Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) has ordered the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa)‚ to shut down production at its NTP Radiochemicals Complex for violating safety procedures.

An inquiry is under way and NTP’s MD and two senior executives have been placed on special leave.

NTP has had to source medical radioisotopes from competitors outside the country in order to maintain supplies to cancer patients and is losing about R3.5m a day.

NTP is one of a handful of global suppliers of medical radioisotopes, which are used for diagnostic imaging and treatment, and has customers in more than 50 countries.

"We concluded they were prioritising production over safety," said the NNR’s manager for nuclear waste projects Thiagan Pather. NTP’s hydrogen-monitoring systems had failed on October 27, but it notified the regulator only on October 30, he said. The NNR regarded this delay as a significant breach of safety procedures.

"Our preliminary investigation identified a number of shortcomings, including failure to take appropriate action. They should have reported it immediately," Pather said.

"We saw a breakdown in safety culture," he said.

The NNR wrote to Necsa instructing it to cease production at NTP on November 17.

Our preliminary investigation identified a number of shortcomings. ... We saw a breakdown in safety culture
Thiagan Pather
National Nuclear Regulator manager

Hydrogen is highly flammable and should be closely monitored, as a build-up of the gas could create an explosion. There were at least two other failures to submit timeous reports to the NNR, he said.

Production at NTP would resume only after the regulator was satisfied it had taken action to correct its failure to comply with regulatory requirements, Pather said.

NTP’s MD Tina Eboka, its group executive for strategic operations, Gavin Ball, and its group executive for compliance, Gerhard Wortmann, have been put on special leave, while NTP conducts an investigation, according to Necsa’s group chief technology officer Thabo Tselane, who was appointed interim MD of NTP.

Tselane said NTP’s investigation would go back five years to establish the root cause of its failure to follow safety procedures. "Once we have identified those, we will report to the regulator," he said.

NTP’s agreements with other medical radioisotope producers would ensure continuity of supply to South African patients at no extra cost, he said. NTP produces molybdenum-99, technetium-99m, iodine-131 and lutetium-177. About 90% of its products are exported.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

Please sign in or register to comment.