The Select Committee met on the virtual platform to receive a briefing on the National Radioactive Waste Management Plan by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).
During Committee’s interaction with the Department, the Members enquired about the countries that have successful radioactive waste management plans, South Africa’s compliance with its obligations as a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), DMRE engagement with National Executive Radioactive Waste Management Committee, and the turnaround time for approval of Radioactive Waste Management Plans. Members also asked if Vaalputs complies with international standards and in which year it would reach its capacity; engagement on the Koeberg nuclear power station with energy and environment experts; and the compliance of state-owned entities on radioactive waste management plans.
Mr Tseliso Maqubela, Acting DMRE Director-General, informed the Committee that Minister Mantashe was part of the delegation team to welcome the Netherland and Denmark Prime Ministers. The Deputy Minister Director-General were out of the country attending an African Energy Ministers’ meeting in Kenya.
Ms C Visser (DA, North West) was uncertain about the meeting proceeding with the absence of the Minister, Deputy Minister and DG. Who would be undertaking executive accountability?
The Chairperson explained that the presence of political heads is only required when the department presents its Annual Performance Plans (APPs) and so on. Political heads are not required to attend a briefing meeting which is what this meeting is about.
National Radioactive Waste Management Plan: briefing by DMRE
Mr Katse Maphoto, DMRE Chief Director: Nuclear Energy, spoke to the legislative background, radioactive waste management framework, guiding elements and details of waste management plans, and the outlook of the current programmes (see document).
Ms W Ngwenya (ANC, Gauteng) asked which countries have successful radioactive waste management plans.
Since South Africa is a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were there any international principles South Africa would be expected to comply with for safe management of radioactive waste.
She asked how often the DMRE meets with the national executive radioactive waste management committee and what the key discussion items and recommendations were.
Ms L Bebee (ANC, KZN) noted that waste generators such as Eskom and the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) have submitted Radioactive Waste Management Plans for Ministerial approval. She asked when they had submitted their plans and the turnaround period for DMRE to process approval.
She noted that Vaalputs will continue to be used as a National Disposal Site for Low and Intermediate Level Waste. She asked if the site still complies with international standards and in which year the site would reach its capacity.
Mr M Nhanha (DA, Eastern Cape) was pleased that the Chairperson had arranged for DMRE to brief the Committee on the country’s nuclear waste management plan as this was the result of a previous meeting where Members expressed concern for the aging Koeberg power plant and it being extended for another 20 years. This echoed the concerns of nuclear and environmental experts. They were of the view that the further extension of Koeberg might have detrimental consequences. He wanted to check how much engagement DMRE had had with the experts and if their inputs were duly considered.
Mr M Magwala (EFF, Western Cape) asked the department if state-owned entities (SOEs) were compliant with their radioactive waste management plan, safety implementation and what DMRE’s monitoring mechanism was.
Mr Maqubela commented on the extension of Koeberg power plant and assured the Committee that extensive studies had been conducted to ensure that the extension could be executed in a safe manner. There were also their Koeberg peers that had done a similar process which yielded a successful outcome. There is a team comprised of some of the best experts in the field internationally stationed at Koeberg to change the various components. There are competent skills among those experts. For example, the CEO of National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute (NRWDI) had been the first woman in South Africa to be qualified as a nuclear engineer. There are many such exemplary experts. Some of them also serve in international organisations so they are very well-informed of best international practice. Hence, DMRE is confident that it is well-equipped and able to undertake all that is required.
He reported that many young black nuclear professionals are running power stations in the United Arab Emirates and are well equipped.
The Department’s position is that it recognises the role of nuclear energy and Members should not be at all emotional about it.
Mr Maqubela confirmed that there are international principles for radioactive waste management and a . South African team had been involved in the development of those principles.
Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility has been internationally recognised for best practice for Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste. It was constructed with the intention to be the disposal site of nuclear waste for not only Koeberg but also any other low and intermediate level nuclear installation. He was confident of its adequate capacity to cater for the extended life of Koeberg power plant.
Mr Maphoto indicated that there are more than 77 member states of the joint convention. The bulk of them are countries with nuclear power plants who have researched nuclear reactors. More than ten countries have programmes on nuclear waste management. Among those, Sweden and Finland have the more advanced models in the management of nuclear waste. Finland is commissioning a deep geological repository. Other countries such as the US, France and China are also experienced on the matter. South Africa is not a new-comer because the country had a full value chain for nuclear waste prior to 1994. Overall, each country customises the convention articles to their own needs.
Mr Maphoto spoke about consultation with government on a quarterly basis. However, should the need be necessary, DMRE does arrange for additional meetings to follow up on issues. Such consultation may extend to the involvement of other departments such as the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) or the Department of Water and Sanitation on water permits. Due to the extensiveness of this process, approval might be taking longer than six months from date of application submission. The process does not end here as negotiation with the regulator still needs to take place even after the Minister has given the authorisation.
The public safety information forum is the platform where the public uses to engage with government on nuclear installation matters, especially the vicinities of those power plants. The public participation process was part of the licensing process. If it is for a nuclear regulatory licence, then the regulator has a programme to go to the public and speak about the process. Thereafter, people can submit feedback based on the public information document. This process always takes place when it comes to the selection of sites. The DMRE communication strategy includes holding seminars and conferences for the public to discuss all matters nuclear. Knowing the strong presence of the anti-nuclear lobbyists in the country, the Department’s position has always been to try and educate the public on nuclear matters as much and as often as possible.
Tthe plan for Koeberg was submitted in 2021 and was final authorisation was granted after assessment. The other one was submitted in 2022 and the work was underway. The latest update was that committee had met recently to review the plan and the response letter was en route to NECSA.
Ms Margaret Mkhosi, NRWDI CEO, could not make her input due to a poor internet connection.
Mr Nhanha requested that Ms Mkhosi’s response be submitted to the Committee in writing.
Mr Maqubela wrapped up saying that the plans became an iterative process. Once a plan is submitted, the waste generator is then asked to clarify certain issues – which is why the timeline seems a bit longer than expected. It is normal in the nuclear sector.
The Chairperson thanked DMRE for the important presentation as it would equip Members with valuable information for their oversight visits.
The Committee minutes dated 13 June 2023 was adopted and the meeting adjourned.
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