«IAEA-TECDOC-1553 Low and Intermediate Level Waste Repositories: Socioeconomic Aspects and Public Involvement Proceedings of a workshop held in ...»
Site selection for the national radioactive waste repository commenced in the early 1980’s with a view to establishing a low and intermediate level repository for Eskom’s operational waste. In this investigation the disposal of high level radioactive waste/spent fuel was also taken into consideration as a possible future requirement. Site selection was carried out on a purely technical and economic basis without involving the stakeholders. The site selection process covered various potential areas within South Africa, but focused primarily on the sparsely populated, seismically stable and arid western part of the country as being the most promising area.
Once the site selection process was finalized it was decided to expropriate the properties involved. The disposal site, subsequently referred to as Vaalputs, consisted of three consolidated privately owned ranches covering an area of 10 000 hectares. The expropriation of these ranches by the State was done without the consent of the owners and unfortunately gave rise to much resentment and antagonism on the part of the dispossessed owners. The local communities living in the vicinity of Vaalputs were also not consulted about the matter.
The facilities established at Vaalputs comprised a waste reception building with an adjacent administration block and a waste disposal area situated some kilometres away. The Vaalputs facility was licensed and commissioned in 1986. The disposal area was originally planned to accommodate operational waste from three nuclear power stations the size of Koeberg, but due to the curtailment of the Eskom nuclear power programme, only a small part of the area originally set aside for the low and intermediate level waste repository has been utilized to date.
3. STAKEHOLDER INVOLVEMENT
The initial establishment of a radioactive waste repository in the rural areas of the Bushmanland was for several reasons not favoured by the hosting communities. The smallscale operations at the repository did not provide the benefit of employment opportunities as initially expected. Promises made with regards to the upgrading and further development of local infrastructure and electricity supply to rural areas also did not realize as it was initially expected. The radioactive waste in the repository is further seen to affect the local image and potentially affecting the sale of local sheep farming products. Although the repository does contribute to the local economy in terms of direct purchasing of materials, supplies, vehicles, fuel, contracted services, etc., the impact of these contributions are negligible when compared to the real needs for growth in this area. All these aspects have from the onset aided in cultivating negative attitudes towards the radioactive waste repository in the public arena as there seemed to have been no significant social or economic benefits for the communities hosting the repository.
In the early 1990’s Necsa established a trust fund which Necsa used to assist small developing communities in the vicinity of Vaalputs. Necsa thus became involved in a number of socioeconomic projects for the benefit of the local communities. This initiative included educational and health support programmes and other forms of social assistance. The involvement in socioeconomic projects generally proved to be difficult due to Necsa’s limited financial resources as well as a lack of coordination with other private sector community social projects launched in these remote areas. The socioeconomic needs of these communities were of such a magnitude that Necsa could not possibly satisfy them.
Unfortunately Necsa’s involvement gave rise to unrealistic expectations on the part of the communities, inevitably leading to a certain amount of disappointment and resentment.
Necsa’s involvement with assistance to primary and secondary schools was more successful, since the assistance was limited to the provision of stationary, books and other educational aids.
In 1996 the Vaalputs Communication Forum (VCF) was established on a voluntary basis involving Necsa, farmers’ associations and Trust members representing rural communities living in the vicinity of Vaalputs. Since its inception the VCF was reasonably successful in addressing non-nuclear related stakeholder issues like vermin control, maintenance of fences and general assistance with infrastructure needs. Despite the limited success achieved with community projects, the forum nevertheless ensured effective communication between Necsa and its stakeholders. Attendance of VCF meetings was at times relatively poor and largely depended on the prevalent level of concern with Vaalputs’ safety. Many issues raised at this forum were non-nuclear related but were nevertheless of major concern to the communities, such as the condition of the gravel roads and the distribution of electricity to the farmers and the communities in the area. Vaalputs also shared in some of these concerns and was therefore regarded as an integral part of the social system of the area rather than a mere intruder.
Since the adoption of a new constitution for the Republic of South Africa and the subsequent democratization of South African public institutions, the environmental pressure groups in the Vaalputs area increased their anti-nuclear activities. These NGO’s launched a programme aimed at tarnishing Vaalputs’ public image as a responsible nuclear operator. In effect their activities complicated Necsa’s efforts to reach out to the general public. Necsa’s response was to invite these environmentalist NGO’s to VCF meetings, but these efforts were met with limited success.
Necsa made a concerted effort to maintain good relations with the local municipality and regularly reported to them on the status of safety at Vaalputs. This relationship was crucial to Necsa’s standing as a responsible operator of Vaalputs and helped to contain public concerns orchestrated by the environmental pressure groups. At the regional level, the Northern Cape Provincial Administration also showed a keen interest in Vaalputs’ activities. There were several visits to Vaalputs from Provincial representatives responsible for Environmental Affairs. Central government, through the Department of Minerals and Energy, also focused on the activities taking place at Vaalputs from the point of view of the national policy and strategy on radioactive waste. The National Nuclear Regulator responsible for Vaalputs reports to the Department of Mineral and Energy.
4. MEDIA COVERAGE OF CERTAIN EVENTS
During 1997 an incident occurred at Vaalputs that attracted the attention of the media and led to negative publicity for Necsa. This incident involved the concrete drums containing intermediate level waste disposed of in the trenches at Vaalputs. Some of these concrete drums developed hairline cracks that were visible from the outside and through which very limited amounts of radioactive waste leaked. This event also came to the attention of the media, which gave extensive coverage to this matter. There was consequently much media speculation about the safety of the Vaalputs repository. This negative publicity unfortunately reached the public before Necsa had the opportunity to inform the stakeholders of the occurrence. Necsa subsequently attempted to allay public fears in a retrospective manner by pointing out the limited nature of the leakage as well as the fact that no radioactivity had escaped into the environment outside the disposal trenches. The leakage thus fell within the boundary conditions of the Vaalputs safety case. These counter arguments unfortunately fell on deaf ears. The National Nuclear Regulator, however, was satisfied that repository safety requirements were still being met by the Vaalputs operator. Necsa’s negative media exposure was unfortunately further aggravated by the fact that the waste generator claimed that the waste packages were fully compliant upon delivery.
In order to bring the whole matter to finality, Necsa called for an expert mission from the IAEA to investigate the situation at Vaalputs. The IAEA expert team published their report in 1998 indicating that the repository was indeed safe, but that there were certain issues that required attention, such as better communication between Necsa and Eskom. Subsequent to this report, further technical investigations into the cause of the cracking were performed.
These investigations indicated a need for improving the quality of the concrete drums and covering the concrete drums with back-filling material as soon as possible after emplacement in the trenches. The latter was necessary in order to prevent temperature cycling, causing the drums to crack. Eventually the media controversy subsided and things returned to normal.
However, a very dear lesson was learned from this incident, namely that public perceptions of safety were of paramount importance despite technical arguments to the contrary, and that the public perception of repository safety appears to be largely based on the quality of the engineered barrier system, i.e., the quality of waste packages.
During 2001, a number of seismic events took place in the geographical area where Vaalputs is situated, varying in intensity from 4.3 to 4.5, as measured on the Richter Scale. These events immediately drew the attention of the media and allegations were made that the repository at Vaalputs had been damaged. Media coverage in this regard was generally not serious and the public appeared to accept Necsa’s assurances. Despite the relatively short duration of the media interest in these seismic events they nevertheless reflected the potential for serious public concern and should be addressed in a timely manner.
In 2002 there were several allegations from former Necsa employees at Vaalputs that they contracted a diversity of illnesses as a result of exposure to radiation during their period of employment at Vaalputs. These allegations were orchestrated by the environmentalist pressure groups active in the Vaalputs area. They demanded, through the regulatory authority, that the medical records of these former employees be made available for “independent medical scrutiny”. Necsa investigated the allegations and submitted the investigation results to the National Nuclear Regulator for further action. The media also gave some coverage to these allegations but the matter has not yet been resolved.
There have also been some incidents involving the transport of waste from Koeberg to Vaalputs. One such incident involved allegations made by farmers that their cattle had died due to the radioactive waste shipments being transported past their properties. The local veterinary was requested to investigate these allegations on an independent basis. The outcome of the investigation showed that the allegations had no substance.
5. THE NEW DISPENSATION WITH REGARD TO RADIOACTIVE WASTEMANAGEMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
The site selection process followed in the case of Vaalputs clearly belongs to a different era and is quite unimaginable nowadays in South Africa. Since the country became a democracy in 1995, the legal regime governing activities such as site selection for radioactive waste disposal has changed completely. Accordingly, public participation in the decision making process is now an essential requirement of the new legislation. The requirements largely rest on the two main approaches to site selection, firstly, the environmental impact assessment process and secondly, the licensing process. Both these processes require public participation and therefore need some form of cooperative governance between the responsible regulations in order to streamline the public process.
South Africa is presently in the process of finalizing its policy and strategy on radioactive waste management. This policy aims to establish overall coordinating structures for managing radioactive waste in the country. These structures involve decision making bodies, including a radioactive waste management agency that will be responsible for all aspects of radioactive waste disposal in the country.
As far as the future utilization of Vaalputs is concerned, any change to the current disposal arrangements would have to be approved in accordance with the new legal dispensation. One of Necsa’s options is to transfer the low and intermediate level waste presently stored at Pelindaba to Vaalputs, 1300 km from Pretoria. Besides this option, there are also other options for transferring Necsa’s wastes to Vaalputs, e.g. for borehole disposal. In Necsa’s experience, it would be best if the Vaalputs stakeholders were approached with a complete list of options for future disposal on this site rather than on a piecemeal basis to avoid future misunderstandings.
In 2004 the government issued a regulation, which defined a formal approach to the establishment of the so-called public safety information forums for nuclear sites. Accordingly, the Vaalputs Communication Forum (VCF) had to be changed to meet these new statutory requirements. Since the establishment of this new forum Necsa experienced much stronger Vaalputs stakeholder interest. Attendance levels at the new VCF meetings were significantly higher than before, suggesting a “sense of legitimacy” being experienced about the meetings, something that was lacking in the past. These higher than normal levels of interest may also be attributed to the improvement in stakeholder communication.
6. AN EVALUATION OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AT VAALPUTSIn the following section the current status of public participation at Vaalputs is evaluated in terms of the so-called RISCOM Model, developed in Sweden and also successfully applied in other European countries.
The RISCOM Model is based on the three essential requirements for achieving public transparency, namely the need for (1) transferring factually correct information regarding a particular proposal to the stakeholders, (2) establishing the legitimacy of the process being followed and (3) engendering trust between the stakeholders involved in the process. In accordance with the RISCOM Model all three of these requirements need to be satisfied simultaneously in order to achieve transparency in the public domain. The model is diagrammatically depicted below, showing the three role players: i.e. the Implementer, Authorities and Stakeholders with their respective functions. Note that the Stakeholders comprise all interested and affected parties, including the implementer and the authorities.