Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

WHAT do you do with the remnants of a nuclear weapons programme? That was at the heart of yesterday’s public hearings on a proposed smelter at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa’s (Necsa’s) Pelindaba site, 30km from Pretoria in North West.

According to Necsa, about 14,000 tons of lightly uranium-contaminated ferrous and nonferrous metals are stored at the Pelindaba site. The materials were originally part of its uranium enrichment facilities, which were closed down in the early 1990s.

"Some of these materials cannot be adequately decontaminated by conventional methods," says Necsa’s Van Zyl de Villiers.

South Africa is the only country in the world to have willingly dismantled its nuclear weapons programme.

Department of Energy director-general Nelisiwe Magubane told Parliament’s portfolio committee on energy on Thursday that one of the tasks of Necsa was to dispose of the remnants of South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.

Ms Magubane says Necsa is still dealing with the liability of that programme, and the auditor-general has recommended that the corporation’s budget be increased to deal with it. "Otherwise that liability will stretch out into the future," she says.

However, members of the public who are against the proposed smelter and are mainly from the Pelindaba Working Group — maintain it is unconstitutional to use smelter technology to melt down the contaminated metals.

The smelter would melt the metals, allowing the uranium to concentrate in the slag, which would have a 98% uranium concentration. This would be stored at Necsa’s waste site, Vaalputs.

Of the remaining 2%, 1% would be distributed through the remaining metal and the other 1% would enter the off-gas system. This metal would be resold, and the total amount of uranium introduced into the atmosphere would be 120g/year for the smelter’s 10-year life span. The total particulate emission would be 5kg/year.

Christine Garbett — who represented "parties excluded" during the process — queries why Necsa wants to decontaminate the metals now when "they have been lying around for decades. No one has tried to steal the weapons."

In Parliament yesterday, Department of Energy chief financial officer Yvonne Chetty said Necsa had asked the department for R13.1m for a revamp and better security. But she would not say if this was related to the nuclear weapons programme.

Ms Garbett estimates that 10,500 tons of metal would be available for "unrestricted distribution in the supply chain … (even though) hotspots may remain in the metal ingots. (Necsa will be introducing) hazardous waste into the supply chain."

Pelindaba Working Group’s Dominique Gilbert wants the National Nuclear Regulator to reject Necsa’s licensing application for the smelter: "Health should not be subordinate to profit," she says.

"No benefits to the people, the profits go to Necsa, and we are just asked to accept an increase in our exposure to radiation."

Necsa says Gauteng already has a high natural radiation of 2,500 microsieverts and the increased environmental radiation exposure would be 0.002 microsieverts.

However, all anti-smelter presenters highlight there is a "big difference" between natural radiation levels and ingested uranium.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the hearing came with the last question, from Thuli Dube, a member of the nearby Lanseria community. "We did not know about this whole thing. Why did we not know?"

She referred to Lanseria as the "forgotten" community, as she handed over hundreds of written objections from residents: "We’ve never been notified and we are the people who are affected."

Necsa will brief Parliament today on its annual report and MPs say they will ask some questions about the weapons disposal.

With Paul Vecchiatto