Council for Nuclear Safety (CNS): briefing

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Mineral Resources and Energy

11 May 1998
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Meeting report

11 May 1998

Members of the Council of Nuclear safety addressed the Committee on nuclear safety issues for which the Council for Nuclear Safety is responsible.

Mr B Winkler of the Council for Nuclear Safety spoke about the recent visit to our shores by the Pacific Sandpiper, a ship designed to transport nuclear waste, for the purposes of educating the public and demonstrating the extremely advanced safety precautions which are taken in the transport of hazardous waste. He said that South Africa does not have the right to prevent vessels carrying nuclear waste from travelling through South African Economic zone waters or indeed Territorial zone waters.

South Africa does not have the right to prevent ships from docking or remaining in our economic or territorial zone for any length of time (they need to be issued with a license in order to do so.) He questioned the wisdom of preventing these ships from docking, especially in an emergency. He mentioned that, as the committee would know (the committee was recently given a tour of the Sandpiper and shown all the precautions), the ships have a large number of safety measures in place to prevent them from sinking. Even if a crash did occur, very little or no radiation would be released as the waste is in an insoluble form and is very well contained. He also says it is probable that, in the highly unlikely event of any material being released, it would be retrieved immediately.

He then mentioned an enquiry into the dangers of plutonium shipment which occurred a number of years ago in South Africa. This enquiry also found that the risk for South Africa was very small indeed. He did however make it clear that this was subjective and that no actual proof existed.

Questions by committee members:
Nxumalo (ANC): Why is the waste being transported & are they dumping it near us?

Botha (FF): Where is the waste material dumped?

Mohamed (ANC): To what extent can a ship withstand pressures at the bottom of the ocean.

Simmons (NP): What are territorial waters? What's the difference between plutonium and the waste material?

Reply from Winkler and Marais:
It is material transported between Japan and France. Japan sends used material to France where it is reprocessed at a specialised facility. The by-products of this process are plutonium that can be used again and high level waste material. Both of the by-products are then shipped back to Japan. Japan has specialised storage or dumping facility for waste. There is no intention of dumping it along the way - and the amount of material is monitored to see if any goes missing

Scientific investigation concluded that Plutonium Oxide (Plutonium is transported in this form) and waste substances are very insoluble and will sink. If degradation occurs, the rate of release would be very slow indeed.

In long term, waste either needs to be disposed of at some facility or reprocessed which provides usable plutonium and some remaining waste in a very inert form. Policy decisions regarding waste disposal have not yet been made by South Africa. A convention last year addressed all these issues which South Africa has not yet signed. In future, we can expect an increase in shipping of waste for reprocessing at these specialised facilities, of which there are only a few world-wide.

Territorial waters represent twelve nautical miles offshore as opposed to economic waters which represent 200 nautical miles offshore.

Nash (ANC): What happened about the previous incident at Koeberg - has it been rectified? The committee visited Koeberg but were not allowed to see most of it, whereas, when they visited a facility in England they were treated much better and shown everything. The committee was treated badly.

Many recommendations were addressed to prevent anything like this happening again. The Council for Nuclear Safety is concerned with safety and does not want to enter into the debate about nuclear power and Koeberg. The council members are not associated with nuclear industry.

The Chairperson stated that he wanted the committee and public to be enlightened about nuclear issues.

DeWet (NP): Why can the Japanese not process waste material themselves ?
Chairperson: Will we get our own processing system?

Response: Would not be economical for South Africa to reprocess Koeberg material here. Japan has the same problem. It is only necessary to have a few reprocessing plants world-wide.

Botha (FF): There have been questions recently about the safety of Koeberg. Can they clear people out of the area fast enough? Are the roads adequate. Is it safe and if not, has this situation arisen recently?

Response from Mr J.Lever: Koeberg is considered to be acceptably safe as it stands by the council. The Council decided that, in addition to consideration of acceptability of safety levels, emergency planning procedures also need to be considered.

An exercise was recently run to see if emergency planning procedures were up to standard and we are satisfied that an evacuation of the area could be carried out at the moment but further development could change this.
Further demographic development has taken place in the area. To address this, Eskom and the council decided that it may be necessary to control development in the vicinity unless it can be shown that appropriate emergency plans can be implemented

Botha: What are the financial implications of this curb on development.?
Blaas (NP): Can the committee get a copy of the report on Koeberg ?

Response: If property development was prevented, people would not be allowed to realise the full economic potential of the land they own. The Council has no power to stop development but is working with the local authorities. Eskom should be approached about the Koeberg report.

The Chairperson commented that the clerk would try and arrange copies for the next meeting.

Mr Botha wanted clarification of property owners rights around Koeberg.

Response: Development within a radius of 16 km of Koeberg has been limited for a long time but badly planned. So people were not buying the land thinking they had full rights to develop.

The Chairperson commented about the unfriendly image of nuclear installations in general such as the lack of accessibility.

Prof. Marais addressed Nash's earlier complaint about the poor treatment the committee members received at Koeberg. Physical security has relaxed at Koeberg compared to in the past, but you can appreciate that we can't have just anyone wandering around.

Nash: We are not just anyone. The British station was much better organised. Nuclear power needs to be more public friendly.

Mr Marais mentioned that there are certain times when one is allowed to see more. When reactor is in full flow, noone can go near. He suggested they phone Eskom and organise a return trip.

Mr Marais talked briefly about mining and radioactive material. The issue of licensing of mines has recently become a Council responsibility. Previously this was the job of the Atomic Energy Board and mines were self-regulating. Exposure of miners to radioactive gas was the original issue but there are many others, for example, the release of radioactive water. Mines are starting to provide information reliably. Mr Winkler added that as far as they were concerned, standards are at an international level.

Nash: We visited some proposed slimes dams (e.g. Meadowlands). Would the Council be responsible for complaints from communities? Could the Council instruct licensees to take measures?

Response: Yes, the Council controls licences therefore mining companies are under a legal obligation to Council.

Louw: Does this comply with international health standards ?
Response: Yes

Chairperson: A lot of safety issues exist which have not been properly addressed such as dust, underground water, houses built with bricks containing mine dump material. Are the doses of radiation acceptable? Measures should be in place to monitor the radiation levels of communities.

Marais: The Council must react to requests for monitoring from the state and public. One problem is that almost all the Council's funding is based on license fees (about 80%) and we don't have the capacity to embark on all these other things.

De Wet (NP): In the Meadowlands situation, the mines were there long before the community. The community encroached on the mine dump. Monitoring should be a community/state responsibility and not the responsibility of the mining company
The Council is responsible for operational mines but should also be responsible for disused mines.

Nash: What is the Council doing about dumps and slime dams encroaching on Soweto and other areas?

Marais : We will provide the committee with written responses to those questions we have not answered. The Council should be in the position of providing facts at a number of levels but there is the problem of capacity. Large scale public education would be very expensive.

Winkler: South Africa has signed an international convention on nuclear safety, the International Atomic Energy Convention. Council is required to provide a report on the state of nuclear safety. An international review of this report will occur and the Council will get feedback on the opinion of the international community and what needs to change.

The Chairperson: The presentation on these broader issues will help the committee tackle decisions.


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