Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA); National Nuclear Regulator (NNR): briefing

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Mineral Resources and Energy

26 November 2003
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

26 November 2003

Chairperson: Mr M Goniwe

Documents handed out
NECSA Powerpoint presentation
NNR Powerpoint presentation

Department website:
NECSA website
NNR website:

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa and the National Nuclear Regulator provided an annual report and the challenges facing them. Concerns raised by members were mainly around the proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor and the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

Presentation by NECSA
Mr S Thobejane, CEO of NECSA, briefed the Committee on changes which had taken place in NECSA over the last 24 months and challenges which faced the organisation in the future (see document)

Mr Lucas (IFP) asked if there was any progress with the management of nuclear waste. He also asked what the growth possibilities were. He questioned why trade was still being linked to the dollar.

On the issue of growth, Mr Thobejane replied that there were various projects which NECSA was pursuing. Some were nuclear-focused while others were not. It was believed that with enough support, growth would take place. Mr Thobejane pointed out that the world economy revolves around certain currencies. South Africa could therefore not determine which currency to use. The challenge was to find a balance between the different currencies and not to deal only in dollars.

Mr Ngcobo (ANC) asked the status of research and development as far as nuclear physics was concerned. He also had a concern about the future of waste disposal. More information was asked for on the enrichment plant that had been sold to China. He inquired about NECSA's relationship with the JET project in the UK around nuclear fusion.

Mr Thobejane replied that NECSA was investigating the joint EU project. It was however difficult to enter into this project. It was also correct that some assets had been sold and decommissioned. Some h ave been sold as scrap and other as working components. This happened as the company was downgraded and changed its mission. Mr De Villiers (NECSA) added that reactor physics training at university was not substantial. This was therefore happening more at NECSA and attempts were being made to grow training at universities. Training at NECSA was growing and the aim was to draw in more PDI's in this training.

Prof. Mohamed (ANC) pointed out that NECSA had slumped because of loss of skilled manpower and asked if this was still continuing. Concerning the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), he said that it was not sure if this had been approved yet. There had also been rumours that ESKOM was considering withdrawing from the project which was a costly one. The presentation had also mentioned that NECSA was producing radio isotopes. Were they working with Ithemba Labs which also produces isotopes? Referring to the SAFARI reactor, he noted that at one time, the science review of the Department had suggested that money on this reactor was being wasted. He asked if there had been any turnaround there. He was also concerned that there might be a conflict of interest between NECSA and the NNR since both were being governed by the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs.

Mr Thobejane replied that it was true that the science review had indicated that the SAFARI reactor was not utilised effectively. Over the years NECSA had managed to transform the reactor to be profitable. The Radiation and Isotope Business (NTP) relies heavily on the reactor and would not be able to cope without it. SAFARI was also being used for training and development. He pointed out that Ithemba Labs produced short-life isotopes whereas NECSA produced long life isotopes. There may be a need however to align or fuse these activities. Personnel who had left the company had moved into different spheres within the industry. It was a challenge since skills had been lost.

Mr Oliphant (ANC) asked at what stage the PBMR was. He also wanted more information about NECSA's personnel especially at management level regarding employment equity and in particular, the gender breakdown.

Mr Thobejane replied that the PBMR was quite a difficult project. Over the last eight years ESKOM had developed the project and technology on paper. Over the last four years some of these technologies had become a reality in laboratories. NECSA is able to produce the fuel balls at the moment for the project. The project is now being tested to see if it is commercially viable and safe. All indications so far have been positive. The next phase is to actually build the reactor. This was a challenge as investors were a bit reluctant as returns would only be seen in 2026. There were also issues around regulations and licensing which had to be taken into consideration. Government had taken the first steps to produce a regulatory framework. Licencing would take about two to three years to do. The parties involved in the project at the moment were ESKOM, the Industrial Development Corporation (providing funding), and BNFL (the international partner). The US had pulled out of the project. NECSA was providing a service to the project at present. NECSA had since decided to participate in the project as an investor. They were raising funds now in order to do this. It was also necessary to try to bring in more stakeholders.

In response to the question on employment equity he referred to the presentation and said that they acknowledged that this was a challenge. White males remain in the majority. These employees had the knowledge and expertise and the challenge was to mentor young previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs). This required money and projects. This was a major challenge. He acknowledged that the executive management was still male. The breakdown of the board had however changed quite significantly and included quite a few black females.

Ms Mathibela (ANC) referred to the water purification projects for rural areas. She questioned why this was in rural areas in particular.

Mr Thobejane replied that the water purification project was not just in the rural areas although they did realise that there was a great need that people should have access to clean drinking water.

The issue around nuclear waste, which had been raised by a number of members remained a challenge according to Mr Thobejane. NECSA was managing the Vaalputs site which was for low level and intermediate waste. There was no answer however for long-lived waste however internationally. There were new answers being made available internationally. In South Africa the DME had drawn up a policy regarding waste. This was a huge step. This would go a long way in guiding the country. The process was underway to involve all stakeholders to give input and help to find answers to the disposal of these high level waste products.

The Chair said that there remained many questions as this was a complex issue, but time did not allow for this. He thanked NECSA for the enlightening presentation and added that the Committee would make a point of visiting NECSA in 2004.

National Nuclear Regulator presentation
Ms L Zondo, NNR CEO, briefed the Committee on the challenges which faced the NNR which aim to protect the public from harmful nuclear practices (see presentation). One challenge is that the NNR was technically insolvent due to the post-retirement medical aid liability. The NNR applies AC 116 [an Accounting Circular on Employee Benefits] in the case of post-employment medical aid and this is disclosed in the NNR's Balance Sheet. The NNR uses the actuarial assumptions as the estimates of the variables that will determine the ultimate cost of providing the post-employment benefit.

Funding for the NNR was crucial as Treasury supplied only 17% of it funds. The rest was obtained from authorisation fees. It was reported that it would not be easy to sustain human resource development (capacity building, succession planning, internship programme, bursary scheme and security capacity), without the acquisition of additional funds

Mr Ngcobo (ANC) commented that the technology used in the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) was not new and therefore did not see why this was such a huge challenge. He also asked how this technology could be commercialised since there were similar projects internationally. He inquired about the shipping of nuclear material from Durban to Pretoria. This was very dangerous as it was reported that a truck had gone missing on such a journey. He also asked whether the US was training the staff of the NNR.

Ms Zondo agreed that the technology was not new. The NNR had used expertise from Germany and the US to help. The NNR was not involved in the commercialisation of the technology as its function was a regulatory one. She was not aware of the case involving the shipment of nuclear fuel. It was important though to get information about this to see if there was something to investigate further. The NNR had not interacted with the US Department of Energy. There was a relationship however with the US Regulatory Commission. Exchanges were happening so that capacity building could take place.

Mr Lucas (IFP) asked what was being done by the NNR to retain people that were being trained as many of these staff leave to go elsewhere. He also suggested that the technical insolvency should be cleared.

Ms Zondo replied that retention of staff was a challenge. The NNR had an internal policy that staff should give back what they have learnt. They were therefore trying to retain them for a longer time

Prof. Mohamed (ANC) asked what was happening regarding waste as it was reported that the fuel ponds at Koeberg were full. Since the PBMR would also produce waste it was important to know progress had been made. Mines were also producing waste and it was reported that the Meadowlands Mines waste contained carcinogenic material. He had been unable to obtain an answer from the CSIR regarding this.

Ms Zondo replied that more information was needed regarding the carcinogenic waste material. The NNR had no plans with respect to waste management as it was awaiting national policy and strategy. Dr. Hill (Koeberg Reactor) added that the understanding had been that during the life of the Koeberg plant a solution would be found to the problem of high level waste. The pools at Koeberg were therefore not designed to cope with all the waste. In the case of the PBMR, fuel would probably be stored on site. There was no final answer yet to this problem. One of the options being explored was deep repository sites

Mr Ngcobo (ANC) said that one of the problems with the PBMR is it lacked benchmarking standards. He was therefore concerned about safety as the gas experiment done so far was not linked to the neutron physics.

Dr. Hill replied that the experiment was done only to show that the Breyten cycle exists. It was not important to have the link to neutron physics.

The Chair said that it was important that they engage further. He added that he had noted the challenge around funding for the NNR. The meeting was then adjourned.


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