State-owned nuclear medicine maker reopens after crippling shutdown

26 November 2018 - 11:55 By Karyn Maughan
Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

One of SA’s profitable state-owned enterprises (SOE), nuclear medicine producer NTP Radioisotopes, has been reopened after a year-long shutdown that nearly brought the previously unblemished company to its knees.

NTP’s products are vital for the diagnosis and treatment of various cancers, and the shortage threatened global supply.

Its parent company, the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa), has said that it supplied almost 28% of the world’s medical isotopes used in diagnosis and treatment.

Up until the safety scare, NTP had generated an annual turnover of R1.3bn.

Necsa said the shutdown of its subsidiary had been caused by “minor safety issues” and “signatures not being done properly”, an explanation that was rejected by the national nuclear regulator and NTP.

Necsa did not respond to questions whether its “strategic partnership” deal with Rosatom Healthcare, the healthcare division of its Russian counterpart, for the possible production of nuclear medicine being manufactured by NTP, had played any part in its response to the shutdown.

The company’s troubles started when the national nuclear regulator shut its plants in November 2017, after concern was expressed over the calibration of a gauge used to detect the presence of hydrogen in the air. Safety checks revealed other concerns, including that some of the gas used for the calibration had expired.

Sumeshan Govender, head of engineering and projects at NTP, said subsequent investigations revealed there was “nothing wrong” with the plant itself and concerns were more about instilling a “safety culture” among personnel.

“There was never any significant danger to the plant or to people. The issues that needed to be resolved to reopen the plant were not insurmountable.”

Necsa then resolved to place four key staff members on special leave. They have since returned. When asked why it had placed the executives on special leave, the company said it did “from time to time, undertake internal procedures that are meant to hold its personnel to account. The details pertaining to these procedures are kept confidential as they are meant to improve rather than break the employer-employee relations.”

MD Tina Eboka and her colleagues returned to work in July, just weeks before Kelvin Kemm, Necsa’s chairperson, announced the partnership with Rosatom Healthcare.

NTP was not a signatory.

In July Necsa said the agreement was not a purchase order, and did not contain any rights or obligations for either party. But Kemm was reported as saying the company would partner with Rosatom in the construction of “two innovative solution reactors” at Pelindaba — valued at R500m.

Months after that deal was concluded, and apparently concerned about the effect of the continued NTP shutdown on global and local cancer medication supplies, energy minister Jeff Radebe assumed direct oversight of NTP’s board through his deputy minister Thembisile Majola.

According to Govender, the NTP team appointed to take over from Necsa’s officials in July had found certain changes introduced by them had led to greater risks within the plant environment, which needed to be reversed.