Desperately seeking justice


Ill workers and families want the nuclear body to own up~ published in Canvas Life by Sheree Bega

HAROLD Daniels had no choice – he had to grow up fast. It was either that or watch his grieving mother, suddenly lost without an income, struggle even more. The  teenager dropped out of high school and went searching for a job to pay the bills.

Today Daniels, who shares his father’s name, is a debt collector who chases recalcitrant car owners – it’s work that runs on commission and he doesn’t earn much.

In a way, he says, it feels as if the painful death of his father, a security guard at Pelindaba nearly 20 years ago, killed his dreams too.

In early 1997, the 40-year-old died of lung and brain cancer, six months after he had been retrenched from the nuclear research facility near Hartbeespoort Dam, run by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), where he had worked for 15 years.

He had fallen gravely ill after extinguishing a “radiation fire” at the plant in 1996. Daniels, who had complained his arm and neck were stiff and his stomach swollen, refused to accept the R43 000 severance package his family claims Necsa proffered. In D the  end, his wife, Amanda, had to sign for it.

“When my father started to get sick, that’s when they they (Necsa) told him to leave,” charges Daniels. 

“They knew he was going to die and they didn’t want him working for them. I remember how tragic and hard it was, visiting him in hospital as he lay there dying.”

Now, 64, his mother, Amanda, never remarried.

“Harold was a wonderful husband and a hard-working man,” she says, fondly. “We were building our home when he got sick after he ran into that building to stop the fire. They sent him home to die with nothing,” remembers Amanda, who lives with her son in Ekurhuleni. Daniels’s case – one of two confirmed deaths attributed to radiation exposure at Pelindaba at the time – was among 11 Necsa employees Dr Murray Coombs, an independent occupational expert, referred to the compensation commissioner in 2006.

Non-profit organisation Earthlife Africa had commissioned Coombs to conduct tests on its workers three years after Victor Motha’s death in 2001. After inhaling a fluoride gas – used to process uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors – at Pelindaba, the 21-year old came home on November 21, complaining of nausea, and a burning in his throat and chest.

He started vomiting and died that night in hospital.

The then energy minister, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, sent a letter and promised to investigate his death, but his family maintains that that is where correspondence with the department stopped, says the 2011 Greenpeace report, The Trust Cost of Nuclear Power in SA, released in 2011.

His family reportedly received just R6 000 in compensation. In 2007, Daniels was among a group of ailing ex-Pelindaba employees who told a parliamentary inquiry how they had fallen ill because of exposure to nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals at “secretive” agencies such as the Uranium Enrichment Corporation of South Africa and the Atomic Energy Corporation, where highly enriched uranium was used to create nuclear weapons during apartheid.  

In her desperate plea for justice, she told parliamentary officials how she had not received a cent of compensation  and how Necsa reportedly failed to pay out her husband’s life policy because he had skipped two instalments.

Officials promised to investigate the claims of nuclear exposure, but nearly a decade later she and her husband’s colleagues are still waiting.

Since 2010, their final hope has rested at the Office of the Public Protector, but its investigation, too, has been fraught with delays.

The probe centres on Necsa’s alleged failure to acknowledge or compensate the workers for occupational illnesses and a failure by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in its legislated mandate to ensure the protection of workers.

“The investigation is in its final stages,” says Oupa Segalwe, spokesman for the office of the Public Protector. “The only matter that was outstanding was the specialist medical testing of seven volunteers of the complainants to ascertain if it can be medically established that they were exposed to radiation. This  process took a while to complete but we have just received the full medical report from all the medical specialists.” The NNR footed the bill for these medical tests.

Segalwe says its investigators are studying the report. “We’ve scheduled a joint meeting between ourselves. the Compensation Commissioner and Necsa for early January – wherein we will address all issues around outstanding claims by complainants not yet paid by the commission. It is envisaged that the report will be finalised early next year.”

The NNR says it “will wait for the due process of the public protector and take it from there” while Necsa this week took the same approach. “The matter of the former Pelindaba workers is under investigation by the Office of the Public Protector. Necsa is unable to comment on an ongoing investigation as it is an affected party,” it says.

For her part, Daniels looks to a former Uranium Enrichment Corporation worker, 62-year-old Alfred Sepepe, who has become a champion of their plight, for hope.

“Alfrad’s the only one who fights for us. All the meetings we’ve been to in Atteridgeville over the years, he organised them and still does. He has sat at the Public Protector’s Office for days,” she says of the anti-nuclear activist. It was Sepepe who helped motivate former Pelindaba workers to take part in Coombs’s occupational health study.

Last month, at the international Nuclear Free Future Awards, he was honoured for his work “to see that the South African nuclear industry worker health problems are acknowledged as occupational disabilities brought on by radiation exposure”. Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive for a Sustainable Environment, who presented Sepepe with his award, lauds his activism: “Despite extreme difficulties Alfred remains the only voice for scores of uncompensated former nuclear industry workers.

“By continuing to singularly keep alive this unresolved issue is a tribute to this man’s determination and tenacity, which he funds from his meagre pension earnings.

“The thin, wiry Sepepe says his 11 years spent as a maintenance and decontamination worker at Pelindaba from 1989 made him sick – he claims he was never provided with protective gear – until doctors discovered he had testicular cancer: He was operated on at a hospital in Ga-Rankuwa in 1999.

“They asked me how many children I had. I told them I had three. They told me I would not have any more and removed my testicles.” He was left impotent.

Back at work in Pelindaba, Sepepe recalls how he was unexpectedly informed his work was being phased out and he was being retrenched. “When I asked my supervisor, they told me I shouldn’t ask questions or I wouldn’t get a payout,” he recalls, claiming he was offered R20 000 for his silence. Necsa has consistently rebutted claims it ever retrenched sick workers.

Sepepe lives in a tiny room at the back of his mother’s property in Saulsville, ear Pelindaba. His neatly-made bed is scattered with pamphlets on uranium mining and how to stop South Africa’s nuclear ambitions.

But for many, the fight has been too long. Sepepe has laid 62 of his colleagues to rest over the years.

“It’s been years of fighting but I won’t give up. They must compensate us because too many people are sick. I want my children to have a home. We’ve taken this issue to the president, to the minister of energy. Nothing has been done. All you ever hear from the public protector is Nkandla, Nkandla. What about us?”

The Greenpeace report notes how those who battle on for compensation “fear the state and its nuclear industry are waiting until we all die for the problem to go away”.

Steven Maleka, a gardener, shows his battered, festering legs. Now in his 70s, he worked at Pelindaba from the 1980s and remembers plodding through “red and blue water” that would run inside his boots. “I’ve been in and out of hospital for years. It’s too painful to work.” 

In his neat home in a nondescript street in Atteridgeville, Percy Msimanga walks slowly to the lounge from his bedroom, leaning heavily on his crutches. Now in his 80s, his asthma makes it hard to breathe.  Msimanga worked in a boiler room at Pelindaba until the early 1990s – after he fell sick, he says, he was paid out R27 000 and told to go. He was too ill to work again. “Please help me get my money.” he pleads.

Judith Taylor, of Earthlife Africa Joburg, has her doubts.

“The situation will be stretched out until no one is left, but I’m open to being surprised.”

Like Taylor, Samson Mohlolo’s family have run out of hope. His daughter, Julia, sits in her gown in their home in Atteridgeville trying to comfort her 92-year-old father, who has stomach cancer.  The former maintenance worker was retrenched from Pelindaba after his cancer was discovered.

“When he’s sick, he always says he wishes he had never worked there. He was trying to provide for us but he never could work again.  There’s no justice in this world.”

MORE than 500 ill workers sought help from environmental NGO Earthlife Africa around the turn of the century. 

Dr Murray Coombs, an independent occupational health expert, examined 208  workers. His report in 2006 revealed that 40 percent of the workers suffered probable occupation- related illnesses, including lung cancer, asthma and lung fibrosis as well as skin conditions. Findings couldn’t be made for 62 workers because of missing information from the employer. Coombs concludes there will be a significant increase in disease among ex-workers over the next 20 years.

What the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation said about its own R3.5 million investigation Necsa’s independent occupational medical doctor examined 50 workers, correlating with their medical records. Not one presented symptoms related to radiation. Most of the group were workers who had been retrenched, aged between 40 and 61, and their “financial burden may have allowed for a high self-selection”.

In its 2016 report, Necsa states that high safety standards ensure that no employees are exposed to radiation. Workers were put through monitoring for full blood count and urine testing. None presented with abnormal blood results. 

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