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Sun Nov 23 12:52:20 SAST 2014

Nuclear regulator must address safety

Crispian Olver | 17 July, 2012 00:03
Crispian Olver

THE recent security breach at the Pelindaba nuclear facility near Pretoria has again put the spotlight on the safety of South Africa's nuclear facilities.

THE recent security breach at the Pelindaba nuclear facility near Pretoria has again put the spotlight on the safety of South Africa's nuclear facilities.

The National Nuclear Regulator, which is meant to ensure our nuclear safety, has been quick to pass the buck, with the CEO, Boyce Mkhize, saying, "The primary responsibility for ensuring adequate measures for nuclear security rest with the nuclear installation itself."

This may be the case, but it does not address the gnawing concern that nuclear safety standards are slipping.

South Africans are particularly concerned about this issue because the energy plan approved by the government has committed the country to an additional six nuclear power stations producing 9600MW of power by 2030, making up 23% of total generation capacity.

South Africa has more than 25 years' experience running Koeberg, but much of the rule book on nuclear safety has been rewritten since the meltdown of the Fukushima plant in Japan in March 2011. The accident at Fukushima was cause a tsunami that followed by an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale.

Koeberg is 8km from the offshore Milnerton Fault, and was designed to withstand an earthquake rated at 7 on the Richter scale. The last big earthquake at this fault was estimated at 6.5, so it is not inconceivable that a similar level of stress and meltdown as that at Fukushima could occur.

The nuclear regulator needs to ensure that the latest and safest nuclear technology is used for any new facility. This includes generation IV reactors, with fail-safe mechanisms built into the design of the reactors.

There is also a need for much greater transparency and accountability to the public. South Africa does not have a great history of transparency with regard to nuclear safety.

If South Africa is to expand its nuclear capacity in the post-Fukushima period, we need a corresponding increase in the capacity of the nuclear safety regulator.

This is clearly not happening.

Earlier this year, Mkhize told parliamentarians the regulator had been underfunded by some 25% for this and the next two years, which "threatened the nuclear safety of the country".

This points to a profound disconnect in the sequencing and planning for energy. As South Africans we deserve not only answers to our concerns about nuclear safety, but clear and concrete evidence that the capacity of the nuclear regulator is being addressed in a systematic way.

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