As South Africa prepares to spend up to R1-trillion on a fleet of nuclear power stations, amid rumours of political lobbying, one organisation says that it refuses to be drawn into the fray.
Bismark Tyobeka, CEO of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), says that for the public entity to fulfill its mandate as an independent regulator, it cannot be part of the discussion concerning which technologies to use, or which country should be supported.
“If you look at international best practice, the regulator is right at the receiving end,” he said, 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 published 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.
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.”
However, government is encouraged to approach the regulator for technology advice, to ensure that it is pursuing technology that can be licensed by the NNR.
But even though the regulator is an expert in the field of nuclear technology – before he became NNR CEO 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 technology choice discussions because of lobbying and “inclination”.
These behind-closed-doors discussions are important factors in the nuclear industry, which is renowned for its secrecy, and a concern for many South Africans, who see this nuclear deal as an avenue for corruption and kickbacks.
The government decided earlier this year to sidestep Eskom as the owner and operator of the nuclear fleet, even though Eskom is the operator of South Africa’s only nuclear power station, Koeberg. This technology decision process will, instead, be led by Cabinet’s energy and security subcommittee and chaired by President Zuma.
This creates an information vacuum around the acquisition of nuclear technology.
‘Guilty until proven innocent’
Tyobeka acknowledges that secrecy is a problem in the industry as a whole, and something that needs to be addressed in order 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,” he says.
There are a number of instances in which the secrecy of South African operators – and in the past the regulator – have added vitality to events just through the withholding of information.
In 2012, there was a reported break-in at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa’s (Necsa’s) Pelindaba campus, which is home to the Safari-1 research reactor. Neither Necsa or 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.
Last year, on the sidelines of IAEA’s general conference in Vienna, Joemat-Petterson 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 that their 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”.
When he took over the helm of the organisation, Tyobeka says 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.”
However, in the past, there have been allegations that the regulator is in the pocket of operators, rather than pushing for them to adhere to legislation. Tyobeka says he does not believe that this was ever the case, but “it has been a perception that we have helped to nurture”.
More immediate problems
But 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 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 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, a R50-million one, according to Tyobeka.
With plans for the centre to open in April this year, the centre 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.