Environmental activist group Earthlife Africa has lost its legal bid to halt nuclear waste smelting operations at the Nuclear Energy Corporation’s Pelindaba plant, near Pretoria.
Judge Pierre Rabie on Tuesday in the High Court in Pretoria dismissed Earthlife’s application to set aside the authorisation granted by the Environmental Affairs Minister for the installation and operation of a test smelter and two subsequent induction smelters at Pelindaba and to interdict NECSA from proceeding with the project.
The organisation has been involved in a decade-long dispute about the smelter, which was constructed to decontaminate radioactive metal – generated by the decommissioning of the uranium enrichment facilities at Pelindaba – by smelting and mixing it with scrap metal.
Earthlife argued that the possibility existed that the smelter could be turned to commercial use which would result in South Africa becoming “a nuclear waste junkyard”.
The organisation maintained the authorisation had lapsed because of NECSA’s failure to commence with the installation and operation of the test smelter and two induction smelters within the five-year period stipulated in the authorisation.
NECSA emphasised that the project was undertaken in execution of South Africa’s international duties flowing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and submitted that the commissioning of the smelters, once constructed, would take place over a matter of years into the future.
NECSA maintained Earthlife’s argument that it had to commence with all the elements of the project within five years was a highly impractical and artificial interpretation of the environmental authorisation granted by the minister.
Judge Rabie said it was clear that authorisation only required that the composite project had to start within five years. He said it would be artificial and wrong to break up the project into different parts and to interpret the minister’s decision in a manner requiring each element to commence within the five-year period.
If the minister intended the operation of the induction smelters, which constituted the last stage of the project, to have commenced within a five-year period, he would simply have said so, the judge added.
“There can be no doubt that the work done on the site constitutes construction of the envisaged facilities and not mere preparation as the applicants would have it. According to the minister, substantial work had been undertaken and, according to him the project was in the middle or about to be completed,” Judge Rabie said.