Nuclear Waste Management Policy: Department briefing

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Mineral Resources and Energy

13 September 2006
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

13 September 2006

Chairperson: Mr E N Mthethwa (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Department of Minerals and Energy: Nuclear Waste Management Policy: Part1, Part2 & Part3
Department of Minerals and Energy: Nuclear Waste Management Policy Powerpoint presentation


The Department of Minerals and Energy briefed the Committee on government’s nuclear waste management policy. They also explained all the new developments in the nuclear sector and new possibilities that had not been captured in the policy. Most important of this was a beneficiation proposal from six leading nuclear power countries, which suggested that countries without developed nuclear power capabilities agree not to build them in exchange for supply of nuclear fuel.

The Committee voiced concerns about nuclear waste and the lack of solutions presented by the Department. The Committee wanted more details of South Africa’s options for recycling nuclear fuel, Deep Geological Disposal Sites and uranium mining. It made it clear that nuclear energy was a far-reaching and serious topic which required the input of the South African public.


Chairperson’s opening

The Chairperson opened the meeting by explaining that the Committee and Department were on a path to discover a policy for a very important matter that is topical worldwide. The challenge of nuclear energy is that it is a double-edged sword, with advantages to be exploited but also untold problems that arise from the waste.

Introduction by Department of Minerals and Energy (DME)

Mr N Maqubela (Chief Director: Nuclear) conveyed the Director-General’s apology for his absence on account of Mining Week in Johannesburg. Mr Schalk de Waal (Director: Nuclear Safety) and Ms Lerato Sedumedi (Deputy Director: Nuclear Technology) were joining him instead. He wanted to discuss six issues of importance before the presentation. The legislative framework allows nuclear energy to be exploited to the fullest according to the Nuclear Energy Act. The waste policy and strategy would be explained in the presentation. A nuclear disaster management plan has been developed and is with the Department of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG). The Minister had launched the ‘Women in Nuclear’ programme, which has grown to include 460 members without much attention from the public. This happened fairly quickly. The establishment of the ‘Young Nuclear Professionals Society’ has set up young people to be the recipients of skills from older experts. This was to provide South Africa with a base on which to grow its nuclear sector.

Internationally, there is an undeniable resurgence of nuclear energy with the main leaders being France, Finland and the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation has a huge programme and planned to build a large number of new nuclear reactors. The Republic of Korea, Japan, India and China were all building too. The anticipated rise in the price of uranium is a new issue. It may be an opportunity for South Africa, with its mineral resources, to take advantage. The price of uranium was depressed because stocks of weapons grade uranium have been used in the creation of nuclear fuel. The Russian Federation has announced that by 2013, they will no longer be diluting their uranium, which will consequently increase the price. If mining uranium in South Africa is possible, it must be orderly and must not create a bad legacy for future generations. There is, however, an opportunity for job creation, especially in the Northern Cape, Western Cape and parts of the Free State where mining may be viable.

With new power plants, there would be a shortage of forging capacity which would affect the building of the necessary infrastructure. The oil and nuclear sectors have put pressure on the forging industry. There are only two countries capable of producing forging equipment: France and Japan. If their resources were “booked” by other countries, South Africa would have to join the queue, thus changing the building timelines and targets. Another challenge lies in value addition to uranium through a beneficiation process. There has been a proposal from six countries, including the USA, UK, the Russian Federation, France and the Netherlands. It suggests that those countries without the capabilities to beneficiate should not build nuclear power stations and they will then be granted a supply of nuclear power. The Committee must consider to what extent this becomes a commercial barrier for countries with uranium resources. The proposal will be provided to the Committee for it to consider what South Africa’s response should be.

In the following week the Minister will lead a delegation to the 50th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). South Africa will be president of the conference. Key issues will be discussed at the conference. There is also a side event of discussing the new approach to beneficiation of uranium. More information will thus arise out of the conference. The approach to nuclear energy cannot be tentative as there is no middle road. South Africa must be resolute and disciplined, have competent people and be vigilant. The country must be careful not to make plans that cannot be rolled out because of forging limitations.

The Chairperson said the Department would have to submit the proposal from the six countries to the Committee. The Committee now needed information on nuclear disaster management.

DME Presentation on Nuclear Waste Management

Dr de Waal presented the Department’s policy on nuclear waste management. It highlighted a two-fold vision for the policy: safety within national and international policy principles and establishment of a comprehensive framework for waste management. He outlined what the national and international policy principles included and gave a breakdown of the government structures that would manage radioactive waste. The presentation outlined the policy pronouncements including possible options for disposing of Low, Intermediate and High Level Waste. Low and Intermediate Level Waste will continue to be stored at Vaalputs. High Level Waste can be stored above ground or in deep geological sites or can be reprocessed to recover 95% of spent fuel. Attributes of each approach were provided. The Department passed around a small canister that represented the volume of waste that would be produced from the average French family in 20 years.


Mr G R Morgan (DA) thought that the “in principle there would be no export or import of nuclear waste” point in the National Principles was curious and asked whether this was because recycling could only be done overseas. He asked the Department if their forward planning included a plan for disposal of waste from other types of new reactors.

Mr E J Lucas (IFP) asked about the time period for above ground storage and also asked for an explanation of the “principle of no import or export of nuclear waste”.

Mr C D Kekana (ANC) expressed his confusion as the Department had named France and Japan as leaders in the production of reactors and he wondered what had happened to all the experience and weaponry that came from the military sector in the USA, UK and Russian Federation, considering their history. With regards to beneficiation, he wanted to know what the public thought as it sounded like an extension of colonialism. He thought it was dictatorial of countries to retain nuclear weapons and tell other countries that they cannot make any.

Prof I J Mohamed (ANC) said that he would have to go back to questions he had already asked Dr de Waal previously, but that he would repeat them in order to get answers. He understood that uranium is produced as a bi-product of gold mining, but it was suggested that there would be mining specifically for this resource. Does beneficiation include the enrichment of nuclear fuel? The Energy White Paper stated that new nuclear power plants could not be built without public consultation, yet government was going ahead. The community feels strongly that they are being sidelined on the issue of nuclear energy. Keeping High Level Waste above ground would be dangerous as it would be a target for terror attacks; has the Department looked for Deep Geological sites? In the recycling of spent fuel, his understanding was that the waste would go to Japan, who would extract the plutonium, and we would then receive the remainder which was even more dangerous. He felt that the canister that the Department had brought to show the Committee was misleading as it seemed innocuous, yet the contents could be highly dangerous.

Mr J J Combrinck (ANC) asked who would manage the waste as municipalities typically had a lack of skills.

Mr W D Spies (FFP) requested an explanation of the statement that the cost of recycling and Deep Geological storage were equivalent.

Mr L W Greyling (ID) agreed with Prof Mohamed that the size of the waste was not important but rather the danger it posed. He felt the policy was more of a problem identification document than the identification of solutions. The USA had already spent $8 million without finding a real solution. He asked how many times the spent fuel at Koeberg would be re-racked and whether climate change would affect the safety of Vaalputs as a disposal site. He felt strongly that although there is resurgence in nuclear energy worldwide; there is also resurgence in alternate sources of energy which the Department has neglected to mention. The world is hungry for fuel and it is a choice that the country itself should be able to make. It is not wise to put all the money into nuclear energy as South Africa does at present. The issue of weapon proliferation will always be linked to nuclear energy.

Mr Maqubela said if they decided to construct a nuclear power plant there would be public participation. There are laws in place to ensure this, including an environmental impact assessment. The application for a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor is the only one at present and it would have public participation. It is still early days for beneficiation but it is important for the Committee to follow the debate. It is curious that the countries making the proposal already all benefit commercially from enrichment. It is only a proposal and no one has said that some countries would be excluded, though South Africa may be excluded because we lacked a beneficiation plant. The beneficiation process means that ore in the ground is concentrated to form a ‘yellow cake’ which is exported and converted to a gas, and finally enriched to form fuel. A uranium isotope is needed for the fuel for the reactor. In South Africa, the ore concentrate is exported, processed, and then imported as fuel. SA had the capability to do this prior to 1995 when the plants were decommissioned. The energy consumed by these plants due to the early technology made them unviable. The Department would provide the paper from the six countries by the end of the day and possibly set up a meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss the proposal. To clarify the meaning of not being tentative when it comes to nuclear energy, he explained that this is to avoid errors and poorly motivated workers. Such a project would need commitment. South Africa needs to cultivate a culture of doing things well or not at all. No decision has been taken and would not be until cost/benefit analyses have been conducted.

Mr de Waal said the ‘principle’ against import and export of nuclear waste is to allow for the possibility of using spent fuel from other countries, especially the Russian Federation, as well as for proliferation. Such export and import would be internationally managed. South Africa is open to such an option where we would receive 5% of waste back. With regards to forward planning for waste from new plants; it was still early days and South Africa was very advanced in even having a policy. Koeberg will continue to work for another 20-30 years, with an additional ten-year cooling off period, after which the waste can be dry-stored. This has been the procedure worldwide since the start of nuclear energy. Above ground storage is very long term, having been in place since the start of nuclear energy, but discussions would take place to clarify timelines for South Africa.

It is true that uranium is a by-product of gold mining, but there are some sites in the Karoo where there is just uranium. The Department will explore this option. Eskom is examining possible Deep Geological Sites for nuclear waste disposal or storage. He was not aware of an offer from Japan to extract plutonium. The French have a closed programme where the last 5% of waste is stored in canisters. A mixed oxide fuel is made from the other 95%. The National Nuclear Regulator would have to approve above ground storage in light of possible terror attacks. Management of nuclear waste would be at a national level only, according to the government structure outlined in the presentation. The Minister would be the authority. The costs of Deep Geological Sites and recycling being equivalent come from a study done jointly by Eskom and the French company Arriva.

The canister that the Department brought was meant only to gain perspective on the quantity of waste that would be produced by the average French family over 20 years. The Department thinks that there are solutions, for example, the French programme of recycling of other country’s waste or direct disposal. Wet storage will be used for the remainder of Koeberg’s lifetime, after which the rest will go into dry storage. There is no reason to think that climate change will affect the safety of Vaalputs. It is a facility for Low and Intermediate Level Waste only, and the half life of such waste is 180 years; a time scale which should not be affected by climate change. Vaalputs rates well internationally as a safe site.

Mr Maqubela added that there is a worldwide trend toward reprocessing nuclear waste. Japan had just commissioned a plant and the USA has spent $20 billion dollars on Deep Geological Sites but is now looking at possibilities for reprocessing. The problem is that it is not clear what should be done with the plutonium; it should possibly be given to the IAEA for management.

The Chairperson summarised that it was a long process but they were on the road. The policy has more problems than solutions. High Level Waste is most important and was a huge challenge. The Committee needed a comprehensive picture of mining sites in other developing countries to get a perspective on how the country should progress. He agreed that they needed to engage more with the issues that Mr Kekana had raised. Eskom is a state-owned entity and as such cannot pronounce on policy. The Department must look forward on disaster management as it is a difficult area and it is important not to burden future generations. There are far-reaching consequences to nuclear energy.

The meeting was adjourned.



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