Laboratory. Picture: ISTOCK
Laboratory. Picture: ISTOCK

The ousted chair of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa)  has admitted  to signing a Russian nuclear medicine deal against the orders of energy minister Jeff Radebe but says he did so to avoid “political embarrassment”.

Kelvin Kemm’s admission comes in response to Radebe on Friday firing the Necsa board and placing the corporation’s CEO, Phumzile Tshelane, on precautionary suspension. Kemm, Tshelane and ousted Necsa board member Pamela Bosman will  on Monday morning file an urgent application to reverse Radebe’s decision. 

 In an affidavit that forms part of his bid to reverse his axing,  Kemm maintains that he was advised only on the morning of the signing ceremony in July that Radebe did not agree to the deal with Rusatom Healthcare, a subsidiary of Russian nuclear agency Rosatom. The ceremony took place alongside the Brics summit in Johannesburg, which was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“That belated and unexpected communication placed me in a dilemma,” Kemm states in the affidavit. “By that stage, the media had already been invited to the signing ceremony and the issue had already been publicised in the morning news.

“I also justifiably believed that it would have been politically embarrassing for the signing ceremony not to have occurred, more particularly with the Russian president across the road ... extolling the co-operation between SA and Russia ...

“Desirous of avoiding criticism for not conforming with the Brics agenda and for undermining SA'srelationship with Russia in a public forum, I decided to go ahead with signing.”

In court papers, Kemm said he informed the minister of the “proposed co-operation agreement” between Necsa and Rusatom Healthcare in letters on May 7 and June 6 2018,as well as through WhatsApp messages in March, April and May 2018.

He added there was “largely silence” from Radebe in response to his and Tshelane’s communications about a co-operation deal with Rusatom Healthcare, “which was reasonably understood to be distinct from opposition”.

Despite being aware that Radebe had not sanctioned the deal, Kemm reportedly said Necsa and Rusatom Healthcare would partner in an estimated R500m construction of two “innovative solution reactors” at the Pelindaba nuclear facility.

He believes he was fully within his rights to sign the deal, which he stresses was a nonbinding agreement that did not require the minister’s agreement.

But that’s not how Radebe sees it. The minister on Friday used the Rusatom Healthcare deal to illustrate what he called the “continued ineptitude and deliberate acts of defiance” that led him to fire the Necsa board.

Radebe told journalists on Friday he had instructed that the deal not go ahead, as there was already an agreement in place with the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation.

Kemm, however, said there was no potential conflict of interest.

Radebe also last week accused certain members of the Necsa board of mishandling the safety-related shutdown of Necsa’s once profitable and globally respected subsidiary, nuclear medicine producer NTP Radioisotopes, the company that would have been most immediately affected by the Rusatom partnership.

NTP was one of four companies in the world responsible for producing medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients. Until the safety scare, it had a turnover of R1.3bn and generated annual profit of R202m.

NTP’s troubles started when the nuclear regulator shut its plants in November 2017, following concerns over the calibration of a gauge used to detect the presence of hydrogen in the air. Subsequent safety checks revealed other concerns.

Sumeshan Govender, head of engineering and projects at NTP, said correspondence shows subsequent investigations revealed there was “nothing wrong” with the plant itself. The concerns lay more around instilling a “safety culture” among personnel, he said, stressing that the safety issues raised were not insurmountable and were capable of being speedily resolved.

Except they weren’t. NTP only started operating again in November,  after Radebe deployed his deputy to resolve the shutdown crisis. Radebe has now laid the blame for the failure to resolve the  NTP crisis firmly at Necsa’s door. He says it defied his express instructions and “consequently whether by commission or omission undermined the efforts to speedily resolve the regulatory concerns to enable the resumption of the NTP production activities”.