So, where is Vaalputs, you may ask? Well, it is some 100 km out into the desert from the town of Springbok, in the Northern Cape. Springbok is about an hour’s drive from the Namibian border.
It is very remote and the landscape is flat, and I mean really flat. All round, there is not a bump. There are bushes – this is the edge of the Fynbos region, but the highest bush is about knee height.
We flew from Johannesburg in a charter aircraft and landed on the Vaalputs airstrip, which is a piece of scraped ground with an aircraft hangar at the one end. Another group of guests flew in from Cape Town and landed about five minutes after us. The logistics was well organised. The whole entourage was led by Dr Rob Adam, the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa).
I think that it was a really good move for Adam to have decided to hold the anniversary celebration up there on the Vaalputs site. Local folks from the Springbok area, who are, by nature, small-town folks, staff the Vaalputs operation, and they are doing a world-class job in a very serious business. The public pat on the back for them must have done their morale a world of good.
A celebratory lunch was held in the aircraft hangar. In a short speech, Adam congratulated the team and then explained some of the operations for the benefit of the guests, who included members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on minerals and energy, and even the local police captain. Then the newly appointed chairperson of Necsa, Manne Dipico, gave another speech. In an amusing and light-hearted fashion, he complimented all concerned on running the opera- tion for 20 years in a fault-free fashion.
He also told a story of some years before he became Premier of the Northern Cape and some unsophisticated local fellow said that he had heard that the devil was out in the desert at Vaalputs. To placate him, he was taken out and shown the huge thick concrete drums in which the nuclear waste was buried. When he saw the concrete drums, he remarked that the devil would never get out of that; in fact, it was already a gravestone.
Nuclear waste is divided into three categories: low-, intermediate-, and high-level waste. Only the low- and intermediate-level nuclear wastes go to Vaalputs. The low-level waste is sealed in steel drums, while the intermediate- level waste is mixed with concrete or resin and then poured into a 130-mm- wall-thickness concrete drum, which has a steel inner liner. This all solidifies into a solid cylinder half the size of a car. This is then buried. No nuclear waste is dumped. The basic principle is that every drum that is buried can be retrieved at any time in the future. What happens is that each drum of waste that arrives at Vaalputs is numbered and then logged on a computer. The position of each drum is carefully noted and that means which trench, which layer and which position in the layer. Also, the content of each drum is noted. So, at any time – decades or centuries into the future – people will know exactly what is where.
The Vaalputs site was chosen over 20 years ago after extensive scientific investigation. Boreholes were drilled, geologic history was determined, and a myriad of other factors were taken into account before the site was chosen. It is one of the best such places in the world. So far, South Africa has not made a political decision as to where to store high-level waste, which is mainly spent fuel elements from nuclear reactors. To date, these spent-fuel elements are all still on the sites of Koeberg, in the Cape, and Pelindaba, near Pretoria.
The minister will have to take a proposal through Cabinet, through the national political process, to make that decision. It is quite possible that high- level waste will also go to Vaalputs but, maybe, government will decide on some other place. Hopefully, this decision will be made soon.
I would just like to add my congratulations to the team at Vaalputs for doing such an excellent job. Their professionalism assists the entire South African nuclear industry in projecting a top-class image to the international community.