Death threats, medical secrets, lies and payoffs are some of the menacing tactics power giant Eskom and nuclear fuel company NECSA use against its employees and others to keep a lid on the hazardous health effects of its nuclear technology.
When ex-Koeberg technician Ron Lockwood’s story broke last year, it opened a can of worms about what sort of power Eskom was really capable of wielding. And what exactly they have to hide. Diagnosed with leukaemia, a cancer caused by radiation, Lockwood had been a radiation worker at Koeberg for 15 years.
Authorities had known about his leukaemia and deliberately kept it secret from him for 10 years.
Lockwood’s subsequent legal claim against them on this point failed, he was apparently offered a settlement by them which he refused, and has, interestingly, fallen silent since…
But Lockwood’s is no isolated ‘accidental’ incident. In 2003 on Freek Robinson’s television programme Fokus, the plight of a number of Koeberg employees suffering radiation effects were highlighted.
One of the men was the late Andries Swart. A high level plant worker, like all the other affected ex-employees he had given more than 10 years service to Koeberg. And was paying for the ‘privilege’ with his life. By the time the cameras reached him there was very little left of his face, and an eye had had to be removed as a result of radiation.
Another ex employee of Koeberg who wanted to remain anonymous said: “Although he had gone to the Koeberg medical centre with a nose problem and they had taken a blood sample, they claimed not to detect what an independent doctor did detect a year later—that he had had leukaemia for some time”.
The ex-employee knew of many who had contracted cancers or leukaemia. “All these workers received nothing other than their usual pensions from Koeberg”.
Natural radiation occurs in rocks and during flights at high altitudes, medical radiation such as cat scans bathe your body in radiation, while very small amounts are emitted from our televisions and computers.
But nuclear emissions or radiation occurring at nuclear reactors such as Koeberg is a different issue. The necessary splitting of the uranium atom creates nuclear energy, but also creates the unwanted radioactive chemicals in liquid, solid and gaseous forms.
Such as the chemicals Strontium-90 and Cesium 137, which are hazardous to human health. Strontium-90 comes out through liquid effluents and is known to produce lymphatic and blood cancers such as leukaemia when it gets into the human body. Cesium-137 comes out with gaseous emissions and tends to embed itself in organic tissue and muscle structures. This can produce ovarian and breast cancers and affect the foetus, liver and spleen. Strontium-90 has also been detected in sewage at Melkbosstrand.
Eskom spokesperson Carin de Villiers admitted Strontium-90 ‘was generated in very small quantitites at Koeberg’. “Occasionally it is found just above the detectable limits”.
Koeberg is the only nuclear power station in Africa, but it is not only at Koeberg that death hangs so heavily in the air.
Vaalputs is a nuclear waste disposal facility near Upington in the northern Cape and owned by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA). It seems set that the area will become saddled with more waste in the future, according to Andy Pienaar of the Namaqualand Action Group for Environmental Justice. “Eskom has used the site to dump level One (clothing and gloves) and Two (sludges, filters) waste here, but now they want to dump high level waste in the community”. High level, or level Three waste consists of spent fuel from the reactor.
“There are also higher than normal levels of radioactivity in the drinking water, especially around Pofadder, but Eskom has kept the report secret”, said Pienaar. That there are high enough levels of radioactivity causing the high incidence of leukaemia in the people of the area is not debated. What is arguable is whether the results of nuclear waste in the environment or the high levels of natural radioactivity are responsible for this. As stipulated by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), anything beyond 25 milliSieverts (mSv) exposure to organic tissue is unacceptable.
According to a report done by Toens, Stadler and Wullschleger for the Water Research Commission in 1998, it was found that radiation doses at Vaalputs ranged from 54mSv to more than 2000 mSv, well over the maximum. Fifty-six percent of the boreholes used for human consumption here were beyond acceptability level.
Vaalputs is best remembered for the nuclear waste spillage there in 1997 when contract workers were hired to clean up defective nuclear waste containers in a trench. Outsourced as a ‘casual job’, workers were not even provided with protective clothing.
Life has been tough for the surviving men ever since, with chronic health problems they hold that experience responsible for. Because Vaalputs was the only real employer in the area it was easy to ‘keep people quiet’—some had been ‘bought off’ or their family offered employment. Pienaar himself was also offered a job by Eskom to ‘convince me to their way of thinking and shut me up’, he said.
For years he has requested the men’s medical records from Eskom, NECSA who ‘refused to release the medical records’ and the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to absolutely no effect. “Nor has government ever replied to make public their opinion or position during all these years”.
Convenor of the Koeberg Alert Alliance, Michael Kantey has long been opposed to the nuclear industry. After the spillage at Vaalputs, he unsuccessfully tried to gain clarity from NECSA and the NNR. “The norm is supposed to be 25 microSieverts per year but they were getting between 10-20 microSieverts per day per person without any protection”. Several years later he spoke publicly of his findings at a conference on nuclear technology in Cape Town. During lunchtime he was grilled by a National Intelligence Agency operative and his flat was broken into the same evening. “This was a typical dirty tricks operation. My nuclear papers were scattered and a red AIDS ribbon placed on my pillow”. Later, said Kantey, there was also an attempt to run him off the road.
If Eskom and NECSA have such powerful hit men involving top level government departments doing their bidding, now’s the public’s time to call an independent judicial Commission of Inquiry into the many tentacles of the industry powers and its affiliates.
For more than two decades, high level Eskom employees have been sharing their stories with Kantey. “From physicists to welders and health workers, all had to sign secret agreements and some have had death threats against them or their families. There’s also a long history of falsifying safety records at Koeberg”.
The site for the proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) has problems of its own. Koeberg lies within a seismic fault zone and has seen more than 70 earthquakes—measuring up to 7 on the Richter scale—over the past few centuries.
Currently, all it would require for the fallout from a nuclear accident at Koeberg to spread like wildfire would be a prevailing wind. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Scottish farmers more than a 1000 kms away in Scotland had to slaughter large numbers of radioactive sheep as a result of the contaminated grass.
According to the Department of Health’s dose limits, occupational exposure may not exceed 20 mSv and 1 mSv for the general public respectively per year.
For ionising radiation measured outside a storage site for radioactive materials there is a dosage and legal limit of 2.5 microSieverts per hour.
All good and well. But earlier this year and, ironically, practically on the eve of the Chernobyl disaster, NECSA’s calibration facility at Pelindaba near Pretoria revealed shock findings. Only 20 metres from a low cost housing development, an unfenced, radioactive site was measured by Earthlife Africa of between 20—30 microSieverts per hour. A child playing for three minutes daily here would have received a radiation dose exceeding the South African acceptable levels of 250 mSv per year. Pelindaba is also the proposed site for the necessary uranium-enrichment and fuel fabrication plants for the upcoming PBMR project.
Responding to this the Nuclear Energy Commission of South Africa (NECSA) said there was no legal limit for a storage area as such. “The guideline dose rate value for an ‘uncontrolled’ area is less than 2.5 microSv per hour, which it was at the boundary fence and around the concrete slabs”.
According to Occupational and Environmental Health Professor Leslie London of the University of Cape Town: “If exposed to that level over a period of time, children would suffer geno-toxic damage. As we know from the atom bomb experiment, certain types of cancers develop. For children, it would mean a faster development of blood cancers such as leukaemia”.
With a population of more than four million, Cape Town is just 30 kms from the PBMR’s proposed site at Koeberg. So what might the public health issues be here?
“Its very difficult to know because there’s inadequate information on the PBMR. It’s a new technology and needs to be monitored, but that’s not evident from any documents on it I’ve seen”, said Professor London.
Nor are any ‘meaningful figures released’ to the public on its current radioactivity levels, he added. Of even greater concern to London was the issue around the waste disposal policy. “We don’t have a policy for waste and this was my main submission to the PBMR along with all the other concerns which went ignored”, said London. He believed the programme was hazardous to the community and shouldn’t be allowed to go ahead ‘without proper, independent monitoring’. A point supported by independent scientists.
But NECSA was adamant that the PBMR’s safety and storage plans were adequate. “There is no set of circumstances that could put the public’s lives or health at risk. The spent fuel will be stored in storage tanks at the PBMR plant”.
If horror stories like these are to be believed, to blindly accept what enormously powerful companies tell us—without demanding answers and despite their very questionable credibility—is to be like those Scottish sheep going to the slaughter.
Radiologist R M Sievert, after whom the radiation measure was named said ‘There is no known tolerance level for radiation’. But then he probably hadn’t met the 21st century South African public.
Note: At the time of going to press the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) had again not responded to questions.