Nuclear ‘victims’ in limbo

HUNDREDS of workers who claim they were affected by radiation at the Pelindaba nuclear plant say the public protector’s office has left them in limbo.Picture Thapelo Morebudi

Hundreds of workers who claim they were affected by radiation at the Pelindaba nuclear plant say the public protector’s office has left them in limbo.

Many of the workers, who had been employed by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) have died while those still living are suffering from a variety of illnesses.

The suspected nuclear radiation victims now accuse the public protector’s office of failing to prioritise their case. For more than two decades the former Pelindaba workers believed they were suffering from illnesses caused by exposure to radiation at the plant.

They want compensation and sought the help of the public protector. Deputy public protector Kevin Malunga insisted his office was busy with the case but said lack of funds was an issue.

“We engaged an expert, a retired professor, who assisted us to look at some of the cases because it’s a complex subject. We are still engaging the state agencies involved. We believe medical tests will bring closure, as they are evidence based, but we do need money for such things.”

He said the challenge for his office was that radiation is a highly-specialised area. An internationally acclaimed occupational medicine specialist Dr Murray Coombs, who examined 208 of the workers, said it was clear from the findings that an investigation into occupational diseases for ex-Necsa workers was valid and necessary.

Fifty-nine of the workers have since died. The surviving ones suffer from diseases of the skin, lungs, eyes and kidneys. The public protector, Thuli Madonsela, met hundreds of the affected employees and has Coombs’ findings on her desk.

Since then, a source close to the case said, it had been passed from one investigator to the next. “They initially outsourced the services, then after realising it was not moving they took it back. Now, the major challenge is that they have asked to do new tests for seven of the former employees but the independence of the doctors they want to use for the tests is questionable.

“They aren’t well-versed with nuclear-related illnesses and that may compromise this case,” the source said. Alfred Sepepe, a former cleaner at Necsa, yesterday said he refused to undergo the tests. Sepepe contracted testicular cancer and his testicles were amputated.

“If I went for testing today, they won’t find anything, I had cancer and my testicles were removed,” he said. Sepepe said he may have picked up the disease while wiping some “unknown chemicals” without proper protective gear.

“I used to wipe chemicals with a plastic glove. Later on, when I urinated, blood would come out,” he said. Steven Maleka, who worked at the plant between 1980 to 2004, said he had started experiencing swelling in his limbs three years after he joined the company.

He said he had to wade through red water and although he was given Wellington boots, the red water would often splash up and into the boots, soaking his skin. Up until his discharge in 2004, he was in and out of medical facilities.

For the past two or three years he has had to visit the local Kalapo Clinic every day. He complained of heart palpitations, chronic leg pain, bad digestion and weakness. April France Maluleka, 67, worked for the company between 1979 and 1997, and now can’t walk. “I want medical compensation. I can’t walk, I basically spend my day sitting here. I have no source of income and I have eight dependants,” he said.

Coombs handed their files to the public protector. Environmental activist group Earthlife Africa’s coordinator, Mashile Phalane, who represents the victims, said he feared a lot of experts were afraid to appear against the nuclear industry.

“They are scared the nuclear industry could be their clients in future.” National Nuclear Regulator spokesperson Gino Moonsamy said they would only comment after the public protector’s report was released.

Mthokozisi Dube