/ 16 March 2022

Nothing ‘new’ or ‘clear’ about National Nuclear Regulator’s decisions

August 18 2020 Eskom’s Koeberg Nuclear Power Station Near Cape Town Is Due To Be Decommissioned In 2024, But The Power Utility Will Be Seeking To Get A License To Extend It’s Use By Another 20 Years. Photo By David Harrison
Civil society organisations and civilians are requesting transparency and participation in the decisions regarding the life extension of Koeberg. (David Harrison/M&G)

It’s been two years since President Cyril Ramaphosa made a promise to “make sure no African child is left behind in the transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient and sustainable society”. At his 2022 State of the Nation address, the president reaffirmed his promise by saying that “No one must be left behind.” If this is the case, and he is truly aiming to make sure his promise is kept, why is it that decisions about energy and nuclear safety are made yet those most affected are not being heard and represented?

On 18 January this year, Peter Becker, a well-known anti-nuclear lobbyist, was suspended by Minister Gwede Mantashe only six months after his appointment to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) board, one intended to provide oversight on nuclear safety.

Becker was elected as a non-executive director to the board in June 2021, after a nine-month period without civil society representation and brought a sense that the NNR board was strengthened by the addition of his science-based, renewable energy skills to the team.

Given that neither Eskom nor the NNR have been transparent about the life extension of the 40-year-old Koeberg plant, it was reassuring to know that Becker could ask the pertinent questions regarding the safety concerns.

Barely six months after being appointed, Becker received the letter from the minister announcing his suspension and, by 25 February, after making representations, Becker received the letter of discharge.

As it happens, the suspension letter from Mantashe was signed on the same day that a long-awaited approval was issued for the Koeberg nuclear plant to replace three of the steam generators.  Such approvals by a regulatory body normally require sign-off from the NNR board. 

“The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) is a public entity established and governed in terms of section 3 of the National Nuclear Regulator Act, (Act No 47 of 1999) to provide for the protection of persons, property and the environment against nuclear damage through the establishment of safety standards and regulatory practices”. The NNR Act requires the board to include a person representing civil society.

In a recent interview Mantashe, a vocal supporter of the nuclear industry, said “You can’t be in a board of something you are working against”.

But is the NNR not tasked with protecting the public and the environment from radiation? Also, civil society organisations elected Becker to the board because of his science background, his nuclear experience and his focus on safety.

Additionally, the discharge based on a “conflict of interest” and removing Becker because of his anti-nuclear views should require the removal of the pro-nuclear department official from the board as well. Why was Becker appointed by the minister in the first place?

Other allegations against Becker include misconduct. These covered complaints of Becker meeting civil society organisations and his requesting more information. 

Concerns about the independence of the NNR are echoed in views long held by international stakeholders. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited South Africa in 2013 and compiled a report, The Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR). The report highlighted some notable areas of concern about South Africa, the two biggest being Nuclear Safety and the independence of the Regulator itself.

Eskom is wanting to refurbish Koeberg destined for final shutdown in 2024 because it has reached the limit of its design life, but they intend to ask permission from the NNR to extend Koeberg’s life until 2044. Whether to grant this permission is the single most significant decision the NNR will ever make, and therefore the most important time to have an NNR board that has a member representing civil society.

The IAEA made the following observations about South Africa in the INIR:

“Considering that the minister of energy is also in charge of the promotion of nuclear energy and, given the structure, the designation of the board members and the process to approve the NNR’s budget, the INIR team is of the view that there is no adequate separation between the regulatory functions and the promotional activities, thus calling into question the effective independence of the NNR.”

Civil society organisations and civilians are requesting transparency and participation in the decisions regarding the life extension of Koeberg, at an estimated cost of R20-billion. Youth activists feel it’s a slap in the face to youth and future generations, a demographic for the most part vocally in opposition to nuclear investment, and clearly in favour of an energy future aligning with the need for green energy transformation. 

Should something that is due to shut down in 2024 still have funds pumped into it, or should Koeberg’s decommissioning begin now? Should we not be investing in renewable energy and alternatives that will have a faster and cheaper turnaround, as well as revitalise our economy and energy systems?

The discharge of Becker by the minister can be viewed as part of an attack on civil society. This cannot go unnoticed — and it means that we must rally other civil society organisations to secure a court decision, or other means necessary to prevent Becker’s exclusion. It seems the position remains empty for extended periods, allowing for questionable decision-making in the absence of valid civil society representation.

In a recent turnaround of events last week, Eskom delayed the life-extending maintenance, the most complex operation ever undertaken by Eskom at the ageing Koeberg Nuclear Power Station. It is apparent that the interim storage building to house the old reactors, which are highly contaminated, is not ready and will not be ready for some months. 

It seems that despite the NNR approval, the French contractors inspected the plant and refused to start the work, because the site was not ready for the steam generator replacement. One cannot help but wonder, if Becker had not been excluded from the Board just before this decision was taken, would this embarrassing mistake have been made by the NNR? This is further reason to question the independence and transparency of the NNR.

“I’m worried about the absolute inability of the regulator and Eskom to deal with this situation… it’s already running three years late … It absolutely amazes me that the national nuclear regulator gave the green light before Eskom was ready,” said energy expert, Chris Yelland

We have confidence that Becker presents fact-based concerns of civil society. We call for the decision to discharge him to be reversed and for the transformation and effective independence of the NNR to be addressed as a matter of urgency.