National Nuclear Regulator head Mzubanzi Bismark Tyobeka steps down
It may be nothing more than an innocent resignation, but for anxious Cape Town citizens, it is one more red flag concerning the governance and operation of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.
Two weeks ago, the National Nuclear Regulator quietly posted a statement on its website announcing the resignation of its CEO, Dr Mzubanzi Bismark Tyobeka. The highly qualified and respected nuclear engineer is leaving to “pursue his profession elsewhere”.
This news will come as a blow to an organisation that has its work cut out for it, as Eskom pursues the complex, costly and controversial extension-of-life project at the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station.
Koeberg was built in the 1970s and was meant to be decommissioned by 2024.
The current project sees Koeberg replacing six steam generators in two distinct phases, while simultaneously completing a refurbishment and safety upgrade.
This will extend the operating life of the nuclear facility by a further 20 years. However, as Eskom has acknowledged, it is a highly complex project. It is also one that was not subjected to public scrutiny and which has already been bedevilled by delays.
While Eskom has blamed Covid and staff shortages for the delays, there are reasons to believe that Koeberg’s operating and engineering performance is not up to scratch and its culture of safety is weak, which, combined with poor planning, is contributing to the delays.
For reasons known only to the powers at Eskom, managing the message is becoming more important than being open and transparent with the public.
As if this was not enough, the regulator also needs to be alert to the possible procurement of new nuclear power, as mooted by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. The department is proposing procuring 2,500MW of new nuclear power by 2024.
Proper regulatory oversight is clearly essential.
For these reasons, South African civil society is alarmed by the news of Dr Tyobeka’s resignation without there being any indication that he is taking up another position within the local industry.
“This resignation is the latest loss in what is a seeming exodus of skills from Koeberg and now the Regulator too,” says Francesca de Gasparis of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute.
“Dr Tyobeka was in his post of CEO of the NNR for over eight years. There may be nothing sinister to it, but his resignation comes at a time when there have been a number of high-level concerns about decision-making on nuclear energy, including Koeberg’s viability, errors in running of the plant, and the public’s safety regarding radioactive waste and the proposed life extension of Koeberg.”
Liz McDaid, parliamentary adviser to the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), is equally concerned. “For a skilled, ambitious professional, it is not a surprising move. Dr Tyobeka was a person who stood up and demanded a sufficient budget to ensure nuclear safety.
“But, as we have seen over the years, with the exposure and setting aside of the nuclear deal, and with only an ageing reactor at Koeberg to oversee, professionals need to make career choices.”
It’s not hard to see why civil society is alarmed by anything that could be seen as potentially undermining the efficient running of the regulator.
In 2014, South Africa’s government made a secret deal with Russia to develop 9.6 gigawatts of nuclear energy by building eight to 10 nuclear power stations in South Africa. The $76-billion deal was unprecedented in scope and cost and assigned all liability for nuclear accidents to South Africa.
Along with Makoma Lekalakala, McDaid built a broad coalition to stop the government’s secret deal with Russia. On 26 April 2017, the High Court ruled that the project was unconstitutional — it was a landmark legal victory.
“South Africa needs a strong regulatory body to keep the public safe. Who will now head the NNR, and will the government provide sufficient funds to ensure effective regulation?” McDaid asks.
The NNR is also facing mounting calls for more transparency, an upcoming court case related to a complaint about the civil society representative and his subsequent dismissal by the minister, and a looming court battle with Outa regarding refusals for information requested under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
There is also mounting controversy about the proposed life extension of Koeberg.
The steam generators and a tragi-comedy of errors
This process has been controversial since a 2010 announcement from the Eskom board that the steam generator replacement and life extension should go ahead.
In 2014 Eskom signed a R4.3-billion contract with US firm Areva. This was followed by a series of problems with the manufacturing process, which resulted in the partially manufactured new steam generators being air freighted to China and then discarded as scrap metal. Finally, three new generators were shipped to South Africa in September 2020 and have been in storage ever since.
Andrew Kenny, a long-time proponent of nuclear power for South Africa, described the lack of preparation as “disgraceful”.
Asking a question at the Nuclear Imbizo in Cape Town on 16 March, Kenny said: “Everyone knows you need a hot workshop for the old steam generators. Nothing fancy — a simple shed, probably airtight. Yet when [French nuclear engineering company] Framatome arrived, they were horrified… what happened?”
In response, Eskom’s Chief Nuclear Officer, Riedewaan Bakardien, said he was “extremely disappointed” and that “we are currently conducting an investigation to get to the bottom of it”. But he gave no indication of when that investigation would be concluded, or even if the results would be made public.
Calls for transparency
Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, also voiced concerns about the changing of the guard at the NNR.
“The NNR experiences huge capacity restraints and does not possess the funding or the human resources necessary to conduct proper planning, coordination and monitoring activities, and remediation plans can only be implemented when finances are available.”
The nuclear road ahead
“It’s extremely strange and worrying that the CEO of such a body would resign at this time,” said Gabriel Klaasen of Project 90 by 2030, a social and environmental justice organisation that is mobilising South African society towards a sustainably developed and equitable low-carbon future.
“It leaves me and many other community members wondering why he would leave.
“We need the NNR to be effective, but when someone in charge of safety leaves without explanation, it shows that the cracks may go far deeper than just the containment buildings.
“We need transparency and, more importantly, accountability now,” he said. DM/BM