Energy minister gets his way as usual

Intent on extending Koeberg’s life, Gwede Mantashe has silenced the project’s opposing voice. It is time to remove the National Nuclear Regulator from the minister’s control.

Last week, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe suspended Peter Becker, the community representative on the board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). Mantashe claims that Becker is a threat to the board’s “effective and efficient functioning”. 

In what can only be described as a remarkable coincidence, on the very same day that Becker was suspended, the NNR approved the replacement of steam generators at Unit 2 of Koeberg as part of a planned 20-year life extension of the aging nuclear power plant. It is a remarkable coincidence because it just so happens that Becker, who is also a spokesperson of the Koeberg Alert Alliance, has been a vocal opponent of the life extension of the plant. 

Until the “official” reasons as to why Becker has been suspended are made public, one cannot but conclude that Becker has been suspended because of his opposition to the life extension. In effect, Mantashe appears to have silenced criticism of the extension by Becker and, with it, has effectively silenced the community’s voice on the board.

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The merits or otherwise of Becker’s suspension aside, what happened last week raises some very important questions about the regulatory independence of the NNR. The National Nuclear Regulator Act gives the energy minister extraordinary powers over the NNR in general, and in terms of its board specifically, the act grants the minister the sole right to appoint all board members, including who is board chairperson and deputy chairperson, and dismiss board members. 

The powers granted by the act to the minister mean that he effectively controls the day-to-day functioning of the regulator. Given that the current energy minister vociferously champions nuclear power, a very serious conflict of interest currently exists in South Africa. The man is charged with both promoting nuclear power while simultaneously regulating it in the interests of the public. 

This glaring conflict of interest has not gone unnoticed. As early as 2011, a peer review of South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure and oversight mechanisms by members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised concerns over the extent of the independence of the country’s regulatory bodies. Despite this, the NNR assured the IAEA that it was able to independently undertake its important mandate.

Oversight concerns

Clearly unsatisfied with the regulator’s response, two years later, in 2013, a report by the IAEA’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) team made the following recommendation to the South African government:

“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.”

Three more years passed before the government responded to the INIR team in 2016 by stating that it was, based on recommendations from the NNR, seeking to amend the act “to further strengthen the independence of the regulator”. The exact same promise was made to the IAEA in 2019 by the very same government in spite of having made no progress in amending the act. 

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Two more years passed before the National Nuclear Regulator Amendment Bill was gazetted in June 2021. While this bill strengthens certain aspects of the regulator (mostly in regard to capacity issues) it still locates it within the department of mineral resources and energy, and leaves the minister in almost total control of the NNR. It therefore falls short of international best practices where nuclear regulatory authorities are separated from institutions tasked with promoting nuclear power. 

In South Africa, the obvious place for the NNR would be within the department responsible for environmental affairs (as it is in Germany). Alternatively, it could be constituted as an independent agency within government (as it is in the United States). 

Given the obvious suspicions of conflict of interest raised by Becker’s suspension, it is high time the South African government responds to the repeated recommendations of the IAEA and the demands of communities, environmental organisations and energy experts and, following internationally accepted best practices, removes the NNR from Mantashe’s stifling control. 

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