Disease stalks workers at nuke plant
By Shaun Smillie
The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) has launched an investigation into claims that former employees of the Pelindaba nuclear facility contracted serious diseases after being exposed to radiation.
Some of the workers - who worked at the facility outside Tshwane in the 1980s and 1990s - have lung cancer and other cancers, serious neurological disorders, and have suffered miscarriages.
Their plight came to the fore after an occupational health expert found that out of a sample of 23 former Pelindaba workers, 10 showed signs of having been exposed to hazardous substances "which could cause adverse health effects".
Two of the workers could have had possible exposure to radiation.
The study, commissioned by the environmental watchdog Earthlife Africa, also found that there were no follow-up medical examinations of former Necsa employees.
"More people (ex-Pelindaba employees) have come forward, with diseases like lung cancer, serious neurological disorders, miscarriages and other forms of cancer," explained Mashile Phalane, co-ordinator for Earthlife Africa.
More than 200 former Pelindaba employees had asked Earthlife to help them get their medical files from Necsa, and compensation in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, Phalane said.
Last week, Earthlife Africa was embroiled in a public spat with the government for saying that radioactive ores were "deliberately" buried at a site outside Pelindaba.
The National Nuclear Regulator denied it was a dumping site. However, Earthlife maintained it had correctly identified the site as a calibration facility.
Minerals and Energy Minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in response that the government intended to pass legislation to make it a punishable offence to spread allegations which resulted in unnecessary panic or incitement.
Occupational and environmental health expert Dr Murray Coombs, of the Health Gap Network, who conducted the study on former Pelindaba workers, said: "The occupational diseases rate (at Necsa) is at 50 percent, which is heavy. It is the highest I have seen. The norm is about 10 percent to 12 percent."
Coombs had also been surprised at how poorly Necsa maintained the medical files of its employees.
"I would have been embarrassed if I had compiled those files. Many were not in sequence, and there were gaps," he said.
There were also no follow-up medical examinations once employees had left Necsa.
"The radiation and chemical industries should follow people through to their deaths," said Coombs.
Dr Chris Busby, a nuclear physicist and adviser to the British government, said the former Pelindaba workers could have been exposed to internal radiation, delivered by radioactive dust particles they had inhaled.
He said this had been known to happen in other nuclear facilities around the world.
"When things are chucked around, as is the case with any industrial process, radioactive dust is released in the air. It gets into the lungs, where there is a release of radiation, giving cells a high dose of radiation," he explained.
Normal radiation detectors often did not detect these radioactive dust particles because they measured a different form of radiation.
Low-level radiation exposure was linked to various forms of cancer, birth defects, abnormalities and neurological disorders, Busby added.
Commenting on the investigation, Necsa spokesperson Nomsa Sithole said: "We are in phase one of the process. We are identifying people who will lead the investigation. While these are allegations, we are taking them seriously."
Necsa would most likely interview the workers who had approached Earthlife Africa as part of its investigation. Sithole also said her organisation took every precaution to protect its workers, and the public in general, from radiation.
"As the government is a shareholder in the company, it is in its interest that the public is kept safe," she said.