National Radioactive Waste Management Agency Bill: public hearings

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Mineral Resources and Energy

02 September 2008
Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Representatives from the Namaqualand community living near the existing Vaalputs radioactive waste site and the Coordinator of Earthlife Africa presented oral submissions on the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency Bill.  The object of the Bill was to establish an agency to manage radioactive waste produced by the generation of nuclear energy in South Africa.  The community and Earthlife Africa expressed strong objections to the Bill and felt that the Bill encouraged the establishment of more radioactive waste sites and nuclear proliferation in general.  The community requested that the Bill was rejected by the Committee.

The community claimed that the water supply in the area was being contaminated by radioactive waste from the Vaalputs site and requested that Government conducted tests on the water supply on an ongoing basis.  The community was extremely concerned over the risk to human, animal and plant life posed by the presence of nuclear waste in the area.

Earthlife Africa had formed an alliance with Cosatu and supported the community in their protest against the Bill.  The organisation opposed the mining of uranium as well.  Earthlife Africa had identified gaps in the Bill concerning the responsibilities of the proposed agency, the criteria for the management of radioactive waste, vague definitions, the absence of clear guidelines, the lack of provisions enforcing the clearing up of pollution and the exclusion of communities and traditional leaders from consultation.  Concerns were raised about the transporting of radioactive waste.  Both parties advocated the development of alternative sources of renewable energy.  Earthlife Africa offered the services of the organisation’s scientists to advise Government on the use of alternative renewable sources to address the energy crisis.

Members pointed out that nuclear energy was already being produced in the country and the aim of the Bill was to address the current problems experienced with the management of radioactive waste.  The use of alternative energy resources was being explored.  Members asked questions about the testing of the water supply, the history of the Vaalputs site, the involvement of the community in the establishment of the site and whether the community and the site were visited by officials from the Department and if the community had received any feedback on the site.

The Chairperson was concerned that the Committee was adequately informed on matters relating to nuclear energy and radioactive waste in order to make informed decisions.  He was uncertain whether an agency or a Government entity was the best vehicle to manage radioactive waste.  He suggested that further research was undertaken and proposed that further discussions were held with the Department of Minerals and Energy.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed the delegates, officials from the Department of Minerals and Energy and interested observers.  He explained the format of the proceedings.  Because submissions were made in Afrikaans, Mr R Bertelsmann from Parliament’s Language Services acted as interpreter.

The delegates from the Namaqualand community explained that the community was supported by the Earthlife Africa organisation.  Separate oral submissions were prepared by the Namaqualand community and Earthlife Africa.

Namaqualand Community submission
Mr D Diergaardt (Administrator, Karusab Land Claims) stated that the community strongly resisted any nuclear-related activity in the area and unequivocally rejected the Bill.  The only radioactive waste management site in the country was located at Vaalputs in Namaqualand.

To illustrate the community’s concerns and objections, Mr Diergaardt read the poem “Van Erfenis tot Ashoop” (From Heritage to Rubbish Dump), composed by Johan Cloete.

Mr T Coetzee (Member of the Karusab Community) detailed the community’s objections to the Bill.  He said that the Vaalputs community was aggrieved that nuclear waste was being dumped on them and on their land.  The Buffels River and its tributaries flowed through the area and the community feared that the water supply was being contaminated by radioactive waste.  The community was reliant on borehole water and was afraid that people and animals were absorbing poison through the water.  He made an urgent appeal that Government tested the water supply on an ongoing basis.  He advised that the residents of Kamassies had complained that their water was contaminated.

Mr Coetzee said that if the Bill was passed, it would be easier for Government and Eskom to pass further legislation that promoted nuclear proliferation and allowed for more nuclear reactors to be built.  The Bill made it easier for the number of radioactive waste disposal sites to be increased and for nuclear waste to be imported from other countries.  The long-term negative effects of radioactive waste included compromising the health of human, animal and plant life in the area.

Mr Coetzee said that the Bill contained many discrepancies and contradictions.  The provisions in chapter 3 were vague and unclear.  The criteria for disposal of waste and the safety requirements under section 5(e) of chapter 2 were inadequate.

Mr Coetzee said that the production of uranium was encouraged and more radioactive waste was being generated.  An increased demand for uranium encouraged an increase in production.  Capitalism and the owners of mines were the only beneficiaries.  Mine owners benefited financially whilst the public suffered.  Handicapped children were born, people suffered from cancer and other diseases and plant life was destroyed.

Mr Coetzee reiterated the community’s strong objection to nuclear proliferation in their area, the rest of South Africa and in the world.  He urged the Committee to reject the Bill and to consider the promotion of renewable sources of energy instead.  He said that clean fuels would allow for more jobs to be created.  Clean energy can be better controlled and no deadly waste was generated in the process.

Earthlife Africa submission
Mr K van Wyk (Coordinator, Earthlife Africa) explained the background of the organisation.  Earthlife Africa had formed a partnership with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and both organisations rejected nuclear proliferation.  Earthlife Africa had developed alternative solutions for the energy crisis that helped to address the issue of poverty alleviation.  He said that the organisation was willing to share its knowledge with Government.

Mr Van Wyk requested that the Bill was taken off the table and not proceeded with.  He said that the Department of Minerals and Energy was using the Bill to avoid responsibility for radioactive waste.  The community was vulnerable to contamination and exposed to poisoning from radioactive waste contaminating the environment.  The community was reliant on water from boreholes and there was a major risk that the water supply could be contaminated.  The risk of contamination was increased by the transport of radioactive waste over large distances and the danger of contamination whilst the waste was in transit to the dumping site.

Mr Van Wyk said that the Bill removed liability from Government and the Department.  The Bill made no provision for the Agency to consult with local traditional leaders.  The Agency was allowed to set its own boundaries and to develop its own guidelines.  The Department of Minerals and Energy was not held responsible and accountable.  The gaps in the proposed legislation included clear responsibility, criteria, definitions, guidelines and the exclusion of the community from the consultation process.  No provision was made for information to be made available to interested or affected parties.  There was no requirement for pollution to be cleared up.  He said that the Bill was another example of the State outsourcing its responsibilities.

In conclusion, Mr van Wyk said that the health of communities was being compromised by Government.  He reiterated the strong objections of the community and Earthlife Africa to nuclear proliferation in general and the Bill in particular.

Mr J Combrinck (ANC) asked if the water supply in the area had been tested and what the results were.

Mr S Louw (ANC) asked when the waste disposal site at Vaalputs was established.  He wanted to know if the community was consulted at the time and if any objections to the site were raised.  He asked if the community was given any information and feedback on the site.  He asked if the community had met with Government officials and if the site was visited by officials.  He inquired if waste was being dumped on a continuous basis and if dumping continued after the community had raised objections.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) pointed out that the Committee was also concerned over the supply of energy to the country.  The use of coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity resulted in environmental degradation and pollution as well.  Nuclear energy was internationally accepted as an alternative to the use of fossil fuels.  He said that the disposal of radioactive waste was a highly specialised field.  Government’s predicament was the need to generate energy versus the need to protect the environment.  The Government shared the concerns over the health of people.  The international standards applicable to nuclear energy were adhered to and he asked if these standards were acceptable to the scientists employed by Earthlife Africa.

Ms F Mathibela (ANC) requested further details of the suggested alternative sources of renewable energy.  She asked if objections were raised to the privatisation of uranium mining.

Mr T Mahlaba (ANC) said that the object of the Bill must be taken into consideration.  The Bill made provision for the establishment of an agency to manage the radioactive waste that was already being generated by the generation of nuclear energy.  The Bill attempted to provide for the better management of radioactive waste sites.  Research was done on the issue and provided better direction for the management of sites.  Government was attempting to meet international criteria for the management of radioactive waste.  The purpose of the Bill was to establish an agency to take responsibility for and to control radioactive waste, thereby allowing Government to focus on providing strategic direction.

Mr Mahlaba pointed out that Eskom was already creating nuclear energy.  If there were no nuclear reactors in operation, the country would be left with no source of energy when fossil fuels ran out.  He said that the modern world demanded that the need for energy was met.  The Department of Minerals and Energy’s aim for the Bill was challenged by the submissions.  The fear that South Africa would become a dumping ground for nuclear waste was expressed but the Committee was given the assurance that would not be the case.

Mr Mahlaba said that the issue of radioactive waste needed to be well-researched.  He noted that Cosatu did not present a submission in its own right and appeared to be used by Earthlife Africa.

The Chairperson explained that an apology was received from Cosatu as representatives from the trade union were unable to attend the public hearings on the Bill.  Cosatu had indicated that the organisation was represented by officials from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who were present at the hearings.

Mr Mahlaba was concerned by the gaps identified in the Bill.  He suggested that consultation with traditional leaders and the community was included in regulations.  He said that a new site for radioactive waste had not been determined but he assumed that thorough investigations will be undertaken to determine the suitability of the site.

Mr J Nene (ANC) had no further questions.

Mr E Lucas (IFP) remarked that there were no guarantees for the safety of nuclear waste.  The Bill would assist in the reduction of the risks associated with the management of radioactive waste.  He said that the education of the community was essential and everyone shared the concerns over the long term effects of contamination.  He hoped that the proposed agency would resolve the problems experienced with radioactive waste and would address the issues in future.  Currently, everyone was in the dark and objections were being raised by all the green parties.

The Chairperson said that the focus of the discussion should be on the purpose of the Bill.  The Bill did not attempt to develop the country’s nuclear ability but tried to make provision for the better management of nuclear waste.  The question was whether the Bill created more problems than were solved.  He asked if Members of the Committee had done enough research and were competent to appreciate the consequences of passing the Bill.  There was some debate over whether the management of radioactive waste should be the responsibility of an agency or of a governmental entity.  The question arose whether there were enough skills available in the Department of Minerals and Energy to take on the responsibility for radioactive waste.  The intention was that the agency would initially be run by the Department.  He asked what challenges were anticipated by the Department in this regard.

The Chairperson stated that nuclear science was not for children and errors of judgment could have serious consequences.  For example, a second incident was being predicted at Chernobyl as a result of the nuclear dust that was created by the continued decay of material left by the first explosion.  He asked what motivated other countries (such as Spain) to change direction on nuclear energy.  He said that nuclear energy was first generated in 1932 and the first reactors were built in 1954.  He asked how the waste was subsequently managed.  South Africa was a signatory to the International Atomic Agency and was required to adhere to international standards on the management of radioactive waste.  He noted the concerns raised over the risk of commercialisation of waste management if an agency was established and the risk that the agency would be tempted to make money out of processing the waste generated by other countries.

The Chairperson felt that not enough research was done to determine if an agency was necessary or not.  He said that the Committee needed to do more research before making decisions that would have long term consequences.  An agency that would profit from the import of nuclear waste into the country was not desirable.  He suggested that further engagement with the Department of Minerals and Energy took place and that more research into the issue was undertaken.

In response to Mr Mahlaba’s questions, Mr Van Wyk said that Cosatu made the resolution at its congress in 2003 to say no to nuclear.  Earthlife Africa had joined forces with Cosatu in its ongoing fight against nuclear proliferation.  He said that Earthlife Africa had not been given an earlier platform to engage with Government.  He offered to bring the organisation’s scientists from the United Kingdom to address Government on alternative solutions to the energy crisis.  He said that the decision to use nuclear energy was already made by Government and Earthlife Africa was not given a fair chance to propose alternative solutions.

Mr Van Wyk said that the Bill allowed for an agency to be established, thereby allowing the disposal of radioactive waste to be privatised.  People in the community were exploited and were made vulnerable to illnesses.  He said that there were instances where safety gear was not provided for workers in uranium mines and resulted in the death of mine workers.  Affected communities were mobilising against nuclear proliferation across the country.

Mr Van Wyk said that research had shown that South Africa would become one of the countries with the highest carbon emissions in the world if it continued to generate electricity from coal.  Alternative sources of energy were wind and solar energy.  He said that objections to wind generators on the basis of migrating birds flying into the generators were unfounded.  He felt that Government was not doing enough research on renewable sources of energy.  The use of renewable sources of energy would create more jobs and contribute to poverty alleviation.

Mr Van Wyk stated that Government was on the brink of making a watershed decision on the future use of either nuclear or renewable resources to generate energy.  He considered that the establishment of an agency to manage radioactive waste opened the door for further nuclear proliferation.  He suggested that the scientists from Earthlife Africa were brought on board to assist Government in reaching a decision on sustainable energy solutions.

Mr Diergaardt advised that records on the history of the Vaalputs site were available and can be forwarded to the Committee.  In response to Mr Louw’s question, he said that there was no difference if waste was dumped on a continuous basis or not.  He welcomed the opening of channels of communication between the community and the Committee.  He stated that jobs at radioactive waste disposal sites were comparable to unpaid prostitution.

Mr Coetzee said that the contamination of borehole water was a major concern.  Higher rainfall was experienced during 1997 and resulted in some containers from the Vaalputs site rising to the surface.  The community feared that the nearby Buffels River was contaminated as a result.  He explained that a borehole in the bed of the Buffels River supplied water via a pipeline to the town of Kommagas.  The water supply may be contaminated and he requested that Government undertook to test the water for contamination on an ongoing basis.

Mr L Greyling (ID) asked if adequate public participation and consultation had taken place before the Bill was drafted.  He had raised the issue with the Minister of Minerals and Energy, in the light of the employment of a contractor by the Department to carry out the consultation responsibilities.

The Chairperson explained to Mr Greyling that the aim of the Bill was to establish an agency to manage radioactive waste because the waste was currently not properly managed.  The intention was that the agency would take over responsibility for waste management from Eskom.  Currently Eskom generated the waste and was held responsible for disposal of the waste.  This was not an acceptable scenario and contradicted international practice for the disposal of radioactive waste.  He said that the issue was not a new debate and Government was attempting to deal with the problems that were generated in the past by establishing an agency to address the matter of waste disposal in the future.

The Chairperson explained that an agency fell outside the jurisdiction of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) but a Government entity did not.  He said that the Committee needed to be fully aware of the consequences of any decisions that were made.

Mr Kekana said that it was a fallacy that electricity generated from coal was cheap.  Electricity generated from nuclear energy was a fait accompli and South Africa had the necessary raw material, i.e. uranium.  The question was how best to make use of the resource and to apply international standards and best practice in the generation of energy.

Mr Van Wyk explained that South Africa had already depleted more than 50% of available coal reserves and reserves of uranium were not unlimited.  It was anticipated that the pollution and environmental degeneration caused by the generation of energy from fossil fuels from the remaining 50% of resources would be far worse.  Research indicated that uranium reserves would be depleted within 30 years.  Both nuclear reactors and coal-fired power stations would be white elephants and it was unwise to expend further effort on developing nuclear capability and uranium mining instead of developing alternative renewable sources of energy.  Radioactive waste will last an eternity.

The Chairperson disagreed that the rate of pollution would necessarily increase.  He said that research and development resulted in a reduction in the pollution of energy created from fossil fuels.

The Chairperson asked what results were available from research conducted on the disposal of nuclear waste in other countries.  He said that the problems experienced by the country were immediate and needed to be addressed.  He suggested that the focus remained on finding realistic solutions to the better management of waste in future.

Mr Van Wyk stated that there was no such thing as the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

Mr Mahlaba raised a point of order and requested that the issues concerning waste disposal were discussed outside the meeting.

The Chairperson ruled that discussions were restricted to matters concerning the Bill.  He proposed that the Committee held further discussions with the Department of Minerals and Energy on the issues raised during the hearings.

Mr Diergaardt thanked the Committee for the opportunity to present the submission from the community of Namaqualand.  He stressed the community’s rejection of the Bill and its opposition to uranium mining.  He urged the Committee to consider the development of alternative renewable energy resources.

The Chairperson replied that the issue was being addressed by the Committee in the Energy Bill.  He thanked the participants for their input.

The meeting was adjourned.

[PMG Note: See below for the Afrikaans poem that was read during the submissions, composed for the occasion]

Van Erfenis tot Ashoop
(Johan E Cloete)

Namakwaland erfenis van ons voorgeslagte
erfenis met jou sterbelaaide nagte
uitgestrek en ongerep
hier waar jou kinders asem skep

Uitgelewer aan die mag van wêreld vooruitgang
ashoop van die kernafval, O! so beny
Pretoria het reeds besluit
Namakwaland vir sy kernafval buit

Kernafval vir Namakwaland
so steek hul jou kinders brand
verberg die buit in hul moeders skoot
die skade is glad nie groot

Die gifstrooiers het jou kom opeis
ons erfenis, ons paradys
flou water word met fig besproei
om jou skoonheid uit te roei

Jou skoonheid word van jou kom steel
en in jou maagdelikheid ontaar
gewetenloos deur swendelaars uitgebuit
vergiftig hul elke helder spruit

Ons erfenis deurdrenk met son
ons natuurlike energiebron
deur God gegee in overvloed
om ons van kernafval te behoed

Verfrissend waai die wind van Suid
weskus wind wie hom nie laat stuit
in jou, die wind lê ook ons krag
Namakwa kind, dis op jou vir wie ek wag

Omsluit jul kennis van die natuur
en red ons erfenis van vuur
laat bos, water en wind
in harmonie leef met Namakwa se kind


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