The African National Congress is starting its “dispute resolution process” in a bid to address the a.
Rob Adam, chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), deceived parliament when he said that no workers had been found "with abnormalities resulting from exposure to radiation", say Earthlife Africa and other representatives of 500 sick former workers.
Necsa had been sent at least one copy of a report by a prominent occupational health specialist in which the doctor linked exposure to radiation at work with a host of illnesses ranging from cancers to skin, eye and lung problems afflicting Necsa's former employees at Pelindaba.
Adam and members of his staff met the doctor to discuss the report at least a month before Necsa's chief spoke to parliament on January 29.
"He deceived parliament," said Mashile Phalane, Earthlife's coordinator in Gauteng. "I sent the company the report myself and received an acknowledgment from Necsa on October 3."
The environmental group represents 500 sick former workers at the Pelindaba nuclear plant near Hartebeesport Dam outside Pretoria. They claim their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation and chemicals on the job.
Necsa says it maintains rigid safety standards and that no worker has ever been harmed by exposure to excessive radiation.
Necsa and Earthlife have been locked in a bitter battle since 2004 over compensation for the men.
Murray Coombs, an internationally renowned specialist, examined 208 of the workers. In at least eight cases he found that the worker had been exposed to radiation that Coombs believed had caused their diseases. Each of his diagnoses was backed up by the company's own records.
He found indications of another 72 occupational diseases that required further tests for 52 workers. Most he believed were caused by exposure to chemicals rather than radiation.
But Earthlife ran out of funds and could not finance the tests.
Another 91 cases required documentation from the company, which in some cases has not been provided three years after being requested.
Adam appeared before parliament's nuclear and energy portfolio committee on January 29 and was asked for comment on media reports "of radioactive sicknesses of Necsa employees", according to the minutes of the meeting.
"Dr Adam stated that there was well developed national legislation on occupational injury ... These prescribed the actions to be taken when a person believed he was injured at work, and the obligations of the employer, who should have a medical practitioner examine the employee prior to referring the case to the Compensation Commission.
"In this matter, which had been reported in the media, Earthlife Africa had actually advertised for 'sick people who had worked at Necsa' and had then requested employee files.
"In accordance with the Promotion of Access to Information Act, those files that existed were delivered."
Phalane and the South African Historical Archive at Wits University, which applied for many of the files, said that it had taken Necsa years to produce the material and that many files are still outstanding.
Coombs complained bitterly about the quality of the information he received. He could not make determinations in almost 100 of the cases because of missing information.
By law, nuclear installations must keep extensive files on all employees. Necsa dedicated 11 employees for more than a year to coordinate its different filing systems and find the material.
"Earthlife Africa advised those employees not to agree to an examination, which meant that many cases reached a stalemate," Adam told the parliamentary committee.
The mistrust between Earthlife and Necsa runs deep and neither side passes an opportunity to snipe at its opponent.
Phalane fumed that Necsa had refused to allow the workers to be represented by his organisation or by labour unions.
Scores of former employees Sowetan spoke to said that when they worked at the company they had been threatened with dismissal if they visited private doctors. None trusted the doctors at Pelindaba.
They especially feared returning to their old employer for another round of tests and were convinced the company would whitewash their medical conditions.
"Otherwise why will they not allow Earthlife or unions to represent us?" asked Alfred Sepepe, a former worker who has been diagnosed with cancer.
"About 50 of the 205 claimants had been examined and the report would be made available in due course" read the minutes of Adam's presentation to the parliamentary committee.
"Though some of the employees did present with symptoms of occupational injuries, none presented with abnormalities resulting from exposure to radiation."
"What about the workers Coombs identified in his report?" asked Paula Howell, a lawyer specialising in occupational health who represents many of the former workers.
"Necsa had these reports, but decided to retest all workers who claimed they had been harmed at work," she said. "But the law does not give the company any right to delay these workers' claims for compensation or to judge if their complaints are valid."
Section 68 (2) of the Coida Act requires a company to report a worker's claim of occupational harm within 14 days of being informed, "irrespective of whether [the employer] may be of the opinion that the employee did not contract such disease in his employ or in the employ of a previous employer".
Last Tuesday Necsa released a report on the 50 employees it has examined "and our worst fears were realised," said Phalane. "It was a whitewash."
The company's medical examiner found that only four of the 50 people she examined had suffered hearing loss at work for which they might be entitled to compensation.
Adam said only two of the people Necsa examined had been dealt with in Coombs' report, but that phase two of the investigation would soon get under way to examine others.
Howell said that as the workers' lawyer she had arranged with Necsa to receive their medical files once the company had completed its examination, but has not yet received any.
She now advises her clients to go to their local clinics, from where they will be referred to government hospitals, rather than allow Necsa to test them.
Chantal Janneker, Necsa's corporate communications manager, said that Adams and Coombs did not discuss Coomb's report "in any depth" at their meeting in December.
"Dr Adam's statement in Parliament referred directly to the preliminary report of phase one of the investigation by an independent occupational medical practitioner on the state of the health of 50 former employees.
"As was evident in the public notice released at Necsa's media conference on Tuesday March 20 there is in fact no evidence of radiation.
"Therefore, in this context, Dr Adam's statement in Parliament was indeed accurate that 'none of the former employees presented with abnormalities resulting from exposure to radiation'."
Meanwhile, hundreds of sickly old men wait for their cases to be adjudicated. They are convinced that their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation and chemicals at the Pelindaba plant.
Earthlife's project to identify these men and help them procure the compensation they would be entitled to began in 2004. Since then 17 have died and the survivors' cases are no closer to being resolved than they were back then.
"People are dying here and they are delaying," said Simon Malatji, one of the former workers diagnosed with a cancer linked to radiation.
"We ... know the consequences of radiation. We know these burns. We have felt them on our [bodies]."