DA Debate Speech: National Nuclear Regulator Amendment Bill

Issued by Kevin Mileham MP – DA Shadow Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy
26 Mar 2024 in News

Note to editors: The following debate speech was delivered in parliament today by Kevin Mileham MP


There can be no doubt that the nuclear age heralds a bright future, both from a technology and energy perspective. It is one that promises boundless energy and great leaps in science and medicine, but also a horrendous escalation in warfare, devastation and environmental damage. From its earliest beginnings – when Marie Curie was conducting experiments around the radioactivity in various elements, and ultimately dying from radiation poisoning – the risks associated with nuclear technology have been self-evident. While nuclear energy has the potential to revolutionize our world, it also carries inherent perils that demand our attention and vigilance.

In a tale spanning nearly a hundred years, since the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930’s, we have seen the advent of x-rays and nuclear medicine, we have seen nuclear power plants and ships and submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. At the same time, we have witnessed the devastation unleashed by nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the environmental impact of failures at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

South Africa has its own unique nuclear history. In the 1950s and 60s, South Africa began developing its nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. However, during the apartheid era, there were covert efforts to develop nuclear weapons, culminating in the successful detonation of a nuclear device in 1979. The fall of the apartheid regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program.

In the 1970’s South Africa built Koeberg, a 1860MW nuclear power plant, that has been operating continuously since 1984. Although near the end of its operational life and licence, which is due to expire in July this year, Koeberg is currently undergoing life extension that will hopefully see a further 20 years of electricity generation.

At Pelindaba, the home of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, and the place where much of South Africa’s nuclear weapons research was conducted, the SAFARI-1 research reactor has been operating at the highest levels of efficiency since 1965. In addition to research, the reactor is also used to produce nuclear isotopes for use in medicine, making South Africa one of the top producers of this product globally.

Today, South Africa’s nuclear sector is primarily focused on nuclear power generation, research and nuclear medicine. However, despite the peaceful intentions, the sector faces numerous challenges that necessitate strict regulation.

And this is where the National Nuclear Regulator comes into play. Regulatory bodies, such as the NNR, establish safety standards for nuclear installations. These standards cover everything from siting and design to operation and decommissioning. By adhering to these guidelines, we can minimize the chances of accidents and protect our environment.

Acceptable risk is the cornerstone of regulatory control. The NNR evaluates risks associated with specific facilities or activities. Authorizations are granted based on rigorous safety assessments, ensuring that only responsible operators handle nuclear technology.

At the same time, our legislative and regulatory framework places the prime responsibility for safety on authorization holders. They are liable for any nuclear damage caused by their facilities or actions. This accountability encourages diligence and adherence to safety protocols. The NNR needs to ensure that authorization holders comply, and have the necessary resources to mitigate any risks in place.

The NNR also oversees emergency planning and preparedness with regard to nuclear facilities and materials. Timely response during accidents can mitigate their impact. Lessons from past incidents inform our readiness for any unforeseen events.

The National Nuclear Regulator Amendment Bill amends the existing legislation to bring it in line with international definitions, norms and standards. In addition, it takes the first baby steps to safeguard the independence of the regulator, although in our opinion does not go far enough. Specifically, following inputs from the DA, the Bill now places the responsibility for shortlisting the candidates for appointment to the NNR Board in the hands of the Portfolio Committee, rather than in the hands of the Minister. This aligns with other regulatory bodies overseen by Parliament. Nonetheless, we remain concerned that the Minister still retains the overall power to appoint and disappoint, contrary to international best practice. In fact, as far back as 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review identified this as a significant risk, and have repeated it 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 we speak, the Democratic Alliance is pursuing legal action to review the RFP for 2500 MW of nuclear power, announced by the Minister of Electricity late last year. We do this not because we question the role of nuclear power in South Africa’s long-term energy mix, but rather because we want to ensure that due process is followed and that our nuclear sector is legally compliant with all appropriate legislation and regulations. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the procurement of new nuclear power now will not alleviate loadshedding in the short to medium term. It is not the silver bullet to end the rolling blackouts that have characterized the ANC’s government. Nor is it something the ANC have budgeted for in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement. The NNR will have a significant role to play in any future nuclear build, and must be capacitated to fulfill that role, without fear or favour.

So where does that leave us? The amendments to the National Nuclear Regulator Act are an important first step to ensuring a transparent and accountable regulatory body, that has the necessary powers to effectively oversee South Africa’s nuclear sector. While the Democratic Alliance remains concerned that it fall short of a truly independent regulator, we view this Bill as a vital update to the existing legislation.

The Democratic Alliance supports the Bill.