The safety compliance failures at NTP Radioisotopes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the State-owned South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), has created a crisis within the parastatal and for the country’s nuclear medicine community and its patients. Necsa shut down operations at NTP in late November due to non-compliance with safety protocols at the radioisotope producer, a step with which the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) concurred.
“Necsa, as the [nuclear] licence holder, is the one obligated to uphold the highest safety standards. NTP is a beneficiary of this,” Necsa CEO Phumzile Tshelane told Engineering News Online. “This means that there is a crisis within Necsa due to the failure of NTP to uphold safety standards. This is damaging the image of Necsa within the global nuclear community. It is also a crisis in the supply of medical radioisotopes and it is thus a crisis for the country’s nuclear medicine community and its patients.”
With NTP not producing for more than two months now, the medical radioisotopes being used in the country are being sourced from abroad, arranged by Necsa. But there is still a gap between the supply and the demand. “On average, there has been a 50% reduction in the [nuclear medicine] material available in South Africa,” he reported.
NTP management appears not to have been totally frank with its parent group or its own board about the situation within the subsidiary company. Tshelane states that previous safety lapses at NTP were not reported to Necsa as safety lapses but as “work in progress”. Four senior managers were (and still are) temporarily relieved of their duties. However, investigations are still under way and no formal conclusions have yet been announced.
Because NTP is set up as a company, with its own board, Tshelane has no direct control over it. Nor is he a member of the NTP board. “I did not suspend senior management at NTP. I cannot suspend anyone at NTP,” he explained. “In fact, they were not suspended – they are on special leave. That was done by the NTP board; I support that decision.”
But what Tshelane could do, he has done. “Necsa had delegated the safety process to NTP. We have revoked this.” Necsa is now directly monitoring safety compliance within its subsidiary.
“Any future management shake-up at NTP would be a matter for the NTP board, which must ensure that these kind of problems do not continue and do not recur,” he affirmed. “I can complain to the NTP board, but I’m not in the loop at all. They can consult me, but it is up to them.”