Faith communities and concerned citizens call for more transparency from Nuclear Regulator

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Yesterday 17 February 2022, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) joined communities and other eco-justice NGOs – including Project 90 by 2030, Koeberg Alert Alliance, Africa, Federation for Sustainable Environment, and more – for a peaceful demonstration outside the National Nuclear Regulator’s (NNR) offices in Table View, Cape Town. According to SAFCEI’s Executive Director Francesca de Gasparis – who handed over a memorandum of demands to the NNR – the picket aimed to draw much-needed attention to the increasing levels of secrecy from the regulator, during a period where critical and far-reaching decisions are being made.

“The suspension of the NNR Board’s community representative is a pressing issue because the public has no representative on the board, while the NNR continue to make critical decisions about the country’s nuclear energy future. According to the NNR Act and Board composition, the purpose of the community representative is to represent the views of the public, whether or not these are pro- or anti-nuclear is not stipulated. In our view, for the Minister to state that someone cannot be on a regulator board because they are anti-nuclear, weakens our nuclear governance. It seems disingenuous that only pro-nuclear voices are allowed on the National Nuclear Regulator Board as this would then not only ignore those who have valid safety concerns and who have tough questions to ask, and in fact do not want this outdated and dangerous technology,” says de Gasparis.

“It is already unacceptable that for the better part of the past decade, South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator has been operating without the oversight of a civil society representative on its board, as required by the NNR Act. Now, after just a few months, the Koeberg Alert Alliance’s Peter Becker has been suspended by Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe. It is important to note that it was during this time of no civil representative on the NNR Board that SAFCEI and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg had to mobilise the country to stop the illegal R1-trillion nuclear deal with Russia. Mr Becker’s position on nuclear energy was known when he was appointed to the Board so to use that against him now is questionable.,” she adds.

De Gasparis says, “The lack of transparency around government’s nuclear decisions could be seen to imply that once again energy procurement policy is not being followed. The Regulator is supposed to be there to ensure legislative compliance and we have not been given information about why Mr Becker may have been preventing this from happening and thus the timing of his suspension as the Board is considering the extension of the life of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant problematic.”

According to SAFCEI’s Khulekani Magwaza, in a country that is rife with government corruption – as exposed in the State Capture report – we need more transparency, not less. He says, “I believe that the Minister must reinstate our civil society representative. How can it be that only the nuclear industry and other related sectors still have a voice on the board, but communities do not? We believe that Mr. Becker is a great choice because he is knowledgeable about the nuclear industry, and he consistently demonstrates that he advocates for the greater public good. If what he has done is so egregious, then why are the reasons for his suspension kept secret? Why is everything confidential? Do the people not have a right to know why their representative has been suspended? Right now, it feels as though the NNR is a private institution with private interests, rather than one that is accountable to the public. And what are the plans to fill the position because we still need a voice on the NNR board?”

Faith leader and member of SAFCEI Lydia Petersen says, “In its role as regulator, we do not believe that the NNR exercises due transparency, as is the case with this suspension and several other dubious decisions that were taken. The NNR claims to serve and prioritise our communities and that they bring positive change to people’s lives but how can we believe that when the evidence is to the contrary? Instead, we find Minister Mantashe playing cat and mouse games with us. The public should have received notice and reason for the suspension/dismissal already. By not doing so, public mistrust in the NNR and DMRE will continue to deepen. The question is, who will keep us informed if there is no-one there to represent our interests? As a safety measure, to protect the people, we demand that no decisions be taken by the NNR board while there is no civil society representative.”

Project90’s Gabriel Klaasen says, “It was exceptionally powerful to watch so many people of different generations and backgrounds and parts of civil society come together and call for transparency from the National Nuclear Regulator. Collectively calling for Gwede Mantashe to take action and reinstate our only civil society representative, Peter Becker, who has been suspended from the board. The time for a co-designed energy future is now! We cannot do that if our voice as civil society has been silenced.”

Minister at Assemblies Of God Association Western Cape Rev. Joy Aline Chetty says, “The people of this country are not getting the service they deserve from the NNR in its role as regulator of nuclear energy. The area around Koeberg has grown exponentially since the time it was first built. Many more communities, who would be affected should something go wrong at the nuclear plant, have not been meaningfully involved in the plans to extend the lifespan of the ageing plant (which should be decommissioned in 2024). We demand that all these processes be put on hold until our communities are represented. As people of faith, we do not believe that nuclear energy forms part of South Africa’s just energy future. With the just transition, we must move away from this type of centralised energy source to those sources which are more socially inclusive and decentralised.”

Rastafarian environmental activist from Gqeberha and member of SAFCEI’s Faith and Eco-Justice project Ricardo Swanepoel says that he has grown increasingly disillusioned with the NNR. Referring to public hearings regarding plans to build a new nuclear site in Thyspunt, Swanepoel says, “Our input is ignored. Never have we seen any written or oral statements in response to our contributions, nor have we seen anything that demonstrates that they acknowledge our inputs and how these may fit into government’s plans. It is troubling that we are expected to just accept these plans – like a new plant in Thyspunt or the life extension of Koeberg - and accept that government has resolved to ignore us? We are rendered dogs with no bite, as far as they are concerned as they have been steamrolling us for over a decade.”

According to Professor in Nuclear Engineering Dawid Serfontein, "The Minster indicated that to serve on the board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) members must be supportive of nuclear power, i.e. they cannot be anti-nuclear. Since Becker is clearly anti-nuclear, the Minister believes that that disqualifies him from the board.

The Minister's statement incorrectly suggests that the task of the NNR is to support and promote nuclear power. However the law states that the task of the NNR is to promote nuclear SAFETY, i.e. to prevent nuclear accidents. Becker is clearly anti-nuclear. However, I know him well and I know that he is definitely not anti-nuclear-safety. In fact, I know few members of the public who work as hard to prevent nuclear accidents as Becker.

As a Professor in Nuclear Engineering, I personally know many scientists and engineers involved in running nuclear organisations in South Africa. In discussions, many of them have indicated to me that they do not accept the theory that radiation causes large numbers of cancer cases. Therefore they are AGAINST the safety measures promoted by the NNR. One could thus say that they have an anti-nuclear-safety bias. Yet, it is these people that the Minister suggests should serve on the board of the NNR, while Becker who is pro-nuclear-safety should be disqualified.

The job of any watchdog is to bark when things are wrong. Each time, when such a watchdog barks, it causes reputational harm to government. The Minister indicated that because Becker (rightly or wrongly) barked, he caused reputational harm and should thus be fired. It therefore seems the Minister wants a nuclear watchdog that is not allowed to bark! That clearly defeats the purpose of the NNR."

Professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa Jo-Ansie van Wyk says, “'The Minister's position on civil society involvement and participation runs counter to legislation (e.g. NNR Act) and the constitutional rights and obligations of both the State and South African citizens. Mr Mantashe's position is highly regrettable and has set a grave precedent for the country's energy future. A just energy transition also requires a just decision-making process. Democratic oversight affirms transparency and, ultimately, a respect for the people of this land. Ad hominem attacks against Mr Becker is not only unfounded but also displays government's unwillingness to entertain opposing views. Democratic decision-making must be robust. We cannot afford Nuclear Groupthink as we proceed to consider South Africa's energy options.”