The hiring and firing of Peter Becker by Minister Mantashe has been covered extensively in the press recently. Becker was appointed to the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) Board to represent communities in June 2021, and fired for ‘misconduct’ in February 2022. Becker is in the process of challenging this in the Western Cape High Court, asking that the decision to remove him be reviewed and set aside.
The Minister and the NNR have until 10 May to produce the record of the decision. Despite this, the Minister recently issued a call for nominations to replace Becker. The deadline for nominations was 6 May.
In a speech in the Eastern Cape on 7 May, Mantashe is reported as saying that he will fire anyone on the NNR Board who does not advocate for nuclear power or ‘resists’ nuclear power. This appears to make it clear that anyone nominated must be someone who will ‘advocate’ for nuclear power, irrespective of the opinions of the communities they are appointed to represent.
After appointing Peter Becker to the Board of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in June 2021, Minister Mantashe fired him in February 2022. Becker has launched an application in the High Court to have this decision reviewed. If successful, it would mean that he would return to his position on the NNR Board.
The Minister’s decision to discharge Becker was based on a complaint in July 2021, shortly after he was appointed. The founding affidavit (linked below) submitted to the court paints a picture of a decision by the Minister based on unsubstantiated allegations combined with a misunderstanding of the role of the NNR.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant near Cape Town from 22 to 31 March 2022. Both the IAEA and Eskom put out media statements after the visit, which are available on the Eskom and IAEA sites respectively. The statements have resulted in some misunderstanding, which we try to correct below.
Firstly, it is important to bear in mind that the IAEA is an organisation with voluntary membership and has the objective “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”, according to its statute. Member states may invite the IAEA to visit a nuclear site to conduct a review and make recommendations, and this visit was done after a request from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.
On 18 March 2022, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) announced that Dr. Mzubanzi Bismark Tyobeka had resigned as the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation. This resignation comes at a busy time for the NNR as it considers Eskom’s application to extend the life of Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy talks about procurement of 2500MW new nuclear by 2024.
Considering the implications, this resignation has raised questions from civil society.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
It is generally agreed that nuclear power comes with an inherent risk. What is hotly debated is whether or not there are benefits which outweigh that risk. When it comes to the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant, Eskom have had the approach that since Koeberg produces electricity at a cost of around R0.45 per kWh, it is a ‘no-brainer’ to spend whatever is needed on a refurbishment to extend the life of the plant beyond the end of its design life in 2024.
A recently released modelling report estimates that doing that refurbishment would result in additional costs of R50bn “from a combination of the actual costs of life extension, additional open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) usage, large key-customer curtailment requests/instructions, and scheduled load-shedding.” It will also increase carbon emissions due to the additional use of OCGTs.