National Radioactive Waste Management Bill: briefing

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Mineral Resources and Energy

27 August 2008
Chairperson: Mr E Ncgobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Minerals and Energy briefed the Committee on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill which establishes an Agency to manage radioactive waste disposal. The Bill had been the result of the implementation of policy that had been approved in 2005. The policy had called for the establishment of the Agency within 5 years of it being approved. The essence of the briefing was providing background detailing the need for the Bill, international practice on radioactive waste disposal and specifics on the Bill itself.

The need for the Agency was greatly debated by the Committee given the bad track record of agencies formed by government departments. The Chair was convinced that the National Nuclear Regulator could carry out the functions which were perceived to be that of the Agency. The Department disagreed and said if allowed it would be contrary to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Joint Convention to which SA was a signatory. A nuclear regulator could not operate a nuclear institution.

Another point of contention was whether SA had the skills and finances to set up the Agency. The Chair was not convinced by the Department’s argument that skills were available due to the entry of graduates into the sector. He felt that skills shortages in nuclear science and technology was a huge concern and that the setting up of the Agency would have major financial implications. The Committee and the Department did agree to discuss the issues raised at a planned workshop.

Meeting report

The Department of Minerals and Energy briefed the Committee on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill. The delegation was headed by Mr Tsidiso Makubela, Chief Director: Nuclear Energy, and he was accompanied by Ms Ditebogo Kgomo, Director: Nuclear Safety, and Dr Schalk De Waal, Senior Nuclear Specialist.

In his introduction, Mr Makubela said that the management of radioactive waste was a long-term task. He noted that there were issues of continuity and felt that the responsibility should rest with a state owned entity. A well structured organization was needed to undertake the task. The drafting of the bill had to take many factors into account in the formation of the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency. This Agency was not about SA’s nuclear building programme, as radioactive waste was an issue already now. Whether or not new nuclear plants were built, the Agency was still needed. The Bill was the result of the implementation of policy that had been approved in 2005. The policy had called for the establishment of the Agency within five years of the policy being approved.

Ms Kgomo conducted the briefing. The Committee was given an in-depth background into what had necessitated the need for the Bill. She outlined activities that generated radioactive waste, that is, electricity and radio-pharmaceuticals production. The status of radioactive waste in SA was outlined. Spent fuel which was High Level Waste (HLW) was generated at Koeberg and at SAFARI-1 at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa). Koeberg’s spent fuel comprised of about 95% of total spent fuel inventory. Low and Intermediate Level Waste (LILW) from Koeberg was disposed at the Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility. LILW from NECSA still remained on the Pelindaba site.

Ms Kgomo touched on the policy process previously mentioned by Mr Makubela. The Committee was given insight into the current governance and management framework. The Nuclear Energy Act was the authority over the management of radioactive waste and the storage of irradiated fuels was vested in the Minister through regulations. SA had acceded to the IAEA Joint Convention in 2006. Eskom managed its own waste and sent LILW to Vaalputs. NECSA also managed its own as well as small operators’ waste which was done onsite. She noted that the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) issued nuclear authorizations and implemented compliance programmes. There was also a National Committee on Radioactive Waste Management of which Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), Department of Health (DOH) and the NNR were members. Coupled with the formation of the Agency was the intention to set up the Radioactive Waste Management Fund.

International best practice was elaborated upon. It was felt that there should be a separate agency managing the disposal of radioactive waste. Generators of waste should not be entrusted with managing waste disposal. Countries like France, Spain, Hungary, had such agencies in place. Ms Kgomo continued with an explanation of the purpose of the agency, its control and management, its functions, its licensing and its financial management, and its funding. She also elaborated on the responsibilities of generators of radioactive waste, disposal certificates and that all assets, liabilities and staff of current waste disposal facilities would vest in the Agency. Finally, the development process of the Bill was outlined.

Adv H Schmidt (DA) referred to the LILW from Eskom and Koeberg going to Vaalputs and asked why it was different to Pelindaba. He asked what a closed disposal facility meant. He asked what ownerless waste was. He referred to the fund that was to be set up and asked from where the money for it was to come. Was it to come from National Treasury or from services rendered?

Mr Makubela replied that the different approaches of NECSA and Koeberg were historical. At Pelindaba the waste could be disposed of at Vaalputs. It was however never a priority to take the waste to Vaalputs. Questions had been asked whether Vaalputs was licensed to receive waste from Pelindaba. The Department felt that Vaalputs was licenced to do so. He elaborated on ownerless waste and gave the example of a hospital having a radioactive source. After the hospital closed down the radioactive source needed to be managed. The source could not be left unattended. Someone needed to take ownership of such types of ownerless waste. The Agency would thus come into play. 

Mr L Greyling (ID) asked what was to be done with the waste. He asked whether it was to be stored in deep level repositories. He referred to fallout from goldmines and asked who would be responsible for ownerless waste, the Agency or the mines. He also asked whether Koeberg was to be decommissioned and whether the costing of such an exercise had been worked out.

Mr Makubela replied that decommissioning costs and management of waste costs needed serious attention. The Department felt that a separate fund was needed. He pointed out that Eskom and other operators set aside funds for disposal of waste and for decommissioning. Setting up a fund was considered to be the best option. Legislation in this regard was in the pipeline. The cost of decommissioning could run into the tens of billions. More accurate figures would be provided to the committee at a later stage. The funding of decommissioning and waste management was considered a major task.

Mr E Lucas (IFP) also asked how the waste was to be handled. They needed to elaborate on this. He hoped that after the establishment of the Agency, SA would not be importing waste from other countries. He asked whether the situation at Koeberg was satisfactory. How much funding would be needed for the Agency?

Dr De Waal responded that SA would not be importing waste. The policy contained a principle which prohibited it. He stated that at Koeberg, LILW was transported to Vaalputs where it was disposed of. Spent fuel was however stored in spent fuel pools where it could be reprocessed at a later time. The French were quite advanced in reprocessing spent fuel. He said that the Bill was about the establishment of the Agency and did not speak to the issue of what was to be done with high level waste. SA’s policy was however that spent fuel was to be reprocessed.

The Chair asked what had happened to Russia’s offer to purchase SA’s spent fuel. The Russians had the intention of reprocessing the spent fuel.

Mr T Mahlaba (ANC) asked whether the Agency would manage the waste of small generators at their own respective sites. He asked what was to happen to those persons currently doing radioactive waste management.

Mr Makubela replied that currently NECSA generated waste but also managed waste at Vaalputs on behalf of the government. However the situation was not acceptable as international best practice dictated that generators of waste should not manage disposal. There was thus a need to move waste disposal away from NECSA. NECSA needed to focus on its front end activities. Disposal facilities had a limited life cycle. After a certain number of years they needed to be closed down. He pointed out that there were processes to be followed after disposal facilities closed down. The radioactivity at such facilities needed to be monitored. The workers from the Vaalputs Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility would form the nucleus of the Agency’s workers. He however felt that the Agency staff complement needed to be increased considerably. 

The Chair said that the poaching of skills from government by mines was already a problem. He asked how the Agency was to operate efficiently given the lack of skills. If SA did not have the necessary skills, we would have to import them. It could be an expensive exercise. The Chair considered skills and finances to be the Agency’s greatest challenges. From where were the skills going to be recruited from and with what funds? He suggested that perhaps the NNR could be tasked with some of the functions of the Agency, given the current shortage of skills. The fear was that once the Agency was in place there could be funding problems. He asked if SA would then go the route of countries in West Africa and become repositories of overseas waste due to financial need. He was concerned as agencies were not governed by the Public Services Act.  

Mr Makubela replied that the Agency work could not be done by NNR. It would be contrary to the Convention to which SA was a signatory. A nuclear regulator could not operate a nuclear institution. He felt that the Agency was needed given the enormity of the task at hand. A dedicated team was needed. A great deal of public participation also needed to still take place on the matter. He agreed that the issue of skills was generally a problem. Inroads were however being made. There was a nuclear engineering school at the North West University which produced graduates. Witwatersrand University also had a six month course which it offered. The University of Cape Town, in conjunction with Eskom, also had a programme in place. He pointed out that SA had some of the best geoscientists in the world. All that was needed was to make them understand the nuclear side of the business. He continued that issues of nuclear waste revolved around political will and consultation. It was an issue that could be resolved. Finland was almost there and was the first to operate a disposal site. The Finns had resolve and had consulted extensively. The process had taken them more than ten years.

The Chair said that the Committee had undertaken a visit to Sweden in 2007. Sweden had also been successful on radioactive waste disposal. Issues on nuclear waste management had been discussed during the visit.

Mr Mahlaba noted that the briefing document had not mentioned the inroads made by Finland and Sweden in nuclear waste management. He asked whether the National Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (NCRWM) of which the NNR was part would be phased out. Would it be taken over by the Agency? He asked why the NNR had been excluded from the Agency Board. He asked if the NNR would regulate the Agency. Reference was made to the health risk of radioactive waste and he asked who was to take responsibility of it. He pointed out that many of the government departments were creating agencies. Elections were not far off and Parliament might change. In a year or two, the bills forming these agencies might require amendment. He asked why taxpayers had to pay for the management of waste when others had been responsible for its creation. The Agency needed to be self-sufficient.

Mr Makubela replied that the NCRWM was a committee of government officials including the NNR. The task of the committee was to guide and advise. It did oversight.

Ms Kgomo added that the Agency would not phase out the NCRWM. The NCWRM would make recommendations to the Minister. This would assist the Minister in making directives to the Agency.

Mr C Molefe (ANC) disagreed with the statement that generators of waste should not be entrusted with the management thereof. He felt that generators of waste should contribute towards its management.

Ms Kgomo said that the bulk of the money in the Fund would consist of funds collected by way of the principle,”the polluter pays”. The Agency would operate from these funds. The contributions from Parliament would not be in perpetuity.

Mr Mahlaba said that it should be expressly stated that the funding from Parliament would not be annual as it may come to this in the future.

Mr Lucas asked whether SA was sharing information with Sweden and Finland. He asked what the situation with Pebble Bed Modulator Reactor (PBMR) and its waste management was.

Mr Makubela replied that Sweden was a leader in the field. Sweden had an agency dealing with radioactive waste disposal called the SKB. There was interaction with them. He noted that he had visited Finland’s agency.

Mr Greyling said that Sweden wished to bury its waste in the Baltic Sea. It was a plan that was not necessarily solving the waste disposal problem. He said that the US was also battling with the issue of waste disposal. He asked whether SA would be reprocessing spent fuel itself or whether France would be tasked with this.

Dr De Waal responded that in the short-term SA would be using commercial reprocessing facilities outside of SA. In the long-term NECSA would consider the possibility of SA having its own reprocessing facilities.

The Chair was not convinced with Mr Makubela’s answer that many tertiary institutions offering programmes on nuclear would address the skills issue. He pointed out that nuclear physics and nuclear engineering was different. In the same way that nuclear physics and nuclear reactor physics were different. The differences needed to be taken into consideration. It was correct that a generator of waste should not be tasked with managing it. However he disagreed with the statement that a regulator, that is, the NNR, could not manage nuclear waste. The NNR could be expanded in order to do the work that the Agency intended to do. The Chair was concerned about the many agencies failing due to lack of funding and so on. He was afraid that the Agency would share the same fate. He suggested that some of the issues discussed in the meeting needed to be workshopped. Problems of skills and finances were common. He agreed with Mr Mahlaba that in the future there could possibly be an amendment to the present Bill. The repercussions could be disastrous given that the Agency would already be created. The financial implications could be huge.

Mr Makubela responded that the issue was not a trivial matter. There were two ways to deal with nuclear energy. Do it well or not do it at all. There was no middle ground. He said that it was a question of choice. SA had to choose between following the rest of the world or doing it its own way. The Bill was not a short-term plan. The Department was simply implementing government policy. He stated that if there was a change in policy, then the Department needed to be advised.
He reiterated that the NNR could not be an operator of a facility. Who would then regulate the NNR? The Department’s view was informed by the international convention to which SA was a signatory. Mr Makubela read out the provision in the convention.

Dr De Waal agreed that the NNR had no mandate to operate any nuclear facility.

Mr Makubela noted that a number of young South Africans had studied at Pennsylvania State University in the United States and had graduated in nuclear engineering. This included nuclear engineering PHD graduates. He read out a list of graduates in nuclear engineering. He pointed out that Potchestroom University had a nuclear engineering school. Perhaps some of the other universities mentioned earlier offered nuclear physics. He asked that the question by Mr Lucas on the PBMR be referred to the Department of Public Enterprises.

The Chair responded that the Committee had oversight over energy policy. Nuclear was part of energy. On the issue of PBMR, Minerals and Energy was responsible for its policy and Public Enterprises dealt with its operations. He felt that a response from the Department could be reasonably expected.

Mr Makubela replied that the PBMR was not operating yet. Radioactive waste disposal would be governed by the Bill. He said that he would get back to the Committee on the issue of the PBMR.

Mr Mahlaba asked how the Department’s interaction with interested parties was over the Bill.

The Chair reiterated that the issue of skills needed to be discussed at length. Persons working in the Agency needed extensive experience. Recent graduates did not solve the skills issue. Would the graduates be up to the challenge? The Chair felt the skills issue to be a nightmare. Countries such as the US, China and Japan had started the skills process decades ago hence their current pool of expertise. He noted that much of the Department’s response made reference to policy and legislation but the reality was that policy and legislation might require amendment in the future.

Mr Makubela replied that there were skills, it was just that persons needed to be deployed properly. He said that the skills process was unfolding but he nevertheless took heed of the Chair’s concerns. The Department welcomed the suggestion of a workshop.

The Chair said that the process of interaction was vigorous and that it would continue.

Mr Makubela looked forward to the interaction during the workshops as many of the issues raised needed to be dealt with.

The meeting was adjourned.


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