South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) CEO Phumzile Tshelane told “Engineering News Online” on Thursday that it was hoped that production at its subsidiary NTP Radioisotopes would restart in the near future. Operations at NTP were shut down in June following a breach in safety procedures.
“NTP is not back in production yet, since the incident [at the] end of May,” he reported in a written statement. “However, much progress has been registered to realise this. Necsa is hopeful that NTP production resumption is imminent soon.”
On June 5, Necsa announced that there had been a “non-risk” incident at NTP on May 31. This involved the activation of safety protocols which had halted the production of medical radioisotopes. The company described the incident as a “minor technical problem” which led to the detection of a “slight hydrogen excess” in one of the production hot cells.
In a column published by the News24 website on June 18, Necsa Board Chairperson Dr Kelvin Kemm gave an account of the safety breach: “an operator on a ‘hotcell’ made a mistake. A hotcell is used to load radioactive nuclear medicine. The operator uses remote arms and behind radiationproof glass must carry out all tasks. … When the operator closed a door, a filter funnel fell in the door. The door did not close properly. He did not double check. Some hydrogen gas escaped. About a shopping bag full, but that was enough to trigger an alarm.”
Kemm continued that the CEO ordered a “general shutdown” of NTP, informed the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), and also Kemm, and transferred the operator and the operator’s superior. He denied reports that the safety incident had involved a hazardous jump in the amount of hydrogen gas.
AmaBhungane journalist Micah Reddy, also on the News24 website (again dated June 18), citing official documents, affirmed that the “incident leading to the most recent shutdown did indeed involve a hydrogen spike …. It was serious, which is why the plant remains shut down in line with NNR rules.”
Last November, NTP was shut down because of safety compliance failures. Production was resumed in February.