Is the National Nuclear Regulator doing its job?

Issued by Kevin Mileham MP – DA Shadow Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy
17 Mar 2022 in News

Reports today that a “work stop” was implemented at Koeberg following a “significant incident” which could have resulted in the loss of the operating unit, the Democratic Alliance questions the oversight and compliance monitoring role of the National Nuclear Regulator. Work stops at  a major plant such as Koeberg have a profound impact on the ability of ESKOM to meet electricity demand of the country and the mitigation of loadshedding.

Eskom’s own internal communications note that “While carrying out the required maintenance on Unit 2, an individual cut the valve of the Nuclear Sampling System’s 1 REN 168 VB on Unit 1, instead of the same valve on Unit 2. This was eventually identified and classified as a significant error because it had the potential to amongst other risks, drain the accumulator of the Safety Injection System tank 1 RIS 002 BA.” Of further concern is that the same document notes that this is the second time that this has occurred during the same shutdown, and that this has “potentially devastating consequences”.

Not too long ago, the Eskom COO raised concern about the departure of skilled workers and experienced members of staff at Koeberg. This then raises the question of whether the latest incident has been a consequence of skills scarcity at the plant or just plain negligence?

Recently, the planned replacement of the Steam Generators on Unit 2, which were to be undertaken during the planned refueling shutdown, was delayed until 2023 (requiring a further 155-day shutdown of that unit next year) because the necessary radiation containment structure was not in place to manage the decontamination process of the old generators. This occurred despite the entity having planned the maintenance work for over 3 years prior.

These issues raise serious concerns over the impartiality, competence and performance of the National Nuclear Regulator, who now appear to be little more than “yes-men” to the nuclear sector in general and ESKOM in particular. In January, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, suspended and later removed Peter Becker, the civil society representative on the NNR Board required by s8(4)(iii) of the National Nuclear Regulator Act. In reply to a parliamentary question, Mantashe notes that Becker was discharged for “serious misconduct”, although at no point has he provided any details of what such misconduct entailed. Becker was a vocal critic of the processes and controls at Koeberg, and it now appears that his concerns are well-founded.

It is worth noting that at a Nuclear Technology Imbizo held in Cape Town yesterday, ESKOM’s Chief Nuclear Officer, Riedewaan Bakardien, noted that “The Koeberg Life Extension project is progressing well, in accordance with the schedule…” This is factually untrue, as indicated above.

The DA therefore calls for a comprehensive review and update of the National Nuclear Regulator Act, to provide for greater independence and autonomy. The recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency need to be implemented as a matter of urgency. Currently the NNR is managed by a Board of Directors appointed by and serving at the whim of the Minister of Energy. This has been identified as a significant risk by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR), as far back as 2011, and repeated regularly since then:

“The minister of energy and the National Nuclear Regulator are identified … as having regulatory functions over nuclear activities. Considering that the minister of energy is also in charge of the promotion of nuclear energy and given that the minister appoints the NNR board and CEO, approves NNR’s budget and promulgates regulations, the INIR team is of the view that the separation between the regulatory functions and the promotional activities is not adequate, thus calling into question the effective independence of the NNR.” 

As our only nuclear power plant, Koeberg needs to be managed competently and with a view to ensuring the absolute safety of workers and the surrounding communities. The NNR and the Minister must be held accountable for this shameful abrogation of their responsibilities.