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Safety and security of nuclear facilities in Africa imperative

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Picture: Henk Kruger/ African News Agency (ANA)

By Yarik Turianskyi

Over the past decade, a number of low-profile nuclear incidents have occurred in Africa. Some of these have only been made public long after they initially occurred. In December 2013, for example, the Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia experienced a structural failure of a leach tank, resulting in a spill. Afterwards, elevated levels of radiation were reported in areas surrounding the mine. In South Africa, the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station released radioactive waste into the environment in three separate incidents between 2014 and 2015. However, the public was not informed at the time. In a parliamentary response in 2019, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said that the radioactive quantities were negligible and fell below the threshold requiring the public to be informed. Additional incidents occurred in 2017 and 2018 at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility, one of which resulted in a shutdown of a radio-isotopes plant. AmaBhungane, a credible investigative journalism unit, reported ‘a picture of a breakdown of safety culture at the plant’.

Nuclear power is becoming a prominent item on the African agenda.

South Africa is currently the only African country operating a nuclear power reactor, but Egypt is planning to follow suit by the end of this decade with the completion of its nuclear power plant, construction of which is already underway. In addition, at least 16 other African countries are investigating the possibility of starting up nuclear power programmes, namely Algeria, Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, Sudan, Tunisia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

For all African states that develop nuclear programmes, it is critical that they ensure the safety and security of nuclear materials, including nuclear waste. Apart from concerns about harmful effects on people and the environment in Africa, critics worry that nuclear materials will fall into the wrong hands, either during coups or through the actions of terrorists who are increasingly using such materials for acts of terror. While in the past decade coups in Africa have not been nearly as prevalent as they used to be (over 200 coups and attempted coups took place between independence and 2012, with over 90% of African states having experienced them), there have nonetheless been 40 coups and attempted coups since 2010.

Unconstitutional changes of government, conflict and war may bring about instability and potential threats to nuclear facilities, as recent events at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plantin Ukraine have shown.

As noted in earlier research by SAIIA, ‘safety and security of new and existing nuclear programmes, as well as nuclear waste products, is paramount’. Strong capacity to ensure full compliance with continental and international standards and safeguards needs to go hand in hand with nuclear builds and the maintenance of existing facilities.

This policy insight is structured as follows. The first section discusses key continental and international nuclear safety and security documents applicable to African states with nuclear programmes. This is followed by a discussion of the roles, objectives and recent activities in nuclear safety and security of two key institutions: the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with a section dedicated to each. The fourth section examines existing concerns, challenges and suggested next steps. It also includes a concise case study of the Moroccan Agency for Nuclear and Radiological Safety and Security (AMSSNuR), which has been prominent in promoting African expertise and cooperation in nuclear safety and security. The policy insight concludes with a summary of its main findings and arguments, as well as practical recommendations on the way forward.

Key African nuclear safety and security documents Continentally, the most important document is the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, commonly known as the Pelindaba Treaty. It was opened for signature in 1996 in Cairo, Egypt, and signed by 47 African states. However, it only entered into force in 2009 once the required 28 ratifications had been obtained.

The Pelindaba Treaty establishes the African continent as a zone free of nuclear weapons, while simultaneously providing standards to promote cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Of specific relevance to this policy insight is the treaty’s Article 10, according to which [e]ach Party undertakes to maintain the highest standards of security and effective physical protection of nuclear materials, facilities and equipment to prevent theft or unauthorized use and handling. To that end each Party, inter alia, undertakes to apply measures of physical protection equivalent to those provided for in the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and in recommendations and guidelines developed by IAEA for that purpose.

Importantly, this establishes a commitment to ‘security’ and ‘protection’ (or safety) of nuclear materials, facilities and equipment at all times and provides for two international standards to accomplish this: the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations and guidelines.

The first of these standards, the CPPNM, was adopted in 1979 and entered into force in 1987. The convention has a number of objectives: establishing legal obligations for parties in terms of physically protecting nuclear materials during international transportation; criminalising offences relating to the illicit use of nuclear materials; and promoting international cooperation in instances of theft or credible threat of theft of nuclear materials. Furthermore, an amendment to the convention was adopted in 2005, which subsequently entered into force in 2016.

According to the IAEA, the CPPNM and its amendment are intended for countries that have active nuclear programmes, those that engage in limited nuclear activities and even those that simply use radioactive materials. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, stresses that ‘… we need to have a proper global framework in place to ensure that nuclear and other radioactive material does not fall into the wrong hands’. A total of 43 African states have signed and ratified the CPPNM.

Parties to the convention and its amendment agree to three important requirements: ∙ The establishment, implementation and maintenance of a physical protection regime of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials; ∙ The criminalisation of misuse of nuclear materials, including smuggling, sabotage and threats to the use thereof; and ∙ The institutionalisation of international arrangements to exchange information and cooperate to ensure the protection of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials.

The second of these standards, the IAEA Safety Standards, provide the ‘fundamental principles, requirements and recommendations to ensure nuclear safety’ across three sets of documents: the Safety Fundamentals (which determine fundamental safety objectives as well as the main principles of safety and protection), the Safety Requirements (which establish requirements to protect people and the environment) and the Safety Guides (which contain guidance and recommendations). These safety standards straddle a wide range of documents, covering (but not limited to): control of radiation sources; nuclear installation safety; radiation and waste safety; and transport safety.

The IAEA emphasises that the primary responsibility for safety lies with the person or organisation that is engaging in nuclear activities. More broadly, the regulation of nuclear safety is the responsibility of the national government. Indeed, radiation may transcend national borders and therefore international cooperation is crucial for a global regime of nuclear safety. This last point specifically echoes one of the main requirements of the CPPNM and its amendment. The number of African IAEA members (ie, 45) is similar to the number of African states that have ratified the CPPNM.

African Commission on Nuclear Energy

As discussed earlier, one of the key African documents on nuclear governance is the Pelindaba Treaty. It provides for the establishment of AFCONE, which is a continental body tasked with ensuring that state parties to the Pelindaba Treaty comply with its basic provisions. According to Article 12 of the treaty, one aspect of AFCONE’s mandate involves ‘reviewing peaceful nuclear activities in terms of the IAEA safeguards’. Indeed, the executive secretary of AFCONE, Messaoud Baaliouamer, takes this task seriously, as evidenced in numerous references to nuclear safety and security in his speeches, addresses and statements.

In a 2019 speech to the 63rd General Conference of the IAEA, he stated that ‘nuclear safety and safeguards and nuclear material accounting and control’ had been identified as some of AFCONE’s main priorities, in line with the provisions of the Pelindaba Treaty. Earlier in this speech, he also emphasised that states parties to the treaty are required ‘to maintain the highest standards of physical protection of nuclear material, facilities and equipment, which are to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes’.

Baaliouamer then proceeded to outline specific actions that AFCONE was taking in terms of nuclear safety and security in Africa:

  • Prioritising the management of radioactive waste on the continent: In line with the provisions of Article 7 of the Pelindaba Treaty, AFCONE is cooperating with the UN Environment Programme to implement regional projects to drive modern management of radioactive waste in Africa.
  • Operationalising regional centres of excellence in nuclear security: These centres have already been identified and are being supported by various international partners, including similar centres in Europe, to strengthen and capacitate them so that they can fully implement the provisions of the Pelindaba Treaty.
  • Implementing and operationalising national states’ Systems of Accounting for and Control of Nuclear Material: This is one of AFCONE’s priorities and in 2019 it organised the first joint workshop on this topic with the IAEA’s Safeguards Department, with plans to hold other workshops in the future.

International Atomic Energy Agency Worryingly, the IAEA states that as recently as 2019 there were 189 incidents reported by 36 of its member states. The incidents involved unauthorised activities and events, including trafficking and malicious use of nuclear and radioactive materials. The sheer volume of these incidents in one year illustrates the extent of the problem.

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) keeps a database of nuclear and radioactive materials incidents that escape regulatory control. The database identifies a total of eight such incidents occurring in Africa between 2013 and 2019: two in Algeria, one in Burkina Faso, one in Nigeria, one in Sierra Leone and three in South Africa. Four of these were the result of theft, with the materials successfully recovered in only one of the cases. Although these incidents are infrequent on the continent, it must be borne in mind that each has potentially severe consequences because of the dangers posed by nuclear and radioactive materials.

Concerns, challenges and the way forward Advocates of nuclear energy often say that Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) are the only two major accidents that have occurred in six decades of nuclear power usage across 36 countries.

Yet the death toll, long-term health impact and environmental degradation arising from nuclear disasters are alarming. In Chernobyl, 62 people died as a direct result of the blast and acute radiation exposure.

The long-term radiation exposure is much more difficult to measure. In 2005 the World Health Organization estimated that between 4,000 and 9,000 had died due to exposure over time. Radiation scientists Fairlie and Sumner estimate the number to be much higher – between 30,000 and 60,000 deaths. Moreover, this does not take into account the long-term ill health that many people, including children, have suffered in the former Soviet Union.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima was smaller in scale. The official death toll was 573, not as a result of the incident but rather due to stress-related and other factors during the evacuation from the area. SAIIA’s research suggests that ‘it is necessary to ensure the safe and secure handling of nuclear material, plants, reactors and waste disposal, of all existing and new nuclear programmes in Africa’.

Turianskyi is the former Deputy Head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

This article was first published in SAIIA.