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Mantashe was right to have fired Becker, says Kemm

BECKER has repeatedly called for Koeberg to be closed down, and has shown no faith in the highly skilled technical staff at the facility, the very people who are involved with the current major life-extension upgrade taking place there, says Kemm.

BECKER has repeatedly called for Koeberg to be closed down, and has shown no faith in the highly skilled technical staff at the facility, the very people who are involved with the current major life-extension upgrade taking place there, says Kemm.

Published May 3, 2022

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THERE have been various reports in the media that Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe has fired a board member of the National Nuclear Regulator for being unsuitable to serve on the board.

The person concerned is Peter Becker of the anti-nuclear activist group Koeberg Alert Alliance, an anti-nuclear body that is opposed to nuclear power.

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There is no doubt that Mantashe’s actions in this regard are correct. Most of the reports in various media have been rather sympathetic to Becker, but have undoubtedly misinterpreted the situation. They have said that the NNR board should have a representative of the general public. That is quite correct, but they have incorrectly interpreted the “representation” concept.

But let us now digress for a moment. In various countries there is an authority related to commercial flying, known typically as a “civil aviation authority”, or something similar. Such a body is tasked with ensuring that passengers, aircrew and the public on the ground are as safe as possible with respect to commercial flying.

Such an authority, therefore, is concerned with ensuring that pilot training is as good as possible, and that aircrew generally are skilled and reliable. They also give attention to the functional safety of aircraft, so they check maintenance procedures and the training and competence of maintenance and servicing personnel. They monitor flying schedules to make sure that pilots do not fly for overextended periods and as a result thereof get too tired to perform adequately. In short, an air safety authority will look at anything that is brought to its attention to ensure that commercial flying is safe and reliable for all concerned.

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Now, returning to nuclear power and nuclear technology generally, the NNR has exactly the same function with respect to the spectrum of nuclear technology.

That function is to safeguard the public from any unsafe or faulty nuclear process or practice. It exists to promote the safe application of nuclear technology. This includes nuclear power such as that produced by Koeberg nuclear power station, but it also includes nuclear medicine, as practised in a number of South African hospitals. Furthermore, it includes agricultural nuclear usage, as well as nuclear processes in industry, such as nuclear radiography of pipes to detect very small cracks which, if not identified, could lead to a major accident.

Certainly the NNR cannot be an anti-nuclear body, and obviously there is no place in it for an anti-nuclear activist who advocates closing down all nuclear technology.

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Becker has repeatedly called for Koeberg to be closed down, and has shown no faith in the highly skilled technical staff at Koeberg, the very people who are involved with the current major life-extension upgrade taking place there.

The NNR should applaud good nuclear practice in South Africa, and it should encourage more nuclear technology. But of course it must also keep a watchful eye on the entire industry to make sure that, while as much progress as possible takes place, this happens while the safety of the public and the environment is at all times protected.

Just as a civil aviation authority would never advocate doing away with aeroplanes, a nuclear safety authority should never advocate doing away with nuclear power or nuclear medicine.

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Imagine a civil aviation authority board member standing next to an airport waving a banner to close down all air travel. Would that not be a major joke?

But Becker has been seen standing outside Koeberg advocating for the closure of the facility. He also belittles the Koeberg staff and publicly declares his lack of confidence in them. How on earth does that sort of behaviour and attitude ensure safe nuclear technology for the people of South Africa?

Congratulations to Mantashe for having had the strength to take decisive action. We need more of that. Nuclear power is good technology, it brings vast benefits to humanity, and South Africa is one of the world leaders in the field. We not only run the world’s most southerly nuclear power plant, the only one in Africa, but we also daily export nuclear medicine around the entire globe, to over 60 countries.

Every three hours, South African nuclear medicine saves someone’s life somewhere in the world. We need to proudly maintain our national superiority in the nuclear field.

Our nuclear specialists should be applauded and encouraged. Mantashe's action was dead right. Of course the public should have a representative on the NNR board, a person who encourages safe nuclear technology in the interests of national health and progress. However, that person should not be a banner-waving activist.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants ([email protected])

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