Independent reports are being received by EE Publishers that energy minister Jeff Radebe has requested the Necsa board to provide reasons why it should not be removed, and that issues relating to the Necsa chairman are central to this matter.
It appears that the issues raised by the minister with the board concern matters of governance, engagements with Russian nuclear interests and possible unauthorised research reactor deals with Russia’s Rusatom, overseas trips by the Necsa chairman, unauthorised media releases, articles and/or communications, and apparent conflicts of interest.
Formal questions have been put to Minister Radebe, to Necsa chairman Dr Kelvin Kemm and to Necsa CEO Phumzile Tshelane, including a request for confirmation as to whether the reports being received are correct or not, and/or whether there is any substance to these reports, to which Necsa has replied:
“The Necsa board and the Minister of Energy are engaged in discussions relating to the proper governance of the corporation. These engagements constitute the normal board and shareholder engagements and cannot be, at this stage, carried out in newspapers. Necsa expects that the outcomes may be communicated by the minister and/or the Necsa board at some stage.”
Necsa further indicated that as the board is appointed by the Minister of Energy, it would be more appropriate for EE Publishers to approach the minister for further information, and not Necsa. At the time of publishing this article, no reply had been received to the questions put to the Minister of Energy, although confirmation was received that the minister had received the questions.
Necsa is the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, a state-owned enterprise undertaking research and development and commercial activities in the field of nuclear energy and radiation sciences, and the production of medical nuclear radioisotopes and associated services. Necsa is also responsible for processing source material, including uranium enrichment, and co-operating with other institutions, locally and abroad, on nuclear and related matters.
Apart from its main activities at Pelindaba, near Pretoria, which include operation and utilisation of the SAFARI-1 research reactor, Necsa also manages and operates the Vaalputs National Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility in the Northern Cape on behalf of the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute (NRWDI).
Over the last few years, Necsa has been embroiled in a number of debilitating operational, financial and governance challenges.
As a result of safety procedure lapses, Necsa’s NTP Radioisotopes plant, which produced a significant share of the world’s commercial medical nuclear radioisotope, Molybdenum-99, was shut down by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in November 2017. The shutdown lasted almost a full year.
Several attempts to restart the NTP plant were undertaken during the leadership of Thabo Tselane, a Necsa-appointed NTP board member who, according to media reports, took over as interim group managing director from Tina Eboka, when she and four NTP executives were suspended. Up until July 2018, these attempts by Tselane appear to have failed.
Since July, when the senior executives, including Eboka, were reinstated after a nearly seven-month period of suspension, the process of rectifying shortcomings and bringing the operating and safety procedures in line with the requirements of the NNR seemed to have been marred by what appeared to be conflict between the boards and management of NTP Radioisotopes and its parent company, Necsa.
The problem was finally resolved after energy minister Jeff Radebe appointed deputy energy minister Thembisile Majola to assume full oversight of the board of NTP Radioisotopes from Necsa, which enabled more efficient communication between NTP, Necsa and the NNR.
It was announced in mid-November that the NTP Radioisotopes plant was back in operation after conditional approval to restart was given by the NNR.
NTP Radioisotopes normally has a revenue of about R1.3 billion a year, providing a contribution of more than 50% to the revenue of the Necsa group. The closure of the NTP production plant for a year has therefore had a devastating financial impact.
There are also wider concerns regarding the financial health of Necsa. The auditor-general has raised ongoing concerns about inadequate financial provisions by Necsa for decommissioning and dismantling costs at the end-of-life of Necsa’s SAFARI-1 research reactor.
As a result, Necsa’s annual financial statements for the year ending March 31, 2018, which were due to be published by end September 2018, have still not been tabled.
Chris Yelland is investigative editor at EE Publishers.
Note: This article will be updated as further information comes to hand, and/or a response from energy minister Jeff Radebe is received.