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In the 1980s, South Africa built an enrichment plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria and made enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs. The six Hiroshima-type bombs all would have worked. But President FW de Klerk ended the nuclear weapons programme in 1989, scrapped the six bombs, and joined the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991. South Africa was a model member, complying freely with all of its inspections and conditions. This, and her peaceful transition to full democracy in 1994, aroused tremendous goodwill towards South Africa. But the ANC has steadily eroded that goodwill, according to Andrew Kenny in his article below exclusively for BizNews. He believes some of the ANC’s failures are caused by crime, corruption and malevolence, some by destructive racial policies such as BEE, affirmative action and cadre deployment, but many just by sheer dithering and incompetence. This would seem to be one of them. – Sandra Laurence
Another nuclear blunder
By Andrew Kenny
Koeberg’s nuclear fuel supply is at risk thanks to an insensate blunder by the South African Department of Energy. I have in front of me a frosty order from the UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION to Westinghouse Electric Company. It is entitled: ORDER SUSPENDING LICENSE TO EXPORT TO THE REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA (EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY). It is dated 13 January 2023.
This is because South Africa failed to renew the licence when it was due, on 31 December 2022, even though it had been reminded to do so in plenty of time. This is a very serious matter. The future operation of Koeberg could become much more difficult. It’s the last thing we need in the middle of Stage 4 blackouts and the important refit at Unit 1 at Koeberg.
In order to export nuclear goods and services to any other country, any American nuclear company – Westinghouse in this case – must get permission from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nuclear power is heavily regulated, especially in two areas: safety and non-proliferation. Safety regulation has gone far too far. Nuclear has by far the best safety record of any energy technology, and extra safety regulation simply pushes up nuclear costs to no benefit. But regulation against proliferation, meaning the spread of nuclear weapons beyond a select group of countries, is very necessary. The international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect in 1970. Its aim was to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote peaceful nuclear power. South Africa became its star member – its blue-eyed boy – in 1991, the only country to build and then renounce nuclear weapons. The order from the US nuclear regulator to end the licence to supply nuclear fuel to Koeberg used the word “nonproliferation” several times.
There are fundamental differences between a nuclear power reactor and a nuclear bomb. (“Atomic bomb” is a misnomer. It should be: “nuclear bomb”.) It is physically impossible for any power reactor to explode like a nuclear bomb. But they do harness the same nuclear force, and their raw materials are the same. The two main materials that can sustain the fission chain reaction in a bomb or a reactor are uranium and plutonium. Plutonium is only found naturally in tiny quantities whereas uranium is abundant. Natural uranium contains only 0.7% Uranium-235, which is fissile (can easily sustain fission). It needs to be enriched for most reactors and all bombs. This is a difficult, expensive process. A bomb requires to be enriched over 90%. Reactors have far less enrichment, usually below 10%. Koeberg uses about 4.2% enrichment. Unfortunately, if you just keep on enriching, you will eventually get bomb material – and it is frighteningly easy to make a Hiroshima-type bomb from such material. (A Nagasaki-type bomb is very difficult to make, needing implosion rather than firing one fissile fragment into another.) One of the conditions of NPT is that its members must not enrich beyond a certain low percentage. Its inspectors are free to visit nuclear facilities to check.
South Africa built an enrichment plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria. It used ingenious engineering to make enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for several bombs. It made six Hiroshima-type bombs, all of which would have worked. President FW de Klerk ended the nuclear weapons programme in 1989, scrapped the six bombs, and joined NPT in 1991. South Africa was a model member, complying freely with all of its inspections and conditions. This, together with her peaceful transition (fairly peaceful, at least) to full democracy in 1994, aroused tremendous goodwill towards South Africa in the rest of the world. The ANC has steadily eroded that goodwill.
Koeberg gets half of its fuel from France and half from Westinghouse. Westinghouse in the US sends fuel components to its plant in Sweden, where it is fabricated into final fuel, and then shipped to Cape Town. The plant in Sweden comes under the authority of Westinghouse, which in turn comes under the authority of the US nuclear regulator, which is determined to keep a close watch on all matters of nuclear fuel for reasons mentioned above. Koeberg probably could manage to change to getting all its fuel from outside Westinghouse and the US, but it would be difficult, expensive and very bad for South African international relationships.
The ANC has sullied South Africa’s high moral standing with its continuous support for African tyrants like Robert Mugabe. As government policy, Mugabe ordered the slaughter of over 20,000 Ndebele in the 1980s and then impoverished and terrorised his own people – far worse than the apartheid government ever did. (Under apartheid no ordinary black people fled South Africa, only political activists. Under Mugabe, millions fled.) But the ANC cheered Mugabe, almost worshipped him, and helped him stay in power after he lost the 2008 election by a landslide. The ANC has also cheered brutal oppressors such as Fidel Castro and continually condemned Western countries like the US (while begging for their investment at the same time). I wonder if some Americans, noticing the South Africa-Russian joint naval exercises a year after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and then noticing South Africa’s refusal to renew the Westinghouse licence, might think, “Hmmm –“
They would be wrong to do so in my opinion. Apparently the man bearing responsibility for renewing the licence is Mr Zizamele Mbambo, Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy. I have never met him. The blurb says, “Amongst his duties as Deputy Director General Nuclear Energy are the following: Manage and implement all matters relating to nuclear safety and technology as required by legislation and international agreement.” I’m told by those who have worked with him that he is quite pro-nuclear. I’m also told that he is “blindingly incompetent” and “the ultimate bureaucrat”. It seems his bureaucratic fumbling and bumbling might have slowed down previous attempts at a nuclear programme in recent years. I don’t know why he failed to renew the licence but strongly suspect dithering and incompetence rather than any bad intention.
This is something we need to recognise more widely for so many of the ANC’s failures and the failures of our state-owned industries, notably Eskom. Some of the failures are caused by crime, corruption and malevolence, some by destructive racial policies such as BEE, affirmative action and cadre deployment, but many by sheer dithering and incompetence, and even fear of making a hard decision. Some of the damaging procurement at Eskom, notably coal procurement, where contracts were given to comrades and chums to supply very bad coal at very high prices, did occur. But much damage has also been done by the inability to decide on any procurement at all.
Koeberg began operating in 1984, and has run safely and well ever since, providing South Africa with her cleanest and cheapest electricity. It is by no means the best run nuclear station in the world but has done quite well. Unfortunately, in recent years there have been some nuclear blunders, none affecting safety, but many expensive and all embarrassing. In 2006 there was the “bolt in the generator” (actually debris falling into it during repairs as a result of shoddy workmanship). In 2022, Unit 2 was due to have its steam generators (SG) replaced. This is a major operation but a routine one, done many times around the world, always successfully. But when the team came from overseas to do the job, Koeberg had not made the most simple but necessary preparation for it, namely the building of a temporary storage room for the old SGs. Then there was the absurd episode of appointing Peter Becker to the nuclear regulatory board. Becker was a member of Koeberg Alert, dedicated to shutting Koeberg down. I’ve debated with him. He makes no secret about his intention to end all nuclear power. This was rather like appointing an orthodox Jew to the South African Pork Marketing Board. There was the expected row and Becker was ejected from the board but won a court case against his ejection. And now we have this fiasco over the Westinghouse licence to supply fuel to Koeberg.
Why haven’t we signed to renew the Westinghouse nuclear fuel supply licence? I don’t know. Can we quickly sign it now, make a grovelling apology, and then renew this fuel supply to Koeberg. I don’t know. I just hope so. I really do.
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