Nuclear safety concerns sparked by dismissal of community representative

Statement from the South African Faith Communities Environment Institute
Released 4 March 2022

It has now been just over a week since Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe fired Peter Becker (on 25 February) – the community representative on the board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), a position that is required by law – and many communities and civil society organisations are seething. Many feel that this dismissal implies, especially for those communities who live in the surrounding areas of Koeberg and near sites that government has earmarked for nuclear (such as Thyspunt), that their safety and their concerns about nuclear energy will either be silenced or will not effectively be dealt with.

According to Francesca de Gasparis, Executive Director at the Southern African Faith Communities’ Institute (SAFCEI), “This dismissal also sends the wrong message to current and future board members, who may not want to risk their position by speaking out about issues that concern them and those they represent. The role of the community representative on the Board is to represent communities when it comes to developments that could put their wellbeing and livelihoods at risk.”

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Minister Mantashe fires community representative for ‘misconduct’

Minister Mantashe suspended the civil society representative on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) on 18 January based on a legal opinion provided to him on 10 October 2021. After a long process of letter writing and providing representations including a clear rebuttal of the allegations made against Peter Becker, the Minister wrote the letter below discharging Becker from the Board.

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No valid reasons for discharge from Board of Nuclear Regulator

After a long process which began in July 2021 Minister Mantashe provided reasons why he intended to fire the civil society representative on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) on 16 February 2022. This was the first time the Minister had committed his reasons to paper, and it provided the first opportunity for Peter Becker, the suspended Board member, to respond to the allegations of misconduct that the Minister was making.

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Court order suspended NNR decision making

After Minister Mantashe suspended the civil society representative on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), an urgent court date was set to challenge the legality of this suspension. This appeared to be an open and shut case, and so the Minister through the State Attorney, and the NNR through the firm MacRobert Attorneys, reached out to make a settlement.

As part of the settlement, the Minister agreed to make a decision on whether or not to discharge the community representative, Peter Becker, by 15 February 2022. In the same settlement, the NNR agreed to suspend all decision making and meetings of the Board and subcommittees while the illegal suspension was in effect. This settlement agreement was made an order of the High Court. As it turned out, the Minister did not meet the deadline, and it is not know whether or not the NNR complied with the order.

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Protestors hand demands to National Nuclear Regulator

On 17 February 2022 a small group of protesters representing civil society organisations gathered outside the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) offices in Tableview to protest the suspension and pending discharge of their representative on the NNR Board. There organisations represented included then Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI), Project 90 by 2030, 350Africa.org, Koeberg Alert Alliance and the Federation for Sustainable Environment. Below are some photographs of the event, as well as the list of demands that was handed over.

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Minister provides reasons for intention to discharge community representative

Previous posts have described how Minister Mantashe suspended the Board member who was representing communities on the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). This suspension had no basis in law, and to avoid an urgent court case set for 8 February 2022, a settlement was reached whereby Mantashe agreed to make a decision on whether or not to discharge the Board member by 15 February. Despite this settlement agreement being made an order of the court, Mantashe failed to do so. However, on 15 February he finally laid out his reasons for intending to discharge the Board member. The full letter is included below.

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Suspension of NNR Board member challenge: settlement reached

Issued by Rodney Anderson, of Save Bantamsklip

Save Bantamsklip | Xplorio Gansbaai

Six months after appointing a Board member to the Board of National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in order to represent affected communities, Minister Mantashe unlawfully suspended Peter Becker on 18 January 2022. He has been a vocal campaigner against nuclear power in South Africa for about 12 years, and when Mantashe appointed him in June 2021 it was widely welcomed as an enlightened step. According to the NNR Act of 1999, the NNR Board also includes a member from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), well known for a very pro-nuclear stance.

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Suspension of NNR Board member: Response

Further to our previous post re being excluded from Board meetings, and later receiving a letter from Minister Mantashe suspending him, Peter Becker’s legal representative wrote as below to the Minister.

It has since emerged that on the same day of the letter, 18 January 2022, Eskom received approval from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to go ahead with the replacement of the first three steam generators at Koeberg.

It is a peculiar coincidence that based on a legal opinion delivered in early October 2021, the Minister happened to write the suspension letter on the day the NNR approved this major project, which is a key component of Eskom’s plan to extend the life of the ageing plant by twenty years.

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Minister suspends Civil Society representative to NNR

Further to our previous post re being excluded from Board meetings, Peter Becker, the representative of communities potentially affected by decisions of the National Nuclear Regulator, has been formally suspended with immediate effect.

Becker strenuously denies all the allegations of ‘misconduct’ and ‘conflict of interest’ which have been made against him and hopes to challenge this decision and have it reversed.

Meanwhile, the Regulator presses forward with deliberating on what approvals to grant the Koeberg Nuclear plant at a critical time when work is about to start to extend its lifetime by twenty years. This is precisely the time when it would be in the public interest to have someone with Becker’s expertise involved in oversight of NNR processes.

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Civil society responds to reports of Koeberg contract

It was recently widely reported in the media that a US-based engineering company has been awarded a portion of a R20bn contract to extend the life of the Koeberg nuclear power plant. Activists and civil organisations are concerned that the legal processes required to grant a licence for a life extension have not been followed.

Koeberg’s nuclear licence expires in 2024

In order to operate beyond 2024, Eskom needs the approval of the NNR, and a new licence to be issued. This licencing process is described in new regulations published in March 2021, which requires a notice in the government gazette as well as announcements in local newspapers. This would allow the public to make comments for the NNR to take into account before making a decision. However, it appears that this process has not been followed.

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