amaBhungane journalist Micah Reddy responds to Kemm

2018-06-18 11:15
(NTP Radioscopes website)

(NTP Radioscopes website)

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Dr Kemm is wrong from the get go.

The idea that the initial shutdown had to do with a "signature snag" is a red herring. There may well have been "procedural errors", but at the heart of the matter were faulty calibrations on a hydrogen monitoring system.

Even Necsa CEO Phumzile Tshelane was quoted as saying as much, in no uncertain terms, after he removed director Tina Eboka and other senior managers. See, for example, an article in Engineering News available here.

Dr Kemm is contradicting Mr Tshelane and Necsa is now speaking with two heads. The real story is easily confirmed by NTP and NNR documentation and communiques which refer specifically to faulty calibration in hydrogen analysers. We have these documents in our possession and extracts can be made available.

The way Dr Kemm describes the sequence of events leading up to the initial shutdown is hopelessly vague, misleading and misses out the necessary context. For a more detailed sequence of events see our initial article on NTP from February "Is a nuclear success story about to be snuffed out?"

Dr Kemm, for instance, fails to mention that those with direct responsibility were placed on suspension by the then-management team pending an investigation. Those suspended employees were then reinstated by Necsa's CEO while Eboka and two other executives were placed on "special leave" and later suspended. (Note that it was the CEO of Necsa who made the announcement to staff, not the NTP Board, which is curious from a governance point of view.)  

Dr Kemm, in his article, does not specify where the suspended executives failed in their duties. Necsa, which has taken over NTP's communications, has not been able to explain this either beyond vague references to "procedural problems". The company also cannot explain why it hastily reinstated those employees who had immediate oversight and responsibility for the facility, who were directly responsible for the "procedural problems" and who were suspended pending an NTP investigation. The matter remains clouded by Necsa's secrecy and inability to communicate matters properly.

Instead, the Necsa investigation appears to have stalled while the company kicks the disciplinary process down the road. What was initially supposed to be a short period of "special leave" for the executives has been drawn out into a protracted battle that is having dire consequences for struggling NTP. All the while, the managers Necsa imposed on NTP have failed to get the plant up and running again despite assurances that the shutdown would be short-lived.

We also understand that lawyers for Necsa (note, Necsa the shareholder, not NTP) tried to settle with the suspended executives. The dismal handling of this matter by Necsa raises serious questions about the company's intentions. It also adds substance to speculations that this is about more than transgressions by the suspended managers.

Dr Kemm goes on to make the bizarre claim that I sent "a rather offensive list of demands to the Necsa CEO". I sent a list of detailed questions and allegations to respond to, as we always do, so Dr Kemm's sensitivity seems strangely out of place. The email I sent can also be made public upon request. This is yet another example of how poorly Necsa handles its media and communications matters. A rather unremarkable set of questions by a journalist regarding a matter of public interest is deemed "a rather offensive list of demands".  

Perhaps more baffling is Dr Kemm's claim that I refused to meet the CEO before the publication of our initial article. This is entirely wrong. I have text messages between myself and Nikelwa Tengimfene, Necsa's stakeholder relations manager, that show that Dr Kemm is either misled or is trying to mislead.

When individuals who are the subjects of my stories request face-to-face meetings in response to serious allegations, there would have to be good reason for me to refuse to grant them such an opportunity. In the interests of fairness, I agreed to a meeting with Mr Tshelane after Ms Tengimfene requested such.

Here is how my engagement with Necsa happened:

I had sent detailed questions to Ms Tengimfene on the morning of 29 Jan. After following up I received a response from Ms Tengimfene requesting a meeting with Mr Tshelane.

On 30 Jan at 17:27 she wrote in a Whatsapp message: "Phumzile Tshelane is available to engage further with you, tomorrow after hours. Please indicate your availability."

I responded minutes later saying: "Thanks. Im free any time tomorrow."

Her response at 17:45 was: "Let me confirm and advise."

What followed was back and forth over the phone with Necsa constantly changing plans.

Eventually, I was told by Necsa that they would not be addressing my questions but rather that there would be a press conference to which I would be invited. That never materialised.

Again, I have the correspondence to prove this and it can be made available upon request.

Necsa could not answer my questions then, nor did they give me a proper response for this last article. Instead, I received a curt reply telling me that the information I was asking for was classified.

Further along in his article Dr Kemm admits that he was wrong to assume the plant would only be shut for three or four days. In hindsight, however, it should have been unsurprising, because Necsa's imposed management removed key competent, experienced personnel in one fell swoop and reinstated the people who were directly responsible for the incident and who had been suspended by Ms Eboka's management.

The correspondence between NNR and Necsa consistently highlights shortcomings and failures in relatively basic areas. These documents, or at least extracts of them, can be made available.

There is a litany of infringements since the reshuffle at NTP, when key staff were side-lined by the new management. Some of these infringements are a lot more serious than that which resulted in last year's closure. Incompetence and politicking have hamstrung the organisation.

By several source's accounts, Necsa has appointed and promoted people who have little understanding of how NTP's complex systems work, and this is corroborated by the regulator's responses to this whole affair.

Dr Kemm's description of the incident that led to the latest shutdown is not at all what the official documents describe. And there were several incidents in the run-up to this most recent one, which elicited strong rebukes from the NNR. These included a breach of the operating technical specs and a long list of other infringements. Dr Kemm is again either mistaken or is intentionally obfuscating by referring to an entirely separate incident from 28 May and not the incident which led to the shutdown on 31 May.

In addition, Dr Kemm betrays his lack of understanding about NTP systems. One senior technical source told me: "…if you open the cell door, it will not affect your hydrogen readings because there is no hydrogen in the cell… the hydrogen is in the dissolver pot which is a closed system going downstream to the ventilation system where the hydrogen analysers are situated… so opening the cell door will only suck in more air into the cell since it's a vacuum… So, the only way those analysers can read hydrogen is if there is actual hydrogen in the ventilation system or if calibration was not done properly…. From the graph we can see that the calibration was fine, so it was definitely actual hydrogen."

The source also said that: "The event he is referring to about the cell door happened two days before this event… where the cell door was opened and the funnel was in the way… in that case the cell pressure exceeded its safety limit and that was also registered as an event… and that event on its own proves that when you open the cell door the hydrogen readings do not increase."

Another technical expert at NTP confirmed that Dr Kemm is referring to a separate incident. This can be confirmed by the NNR reports, or indeed, by simply asking the NNR. The incident leading to the most recent shutdown did indeed involve a hydrogen spike as described in our article. It was serious, which is why the plant remains shut in line with NNR rules.

Dr Kemm attempts to downplay the seriousness again by saying that "in principle" global medical supplies could be disrupted. The fact of the matter is that there have already been disruptions.

I recently spoke to an international industry insider who said that clients had to look elsewhere to make up shortfalls and that this means people in certain places will not get the lifesaving medicines that they would normally receive if NTP were functioning. Doctors will seek less effective alternatives. All of this is easily verifiable.

Dr Kemm denies that Necsa tried to make a grab at NTP's funds. But readers will make up their own minds. The tussle over IP involving the previous executive management under Ms Eboka is documented.  Our initial article was strongly backed up and I would urge people to read it.

Dr Kemm ends off his article saying that I failed to respond to an invitation to a meeting regarding our latest article. Yet again, this is simply not true. Necsa did ask for a meeting with the CEO. That was on Monday and they requested the meeting for Thursday. I could not wait until the end of the week. Usually with our investigations we have the luxury of time, but this story was breaking, and other media had already started reporting on it. There was a risk of us being scooped.

Furthermore, there was no flexibility on Necsa's part – we could have brought the meeting forward or had a telephonic meeting as I suggested. They knew my deadline.

In an email to Necsa on 5 June 2018 at 08:39 I said: "Dear Mr Tshelane, the article unfortunately is due end of today. If we gave Necsa until 4PM to respond in writing would that be sufficient time?"

Necsa's written response failed to address the questions. It was boilerplate PR claiming that Necsa adheres "to the highest standards of nuclear safety and best practice." The email went on to state that "we cannot disclose classified information" and that "we will answer your – and other – media questions in full in a media statement as soon as possible."

Don't hold your breath.

Read Kemm's right of reply to the original amaBhungane article here.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    necsa  |  amabhungane  |  nuclear energy
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