • It hinges on the nuclear construction programme, which remains vague. But, if the country builds a fleet of nuclear power stations, it will need a secure supply of fuel rods for the next 50 to 60 years.
  • Although safety is a concern in the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster, environmental organisations say the more stringent regulations will push up the costs.
  • The pebble bed modular reactor, our most recent foray into nuclear energy, cost nearly R10-billion but was mothballed when further funding could not be found.
  • Uranium has been declared a strategic mineral, and all nuclear facilities are national key points, which means that information regarding them is restricted.

From the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa's (Necsa) Pelindaba campus in Hartbeespoort, tall smoke stacks rise out of the veld. Some belong to the Safari-1 nuclear reactor, which produces molybdenum-99, a valuable medical diagnostic tool used to identify cancer. It is exported to 60 countries and brings in about R800-million a year.

Quietly baking
But some stacks stand quietly baking in the hot spring sun; they belong to Valindaba, where South Africa used to enrich uranium for the Koeberg power station and for nuclear weapons.

In isiZulu, Pelindaba means “we don't talk about this anymore”, and Valindaba means “we don't talk about this at all”.

Necsa chief executive Phumzile Tshelane told the Mail & Guardian his board is “seized” about whether to reopen the country's enrichment facilities. “We want Necsa to stand on its own and not rely on government funding.”

In the 2012-2013 financial year, Necsa received R455-million from Parliament to subsidise its operations, an amount that gets smaller each year.

The nuclear energy programme, as laid out in the government's energy policy, makes provision for the addition of 9.6GW to South Africa's electricity capacity from a new fleet of nuclear power stations and is an opportunity for the parastatal to “localise the back end of this procurement; we should localise as much as we can”.

“First enrichment, then fuel fabrication,” Tshelane said, adding that no decision has been taken yet. “We are thinking very hard about it and will announce plans in the next few months.”

However, uranium enrichment is not a subject to be bandied about lightly, either at home or abroad, and particularly at Valindaba.

'Very sensitive'
“Valindaba is a very loaded [term],” said international political scientist, Jo-Ansie van Wyk, based at Unisa. The facility was an important part of South Africa's nuclear weapons programme, and enrichment involves dual-purpose technology, which can be used to enrich uranium beyond fuel capacity to weapons grade.

South Africa is one of a handful of countries in the world to have willingly dismantled its nuclear weapons programme (in 1991) and its nuclear facilities are all subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and scrutiny.

The IAEA would not comment on South Africa's plans, saying: “It's not appropriate for the agency to comment on the standing or policies of individual member states.”

According to a nuclear specialist, who requested anonymity, the problem is that “dual technology is very sensitive from a nonproliferation standpoint. Unless you can justify enrichment in terms of your energy programme, very powerful countries will come down on you heavily.”

This is the main question: Can South Africa justify enriching its own uranium? Is it an economic imperative, driven by the need for a steady supply of nuclear fuel, or an ego-driven need, in the words of former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, to “[wear] long pants”?

All discussions about possible enrichment plans return to the country's nuclear energy programme, because enriching uranium will be economically viable only if the country has a nuclear fleet.

Mining and resources analyst Peter Major, from Cadiz, said South Africa has not been able to build its coal-fired power plants Kusile and Medupi on time and without controversy – and that is basic technology in comparison to building a nuclear power plant.

Environmental impact
Earlier this year, it was determined that the boilers at the Medupi plant did not meet the required specifications. Hitachi, which won the tender to build the boilers, is linked to the ANC's investment arm.

Delays equate to higher costs, and the nuclear programme has already been delayed (even before it has begun), as environmental impact assessments for possible power plant sites have not been completed, namely at Thyspunt in the Eastern Cape, according to lobby groups. Sources expect an announcement on the overall plans by March next year.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature's head of sustainable living, Saliem Fakir, said: “We don't know that we can build these [plants] within time and cost.”

But enriching uranium hinges on South Africa building nuclear power plants. Currently, South Africa exports the heavy metal as ore to countries such as France and the United States, which have enrichment facilities. In 2011, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said his department was overseeing a feasibility study of dual-purpose technology – a move that “raises a red flag”, said Van Wyk.

According to Amelia Broodryk, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, there is “an extra level of sensitivity about what can be made public and what can't”  because of South Africa's history with its nuclear programme.

“If the government has learned anything from the arms deal, it will put all its cards on the table,” Van Wyk said, referring to the controversial arms procurement deal, initially set to cost R30-billion, which has haunted successive ANC governments for nearly two decades. Cost estimates for the nuclear fleet range from R400-billion to R1-trillion.

But the movement of nuclear material into and out of South Africa is governed by state security and – for safety reasons – information about it is not made available. For example, no information is available on the movement of Koeberg's fuel rods. All nuclear sites are national key points – strategic installations with restricted access.

But the nuclear specialist makes a distinction between the movement of nuclear fuel and costing plans: “It's a red herring – you know how much these things cost. They are internationally benchmarked.”

Since Valindaba was completely decommissioned in 1991 when South Africa joined the Treaty for the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it has in effect become a shell.

Tshelane puts the cost of off-the-shelf enrichment technology at about R2-billion, which does not include the entire fuel cycle. Recent construction elsewhere in the world put the cost at over R15-billion. However, Valindaba could already meet the regulatory requirements to enrich uranium, which could reduce costs.

The National Nuclear Regulator, which governs and licenses nuclear activity in the country, said it had not received a specific proposal.

“We've provided Necsa with what our requirements would be over the next 10 to 15 years,” said Tony Stott, a senior manager for nuclear stakeholder management at Eskom, “so they can determine whether it would be viable for them to reopen their conversation, enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities … It would not be viable for them to only supply Koeberg.”

Van Wyk estimated that the country's proposed nuclear installations would consume about 465 tonnes ?of enriched uranium annually by 2030.

Although Eskom would buy fuel rods from Necsa, “as long as the price was right”, it would still diversify its fuel suppliers, Stott said. “We wouldn't want to be 100% dependent on one supplier.”

But, if Necsa does decide to manufacture fuel rods, Tshelane has his eyes on the global market, with enrichment taking place at Valindaba's existing facilities and fuel-rod production at the coast.

“If you want to fabricate fuel, [you could] put it in Coega. Then you can supply anyone because it's on the coast … If your cost is competitive, it doesn't matter where your competitor sits.”

“Our nuclear processing and enrichment were built on military reasons. We don't know what the true cost is,” said Fakir.

South Africa's previous enrichment technology was very inefficient and its cost hidden in a military budget.

An outlay of this kind would first need to be signed off by the treasury, who referred the Mail & Guardian to the department of energy. “They would have to put forward a proposal.”

But for South Africa the first concern would be the security of nuclear fuel for its nuclear fleet – if it happens. “You can run a nuclear programme without enrichment but the risk, of course, is that somebody can stop you,” the nuclear specialist said.

“Nuclear plants last for 60 years. A lot can happen in geopolitics in 60 years.”

The departments of energy and state security did not respond to questions.

From rags to enrichment

  • Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive mineral, declared a strategic mineral in 2007. Fuel-rod uranium is enriched to about 5%, whereas weapons-grade uranium is 80%-90% enriched.
  • The world's main enrichment players are Russia, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, China and Japan, and dozens of countries,  including South Africa, mine ­uranium ore.
  • South Africa still has stockpiles of highly enriched uranium at its Pelindaba campus, but it has to be converted to low-enriched uranium for use in the Safari-1 research reactor. President Jacob Zuma will not disclose the extent of the reserves.
  • Koeberg's nuclear fuel is imported from Avera and Westinghouse.
  • Part of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation's rationale for getting involved in uranium enrichment is to make the entity, beleaguered by a decreasing parliamentary grant and voluntary retrenchments,  self-sufficient. The organisation is also seeking to diversify its offering.
  • The World Nuclear Association predicts that global uranium demand will increase by 48% by 2023, as a result of the 68 nuclear reactors under construction globally.

In 2007, the spot price of uranium hit a record $138 a pound, according to Bloomberg and, after a low of $34.50 two months ago, the price is starting to climb.

Can SA handle such an ambitious project?

Although analysts and civil society are concerned about money, the environment and South Africa's human capacity to build and run power plants or enrichment facilities are also of concern.

When South Africa did a self-assessment in the wake of Fukushima, it invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to gauge its facilities and readiness for nuclear expansion. This report has not been made public, but according to Institute for Security Studies's Amelia Broodryk, when agency head Yukiya Amano visited earlier this year he "didn't have any comments that we couldn't do it … I can't see a body like that saying 'go ahead' without thinking we could manage it properly."

A nuclear specialist echoed her comments: "We've got a good safeguards record; we openly and regularly are inspected by the agency."

However, there is some cause for concern. Six years ago, armed gunmen gained access to Pelindaba, although insiders say it resulted in a review of security measures.

Transport of nuclear fuel is also a worry, but a specialist said: "You require such small quantities of uranium. Nuclear fuel is so powerful you don't need truckloads."

Broodryk noted South Africa needs the human capacity to oversee nuclear operations. But players say South Africa has the capacity to build the skills required.

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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 didnt 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 Africas 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.

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