Radiation Waste Management Policy: briefings by Department, NECSA, National Nuclear Regulator & Pebblebed Modular Reactor (PBMR)

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Mineral Resources and Energy

25 May 2005
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report


25 May 2005

Mr E Mthethwa (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Department presentation on Radioactive Waste Policy
NECSA presentation
Report on the Activities of the National Nuclear Regulator
PBMR Holdings presentation

The Committee heard presentations on nuclear issues from the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME), the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (NECSA), the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) and Pebblebed Modular Reactor (PBMR) Holdings. The presentations concentrated on government’s draft radiation waste management policy; Earthlife Africa’s allegations of a secret nuclear dump at NECSA’s Pelindaba site; recent developments in the nuclear regulatory framework and the current status of the PBMR project.

Members questioned whether the Minister of Minerals and Energy should be responsible for radiation waste management and the promotion of the nuclear industry; whether Earthlife Africa had unnecessarily created public panic with its allegations; and whether the PBMR project would have real benefits for South Africa.

Department briefing
DME Chief Director: Nuclear, Mr T Maqubela briefed the Committee on the Department’s draft Radioactive Waste Management Policy. The Department’s vision was the safe management of radioactive waste (radwaste) in accordance with national objectives and international principles by developing a comprehensive governance framework. The sources of radwaste in SA were Koeberg Power Station, NECSA’s facilities at Pelindaba, mines and hospitals. Of these, the spent fuel from Koeberg presented the biggest challenge as it was long-lived and highly radiotoxic.

The current status of radwaste management was that waste was being managed safely, but a long-term waste strategy remained lacking. Public understanding of radwaste management was poor and government needed to improve its capacity for long-term waste management. The draft policy was based on the principles of protection of human health, the environment and future generations. Other principles included the establishment of a national legal framework, control of waste generation, safety of facilities, the polluter pays, transparency, sound decision-making, no import or export, co-operative governance, international co-operation, public participation and capacity building and education.

The proposed governance structure for radwaste management would consist of an executive co-ordinating committee, the NNR and a National Radwaste Agency. It was still to be decided whether the latter would be a stand-alone institution or whether it would form a division of NECSA. The Department was proposing a National Waste Fund to whom all generators of radwaste would contribute. This fund would be independently managed by a government-appointed entity.

Three options were proposed for further investigation in how to deal with high-level waste. These were Above Ground Interim Storage (AGIS), Deep Geological Disposal (DGD) and Reprocessing, Conditioning and Recycling (RCR). AGIS had the benefit that waste could be stored off-site, it allowed for the development of new technology and it was comparatively cheap. However, it was not a permanent solution and could burden future generations. DGD was the most accepted option worldwide, South African mining experience would be useful; it would add to job creation and would leave a more manageable legacy for future generations. However, choosing an appropriate site remained a big challenge. RCR extracted uranium and plutonium from the spent fuel thereby removing the bulk of toxicity and reducing waste volumes considerably. However, proliferation issues, the fact that no such capacity existed in SA and the large upfront spending requirements of RCR in France and the UK were problematic.

The status of the policy was that it had been published for public comment, a number of capacity building workshops had been conducted and the Department had reviewed received comments. It was being revised and would be submitted to Cabinet in August 2005 for approval.

NECSA briefing
Dr van Zyl de Villiers, General Manager: Nuclear Services dealt with recent widely-reported Earthlife Africa (ELA) allegations and its requests for access to NECSA’s medical records. ELA had gained unauthorised access to NECSA’s calibration facility for radiometric instruments at Pelindaba on 23 April. On 26 April, NECSA was informed of a press conference where ELA would allege evidence of a "secret nuclear waste dump". On 27 April, the NNR had visited the site and directed NECSA to secure it with padlocks, erect a new fence and proper signposting and to place a full-time security guard on duty. NECSA had immediately complied with the directive.

The facility had been built in 1972 as an upsurge in uranium exploration had created a need for standardisation and calibration of radiometric field instruments. The facility consisted of 11 flat, circular concrete slabs and two boreholes containing known amounts of uranium, thorium and potassium. The radioactive material contained within the facility had not been processed but was kept in the form it occurred in nature to simulate typical ore bodies.

The site had been used extensively until the late 1980s and had originally been chosen due to the low natural background radiation levels and to allow easy access for external users. The site was "passively safe" and had been included in a list of active NECSA facilities that was submitted to the NNR. In essence, a person would have to spend 250 hours within three meters of the cylinders to receive a radiation dose equal to the maximum allowed public dose limit.

NECSA had received 173 requests for medical and other information via ELA in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), 2000. No claims had been received in terms of the NNR Act, 1999 or the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, 1993. NECSA had thus far submitted 22 files to ELA, but 33 of the requesters could not be identified as former NECSA employees.

ELA had also requested access to personnel / human resource files, radiation exposure test results, claims records, death certificates and post mortem records. PAIA was promulgated in 2000, while the requested records dated back to the period 1970 to 1984. The information was available but was held in different filing systems and sites and was therefore difficult to retrieve. NECSA had therefore decided to appoint a full-time task team to investigate allegations by ELA and former employees and to compile the medical records of all 25 000 former employees.

NNR briefing
NNR CEO, Mr M Magugumela dealt with the NECSA calibration facility incident and developments in the nuclear regulatory arena. Upon being informed of the ELA allegations, the NNR had investigated and issued the directive to NECSA mentioned above. The outcome of its investigation was that the site contained no loose radioactive contamination that could be dispersed and that radiation levels did not pose a risk to the public. The NNR’s conclusion was that there was no safety concerns for the public and that there was no need for public panic. The NNR welcomed public input, but cautioned that the issue had highlighted the need for better interaction between all roleplayers in the nuclear field to avoid alarmist allegations.

The NNR felt that legislative updates were required to bring the lower spectrum of nuclear facilities into the regulatory net. It also recommended the education of the public on nuclear issues by using public safety forums, civil society forums and radiation workers forums.

Recent developments in the regulatory environment included the NNR’s continued involvement in international best practice bench-marking and strengthening its co-operation with the SA Police Services (SAPS) which is responsible for national key point security at facilities such as Koeberg Power Station.

PBMR Holdings briefing
PBMR General Manager: Fuel Division, Mr T Makubire said that worldwide nuclear electricity production as a share of total electricity production had been increasing steadily since the 1970s. Currently, it comprised 16% of world electricity generation. An international nuclear resurgence was underway with new reactor orders in Finland, France and Bulgaria. The UK and USA were considering new building programmes, while construction continued in Japan, India, Russia and China.

The PBMR design used a high temperature helium cooled reactor that relied on coated particle fuel. It was safer and cleaner than other nuclear reactor designs. The PBMR had ten unique features, viz. it was inherently safe, small, modular, could be built anywhere, was cost competitive, environmentally friendly, generated very little waste, had a short construction lead-time, had fast-loading characteristics and was a SA project with global impact.

The PBMR Company’s goals included successfully commissioning a demonstration plant and a fuel manufacturing plant; establishing a secure supply chain; obtaining US certification; achieving its sales plan and facilitating national skills development, local manufacturing and capacity building. The company intended finishing the demonstration plant adjacent to Koeberg by 2009 and hoped to hand over the first commercial unit to Eskom by 2013.

World electricity generation growth since 1980 equated to about 600 new PBMRs per annum. If the company sold 100 PBMRs it would have a net positive effect on SA’s balance of payments of R24 billion over a twenty-year period. Government revenue would increase by R38 billion over the same period.

Mr W Spies (FF+) asked whether NECSA’s former employees had consented to their medical information being released to a third party, i.e. ELA. Dr De Villiers confirmed that consent had been provided before release of the information.

Professor I Mohammed (ANC) asked whether the Minister of Minerals and Energy should be responsible for the management of radwaste while also being responsible for the promotion of nuclear energy in terms of the Nuclear Energy Act, 1998. Mr Maqubela responded that the Minister’s dual responsibilities did not concern the Department. There had never been any inkling of a conflict of interest, while it should be noted that the NNR Board consisted of all stakeholders. They had never raised similar concerns. Further, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had given SA a clean bill of health in its last evaluation and issues of conflict of interest or poor governance had not been raised.

Professor Mohammed asked who would be responsible in the event that terrorists attacked Koeberg. Mr Maqubela pointed out that safety and security at Koeberg was dealt with in terms of the National Keypoints Act. The SAPS administered the Act, while the Department, NNR, National Defence Force and other stakeholders played a supporting role. Security threats to all national keypoints were constantly reviewed and planning was currently being done to counter a design threat to Koeberg.

Professor Mohammed enquired whether the Department was actively looking for a permanent deep-level radwaste disposal site and whether the Council for Geoscience (CGS) was assisting in this process. Mr Maqubela said that no decision had yet been made on a deep-level site, but the CGS would be asked for assistance if Cabinet ever made such a decision.

Professor Mohammed wanted to get more clarity on an alleged incident at Pelindaba when containers holding radwaste were accidentally excavated. Dr de Villiers said that he knew only of an incident about 10 years ago at the Thabana site when low-level solid waste canisters had been damaged. These were extracted, repackaged and restored without detrimental effects. The incident had been reported to the NNR.

Ms N Mathibela (ANC) wanted to know how safe NECSA’s Pelindaba site was and whether people living close by would be adversely affected. Dr de Villiers answered that the site was safe and that NECSA had spent around R10 million two years ago to upgrade security. The DME had provided part of the funding via a grant. He added that no people were living close to the facility.

Mr C Molefe (ANC) stated that he was concerned that Members were receiving presentations on the day of meetings only. This gave them no opportunity to properly prepare. He added that it created the impression that something was being hidden from the Committee and that it was being "undermined". Mr Maqubela apologised for not submitting the presentation to the Committee beforehand, but he did point out that the draft radwaste policy had been submitted some time ago to Members. Dr de Villiers stated that his presentation had been submitted electronically to the Committee Secretariat beforehand, but that NECSA’s team had to make copies for Members on the morning of the meeting.

Mr Molefe also wanted to know where the Department’s capacity building workshops had been held. Mr Maqubela said the workshops had been held close to existing nuclear facilities, i.e. in Cape Town, close to Vaalputs and near to Pelindaba. He added that the Department would hold workshops in other areas too.

Mr Molefe added that radwaste management funding existed, but that expertise to reprocess waste locally did not. He asked why SA was not developing its own reprocessing capabilities. Mr Maqubela responded that the country was developing its own general nuclear capacity. For instance, 47 graduates were currently employed at the PBMR Company in a bursary scheme. Dr de Villiers added that the maximum SA resources should be used to quickly expand local capacity. This could be done through applying international expertise to local conditions.

Mr L Greyling (ID) commented that SA’s secret nuclear past was affecting the present. He wanted to know if NECSA would redesign its medical record systems in light of the gaps exposed by the ELA requests for access. Dr de Villiers responded that NECSA had already made changes to its medical surveillance reporting as required by new directives from the NNR.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) pointed out that decades worth of nuclear research existed globally and wanted to know whether SA could not tap into this research rather than having to "re-invent the wheel". Mr Maqubela responded that Finland currently led the way in waste disposal, while France was the leading country for spent fuel reprocessing. SA needed its own research because of geological and climate differences, but the country would learn what it could from international research.

The Chairperson asked about the wisdom of creating the National Waste Agency within NECSA. He acknowledged concern about the proliferation of state agencies, but added that the formation of such a stand-alone agency for radwaste should not be dismissed outright as a possibility. Mr Maqubela agreed, but pointed out that a decision had not been reached and that it was Cabinet’s prerogative to decide on the matter.

Mr Molefe asked if NECSA complied with all labour legislation at its various facilities. Dr de Villiers said that NECSA complied with all labour, health and environmental legislation. Special precautionary measures were taken for radiation workers, while all claims were thoroughly investigated.

Mr Greyling commented that more time should have been allocated for "interrogating" the PBMR presentation as government had provided funding of some R600 million to the project in the previous financial year. He asked why the demonstration plant would only be completed by 2013 when earlier presentations stated it would be complete by 2003. He also wanted to know how much of the final R12 billion cost would be borne by the SA taxpayer and why a DME feasibility study done in 2002 had never been released publicly.

Mr Makubire agreed that more time would be needed to properly explain the PBMR project. The project had gone far beyond the feasibility stage, the reactor design had been completed and the next step was to build the demonstration reactor at Koeberg. The PBMR Company was holding discussions with a large number of potential investors and was confident that foreign funding would be available to cover part of the eventual costs. Mr D Nichols, PBMR Chief Technology and Safety Officer added that the company had never set final deadlines for the completion of the demonstration reactor and that previous indications were for planning purposes only.

Professor Mohammed wanted to know how much government had contributed to the PBMR project up to this point and how much it would contribute in future. He also wanted to know how much the PBMR Company had contributed.

Mr Nichols said government had thus far contributed only R600 million. The rest of the funding would come from international investors and Eskom. The PBMR Company had not made any financial contributions as it was a holding company only.

Mr E Lucas (IFP) wanted to know if the PBMR would make any real difference to the cost of electricity in SA and whether testing the reactor fuel in Russia only now meant that the project could still be shelved if the tests failed. Mr Nichols said the project was vital for SA’s technological future and that exports would add to the country’s economic growth. The cost of electricity would at worst remain stable at current prices as the PBMR would become the lowest-cost producer of electricity.

Mr Makubire added that the Russian irradiation test would only confirm the quality of fuel produced thus far. If the tests produced poor results, the fuel would be improved, but the project would not be scrapped.

Mr Kekana said ELA had raised a false alarm over the NECSA calibration facility and asked what could be done to prevent unnecessarily creating public panic in future. Mr Magugumela encouraged the public to contact the NNR if they had any nuclear-related concerns or information and expressed the hope that NGOs would act responsibly if they had public safety information in their possession. Dr de Villiers pointed out that public safety information forums existed at all nuclear facilities. No public safety concerns had been aired in such a meeting at Pelindaba two weeks before the ELA allegations were made public.

Mr Spies asked if the closure of the Broederstroom Commando had had any negative effect on Pelindaba security and the incursion by ELA. Dr de Villiers stated that the SAPS were responsible for overall security at Pelindaba and that the closure of the commando unit had had no effect on security at the site.

The meeting was adjourned.


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