/ 2 June 2016

Regulator advises partial clean-up of radioactive dump in the Karoo

Nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste.

CorrectionNuke body did not advise clean-up
The Mail & Guardian reported (June 3) that the National Nuclear Regulator had “advised an emergency evacuation” of radioactive material from a site managed by Tasman RSA Holdings. The article – “Partial nuke waste clean-up advised” and references to this statement in the editorial were incorrect. This was based on an incorrect reading of the regulator’s report. It did not advise a clean up and the regulator has subsequently said: “Based on the outcomes of the regulatory investigation, the NNR can confirm that there is no transgression of the regulatory requirements by the authorisation holder.” This investigation had found none of the breaches of law which the M&G had mentioned in its reporting. The M&G apologises for this error and any damage that might have been done to either the National Nuclear Regulator, or Tasman RSA Holdings.

The National Nuclear Regulator has advised an emergency evacuation of radioactive material from a mining site outside Beaufort West in the Northern Cape.

The material was recently dumped in an old mining pit 40km west of the town. The regulator said this had been “in order to move it away from the inhabitants of [a] farmhouse and reduce their exposure”. But that resulted in the nuclear waste being left at a place where “it cannot be contained” because it is exposed to wind erosion and will leach into the ground water.

The regulator’s decision follows a complaint laid by Dr Stefan Cramer, the science adviser for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Initiative. He asked for an investigation into mining waste at the Rietkuil mine outside the town.

READ MORE: Why South Africa should not build eight new nuclear power stations

The operation is run by Tasman Pacific Minerals, which is owned by the Australian-listed mining company, Peninsula Energy. Tasman is prospecting for a giant uranium mine, which would involve digging open pits to supply nuclear material to local and international companies.

Cramer’s complaint followed a visit to the site he undertook with the Mail & Guardian in April this year. Readings taken on a Geiger counter showed radiation levels at Rietkuil in excess of the 0.2 microsieverts an hour legal limit. Old mining debris, left from aborted uranium mining about 40 years ago, exceeded seven microsieverts an hour.

The regulator followed up on the complaint with a site visit at the end of April. Cramer said he was refused entry by the mine when he accompanied the regulator. Cramer said: “This meant the inspector did not go to the sites where we measured the highest levels of radiation.”

READ MORE: Will nuclear solve Africa’s power woes?

As a result, the regulator’s report understated the uranium levels that had been measured in the earlier visit by Cramer and the M&G.

It also only took readings of the new waste, and not of the high radiation readings from old mining waste. The regulator said those levels are still above legal limits.

The historical waste is the responsibility of whoever owns the property at the time; remediation becomes the liability of the operator when a site is sold.

The old waste is lying exposed in the veld. Rain and wind is breaking it down, blowing irradiated particles across the Karoo and leaching it into groundwater.

The current, or newly dumped, waste which the nuclear regulator has advised an “emergency evacuation” for, does the same thing, just quicker.

Over time, it releases radon and polonium, a cocktail the World Health Organisation says can lead to lung cancer and leukaemia. It can also lead to birth defects.

READ MORE: Karoo way of life under threat from mining company

No baseline health study has been done on the effect on people of the 40 years of irradiated waste being blown around the Karoo.

Similarly, no baseline studies have been done on the old gold mine dumps in Gauteng.

But the nuclear regulator’s decision does deal with the immediate threat in the Karoo. Tasman must create a plan to remove the grey dirt safely, which has been dumped in burst white bags.

Tasman did not respond to repeated questions about this waste, or the high uranium readings at their prospecting sites, despite having had six weeks to do so.

UPDATE, June 15: The National Nuclear Regulator subsequently visited this site and conducted an inspection. This found that the site is fenced off, with a lockable gate controlling access and egress. External gamma dose rates of between 0.04 microSieverts per hour and 3.57 microSieverts per hour – which is what the regulator measured – were therefore acceptable, “given that there is a strict access to the site”. As a result, the regulator said: “It is unlikely that the dose limit for the public (1 microSievert per annum) would be exceeded.”  

When it comes to the possibility of waste being blown about, or leaching into the air, the regulator said that it was waiting for a compliance report from the mining company. This report would show all the ways in which waste could affect the surrounding environment, and people. Until then, the regulator said: “The NNR shall engage the authorisation holder in ensuring that the material is contained in such a manner that it will not be prone to wind erosion and leaching into underground water while finalising the safety assessment, which shall inform how best to handle this material.”