Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED

The prolonged shutdown of a critical state-owned nuclear medicine producer because of operational issues has put SA at risk of losing its global competitive advantage in the sector, mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe said on Monday.

He said that although SA was a major producer of medical radioisotopes, which are used to treat cancer, its dominant position had since been put in jeopardy.

Mantashe was speaking at the opening ceremony of the 30th technical working group meeting of the African Regional Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and training related to Nuclear Science and Technology (Afra) taking place in Sandton this week. 

With energy only recently added to Mantashe’s portfolio, he said one of his first interventions was to tackle the prolonged shutdown of the NTP Radioisotopes, a subsidiary of the Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), due to operational challenges.

NTP’s unreliable production was creating space for new entrants to come into the market as well as for substitutes. Not only does it make customers nervous, the suppliers of feedstock would also seek out alternative avenues for their product, Mantashe warned.

“You are giving away competitive advantage we’ve had and developed for 20 years,” he said.

“I accused them of being reckless in protecting that space. My first suspicion, as a politician, is that you want to kill that capacity because you want to sell it for a song.”

Mantashe’s comments echo unsubstantiated rumours that former energy minister Jeff Radebe wanted to sell NTP Radioisotopes to US-based Lantheus Medical Imaging for personal gain — something Radebe vehemently denied.

The allegation arose in December when Radebe disbanded the Necsa board and fired its chair, Kelvin Kemm. He also placed Necsa CEO Phumzile Tshelane on suspension, pending the outcome of an investigation. Tshelane was dismissed in May.

Radebe cited the closure at NTP Radioisotopes, which was out of production for nine months in 2018, as one of the key reasons for his actions.

Rob Adam was installed as chair at the time, but resigned earlier in July owing to the overly demanding nature of the job.

Disruptions in production of radioisotopes continued into 2019, but production is once again up and running as of July, Mantashe said.

The minister also built on comments made during his budget vote last week, when he resurrected the debate over nuclear by saying SA should begin planning for future nuclear power capacity beyond 2045.

The question of nuclear power has been highly divisive in SA where, under former president Jacob Zuma, there was a perceived political push to have large-scale nuclear included in the energy mix, even though it is unaffordable.

As SA looks to alternative power generation technologies, it is important not to kill sources of base load power, Mantashe said on Monday.

“As we develop new technologies, we must strengthen and tighten our base load technologies.”

steynl@businesslive.co.za