Industry must work with opponents to regain public trust

MASS DESRUCTION: Only a transparent inquiry will show if Phelindaba poisoned its workers. Pic. Joel Avni. 24/10/2006. © Sowetan.
MASS DESRUCTION: Only a transparent inquiry will show if Phelindaba poisoned its workers. Pic. Joel Avni. 24/10/2006. © Sowetan.

Joel Avni

Joel Avni

The operators of the Pelindaba complex carry the future of South Africa's nuclear industry on their shoulders.

But unless they cut their cackle, subterfuge and bumbling ineptitude their prospects are as bleak as those of the hundreds of ailing former employees who say they were poisoned at Pelindaba.

Necsa, the state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, says it has a perfect safety record. It maintains that none of the 25000-odd people who have worked at its plants over the past 40 years has ever suffered medical harm from exposure to radiation.

But hundreds of sick former workers at Pelindaba, the nuclear research centre near Haartebeespoort Dam, believe they were poisoned by radiation at work. These desperate men say they suffer from cancer, lung illnesses and a host of other maladies while the company wastes time pretending to verify their claims.

The company has just promised free medical examinations for all its employees, past and present, who fear their health was compromised at work.

Now is the time for Necsa to prove its claim that its nuclear plants don't harm its workers and nearby communities. And the company has a self-imposed deadline of only a few months to prove its case.

Necsa has hired an independent doctor to re-examine 208 former employees who believe they suffered harm at work. It promises the results will be available by January, or March at the latest.

But it is struggling to convince even the most desperate of its ailing former employees of its bona fides and they are staying away in droves.

One of South Africa's most respected occupational health specialists has examined more than 200 of the former workers. The specialist doctor found that 40 percent showed signs of occupational health problems for which they were entitled to legal compensation.

Murray Coombs, one of 21 registered occupational health specialists in South Africa, also found that a few of the men showed signs that radiation had caused their medical problems.

Adrie van der Bijl, Necsa's senior safety and health manager, says workers cannot evade the internationally approved safety procedures it rigorously enforces to ensure their health.

But former employees tell of supervisors' callous disregard for their health and of emergency responses that ignored all safety procedures when things went wrong at the nuclear plant.

Sowetan has interviewed 80 former employees, and not one now trusts the company.

Word went out in Atteridgeville over the past few days that the company is trying to locate former workers for new medical tests. Almost no one from this community near Pretoria that is home to many of Pelindaba's former workers has shown up at the plant.

The workers are boycotting Necsa's effort because they suspect the company's motives.

And their response is perfectly understandable.

Last June Necsa promised to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate the workers' claims after Sowetan uncovered the scandal. The company promised to appoint a commission of independent experts, including world authorities, to investigate the workers' claims in a comprehensive, transparent and fair investigation.

The commission never achieved its objectives, in representation or results. By the time Necsa quietly shelved the inquiry last month the commissioners had spent more than R3million and had not interviewed a single worker.

Now the company is struggling to persuade these men to undergo another round of medical tests that it will sponsor.

What a waste of resources. They have already been examined. Hundreds more await their turn but money for their tests has run out.

Sowetan noted last year that the commission of inquiry would fail unless it conducted its affairs in the open and included representatives of the workers in its investigation.

Unfortunately, we were proven right. But Necsa might still not have learnt the lesson.

The only way Necsa can prove its claims is by winning its former employees' trust. And the only way that will happen is by including their representatives in the programme.

Most of the workers who claim they were harmed are represented by Earthlife Africa, a stridently anti-nuclear environmental organisation, and Solidarity, a trade union with its own baggage.

But like them or not, Necsa's managers must realise they have to work with these two groups, and others, to reassure hundreds of scared and disillusioned staff, black and white.

Let Necsa provide the buses; Solidarity and Earthlife will ensure that the workers pitch up for the medical examinations.

Only then will we the citizens be able to determine if Necsa nuked its own employees and then covered up the situation.

And only once we know that will we be able to determine if we can trust our own safety to the people who run our nuclear industry and plan to scatter many more new nuclear plants around the country.

More importantly, allaying their workers' fears is the right thing to do - and a legal obligation.