13 February 2013

South Africa: Why the IAEA Director General's Visit to South Africa Matters


From 7-10 February, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, was in South Africa to meet several government ministers and undertake site visits to various facilities that use nuclear material for peaceful purposes, such as the Koeberg nuclear power plant outside Cape Town and South Africa's first nuclear reactor - the SAFARI-1 research reactor at Pelindaba.

In 2009, supported largely by industrialised nations, Amano was elected IAEA Director General, defeating South Africa's Abdul Minty in six rounds of heavily contested voting.

While relatively low key, his visit was significant, coming as it did a week after heated public debate around the Electricity Supply Commission's (Eskom) application for electricity tariff increases.

South Africa's electricity generation capacity has, in recent years, been inadequate to meet the country's demand and much criticism has been levelled at government regarding the electricity supply shortfalls that have affected the country.

In addition, Amano's visit came at the end of a two-week extensive assessment by the IAEA of South Africa's Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR). According to Nelisiwe Magubane, Director General of South Africa's Department of Energy, the INIR mission was the first to a country that is already generating nuclear power, and the first in Africa.

INIRs provide IAEA member states with an opportunity for in-depth discussions with international experts about their experiences and best practices.

The review evaluated the country's readiness to start purchasing, constructing and operating nuclear power plants. It draws on an evidence-based questionnaire covering 19 key nuclear issues, from funding and financing to security and waste management. The Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant currently generates five per cent of the country's electricity.

Speaking at an ISS-hosted lecture, Amano praised South Africa's transparent approach and welcomed government's engagement with civil society and all stakeholders in its quest to expand its nuclear power programme. The use of nuclear energy for electricity generation has been promoted as an important means to mitigate the impact of climate change.

However, the so-called nuclear energy revival has recently taken a knock following the nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in March 2011, which has been described as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

The incident resulted in several countries re-examining their nuclear programmes, with some deciding to phase out nuclear power completely and others, like South Africa, continuing with their plans to introduce or expand their nuclear infrastructure.

The IAEA plays a key role in developing and promoting nuclear safety standards in applications of nuclear energy as well as the protection of human health and the environment against ionizing radiation. The IAEA has also been actively supporting African Union members in applying nuclear techniques in, for example, tsetse eradication, water management and agriculture and cancer control.

In addition, given South Africa's decision in the 1980s to build six nuclear weapons, the Agency also has the important task of monitoring non-compliance by states with their obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and other non-proliferation agreements to ensure that the use of nuclear materials, technology and facilities is only for peaceful purposes.

According to Amano, 'we [the IAEA] are best known to the public for our work in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. IAEA inspectors are constantly on the road, visiting all types of nuclear facilities throughout the world to verify that nuclear material is not being diverted from peaceful purposes'.

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) is a global supplier of molybdenum 99, a crucial radioisotope enabling the early diagnosis of a range of diseases as well as some treatments. Traditionally, 'Mo-99' has been produced from highly enriched uranium (HEU), the same material used in nuclear weapons. However, since 2010 South Africa has been using low-enriched uranium.

Recent advances in nuclear medicine have made NECSA a world leader in technologies that would remove nuclear medical facilities from the nuclear military equation.

Although HEU poses a proliferation risk, South Africa has put every possible non-proliferation measure in place, including comprehensive safeguards and 24-hour real-time video surveillance with the IAEA, to ensure that the material does not end up in the wrong hands. In August 2011, the government also returned 6,3kg of HEU spent fuel to the US for safe storage and ultimately for destruction.

Amano's visit to South Africa has also brought some clarity to South Africa's long-term intentions with regards to its plans to expand its nuclear power programme.

It seems likely that, following Cabinet endorsement of a phased decision-making approach to implement the nuclear programme, a procurement framework will be agreed to by mid-2013; the licensing process will be completed by 2018, during which time appropriate sites will be finalised; and, by 2024 the first new nuclear power plant will be completed.

Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow and Amelia Brookryk, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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