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Nuclear Energy

The nucleus of something is its central core – the word comes from the Latin ‘nux’, meaning nut. The atom, a much smaller ‘nut’, requires a lot more to split it into two, but the energy released in the process is, well, nuclear.1 Bombs exploiting this force flatten whole cities.

Nuclear energy can be used to generate electrical power – in fact, nuclear power plants now supply 16% of all electricity generated in the world2. In Lithuania, France, Slovakia and Belgium, nuclear energy represents more than 50% of the installed capacity. The United States of America has 104 nuclear power plants, whilst 13 of 25 countries in the European Union operate 153 nuclear power reactors to generate electricity.

In South Africa, there are two operating nuclear reactors, at Koeberg in the Western Cape.3 The Republic has 45% of Africa’s reserves of uranium, the crucial element in the generation of nuclear power,4 and has the sixth largest uranium deposits in the world,5 so opportunity awaits.

The Nuclear Energy Act 19996 makes provision for a wide range of topics related to the acquisition and sale of nuclear fuels, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (the legal successor to the Atomic Energy Corporation), the processing of nuclear waste in South Africa, and so forth. It falls under the auspices of the Minister of Mineral Resources.

A. Nuclear material

The Minister can declare any substance containing elements such as uranium, thorium and plutonium to be ‘nuclear material’ for the purposes of the Act.

  1. There are a wide range of duties and obligations regarding the possession, using, handling or processing of nuclear material.7 It is a criminal offence not to discharge any such duty or obligation.8

  2. It is an offence to be in possession of any nuclear materials (the Act specifies a wide range) except with written authorisation from the Minister.9

  3. The Minister can direct any person to whom authorisation has been granted to furnish a return10 concerning the material, equipment and information in his possession or under his control. It is a crime to fail to furnish this return.11

  4. It is also a crime knowingly, or negligently, to furnish a false, incorrect or inaccurate return.12

  5. Similarly, if anyone has reason to believe that any ‘source material’ (which is any substance, containing the elements uranium or thorium, which has been declared by the Minister to be nuclear source material) is present at any place, he must file with the Minister a report with full particulars. It is a crime not to do so.13

B. Confidential information

  1. Because the science of nuclear power is so internationally sensitive and important, and the Republic has international obligations with regard to nuclear non-proliferation, information in its regard is closely guarded. There is an obligation on anyone furnishing or acquiring information as a result of involvement in nuclear activities, to treat such information as highly confidential. It is an offence for anyone – even the Minister – to disclose any such information (unless required by law).14

  2. The same applies to information concerning any operating, transaction, project, work or activity of the Nuclear Energy Corporation (and which is not yet public knowledge). It is a crime to publish, transmit or otherwise disclose such information – except with written permission from the Board of the Corporation, or if required by law.15

C. Inspectors

  1. The Minister appoints suitably qualified persons as inspectors for the purposes of implementing the Act and certain of its provisions. They have extensive powers of search, seizure, and so on. If you are questioned by an inspector, it is a crime for you to furnish an answer, or make a statement which you know is false or misleading or which you do not know or believe is true.16

  2. If you obstruct or hinder any inspector in performing or carrying out any function or duty in terms of the Act, you commit an offence.17

  3. If you fail to answer any question, by an inspector, or you fail to comply with any demand or direction from him, you commit an offence.18

D. Prohibited acts

The Act contains a long list of activities which are prohibited in connection with nuclear materials and equipment. These relate to acquiring, disposing of, importing, processing, using, manufacturing, exporting, storing, transporting, and so on.19

  1. It is an offence to do any of these activities without the Minister’s written authorisation.20

  2. If there are any conditions imposed in the authorisation, it is an offence not to comply with the conditions.21

  3. Some activities may not be done at all in regard to nuclear material, devices, installations and nuclear plants. These concern acts of sabotage, terrorism, threats, theft, and the like.22 Rather obviously, these are all criminal offences.23

  1. This is called nuclear fission. Nuclear energy can also be created by forcing two atoms together, to make one large atom. This is called nuclear fusion. 

  2. www.nnr.co.za – ‘Fact Sheet: How Safe is Nuclear Energy?’ This is the website of the National Nuclear Regulator. 

  3. www.miningweekly.com - ‘Uranium–rich South Africa good environment for nuclear plants’. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Well, measured in 2013 that is – www.world-nuclear.org – ‘Supply of Uranium’. 

  6. As amended; the latest amendment was effected by Act 33 of 2004. 

  7. It is beyond the scope of this work to list them all. See section 33(3) of the Act. 

  8. Section 56(1)(a) read with section 33(3). 

  9. Section 56(1)(e) read with section 34(1). 

  10. A ‘return’ is a formal report – like a tax return. 

  11. Section 56(1)(c)i read with section 36(1). 

  12. Section 56(1)(c)ii and iii. 

  13. Section 56(1)f read with section 47. 

  14. Section 56(1)(b) read with section 33(3). 

  15. Section 56(1)(b) read with section 31. 

  16. Section 56(1)(c)iv read with section 38(2)(f). 

  17. Section 56(1)(g). 

  18. Section 56(1)(g). 

  19. See Section 34 and section 35 for the lists of prohibited activities. 

  20. Section 56(1)(d) read with section 34 and section 35. 

  21. Section 56(1)(d) read with section 34 and section 35. 

  22. See Section 34A for the full list. 

  23. Section 56(1)(h).