The proposed smelter at South African Nuclear Energy Corporation’s (Necsa’s) Pelindaba site is cause for concern, environmental activists and members of the public said at a hearing on Thursday.
The public hearing, in Pretoria, was held by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to receive comment on the proposed Necsa smelter, which would process 14 000 t of uranium-contaminated scrap metal, presently stored on the Pelindaba site.
The greater portion of this metal consists of about 36 000 separate elements which, in accordance with nonproliferation agreements, should be destroyed completely.
Necsa regards smelting as the most appropriate and cost-effective method to achieve this and has applied to the NNR for a nuclear installation licence to build a smelter for this purpose.
“The advantage of having the smelter at the Pelindaba site is that the smelter would be hosted in an already existing building, the same complex as the low-to-medium waste storage facility, which reduces transportation and handling of the waste,” said Necsa’s Dr Van Zyl de Villiers.
Further, he pointed out that there was already an existing stack, with the necessary ventilation and filter systems in place, including high efficiency particle arresting (Hepa) filters.
“The emphasis of this smelter is on appropriate and responsible waste management and control, and specifically the reduction of waste volumes. The reduction of waste varieties and volumes is a great concern across the international nuclear industry,” he said.
De Villiers could not state what the associated costs or electricity usage would be with the implementation of the new smelter.
But Earthlife Africa branch coordinator for Johannesburg, Judith Taylor, said it would be reckless to add to radiation levels in the atmosphere, adding that the smelter would have “critical” health implications.
Professional Aviation Services MD Robert Garbett also said that a smelter could hold “serious health hazards” for people working at Pelindaba or living in the surrounding areas.
Garbett said Necsa’s 2012 Stack Initiatives public information document stated that it was estimated that emissions of smoke, impurities and soot would only amount to about 5 kg/y. “That is 50 kg over a ten-year period and is minute particles that can cover vast distances. The Hepa filter is the only thing that keeps the harmful emissions from the smelting process between the facility and the surrounding air,” he said.
Garbett said there would inevitably be dangerous emissions from the stacks in the form of radiation, which could be inhaled and ingested by humans and animals, and later effect crops. “This will lead to cancer and a number of birth defects in the future,” he noted.
The NNR board, which presided over the meeting, would now take into consideration the presentations that were made at the meeting and would deliver its judgment on the approval of the smelter in the near future.