Saturday, June 18, 2022

Uranium mining exposed (1992)


Book Review from the June 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Past Exposure. By Greg Dropkin and David Clark. Namibia Support Committee in association with People Against Rio Tinto Zinc.

Inspired and encouraged by the Mineworkers’ Union of Namibia, Past Exposure is a highly technical yet eminently accessible expose of the deadly health and environmental hazards associated with the world’s largest opencast uranium mine, Rossing Uranium in Namibia which is largely owned by Rio Tinto Zinc.

Rossing’s manager of corporate affairs has dismissed the book as “a collection of distortions and half-truths cunningly woven together into a plausible text”. But the authors, Greg Dropkin and David Clark, use highly confidential internal company documents, personal testimonies made by mineworkers, and up-to-date environmental and medical research into the effects of uranium mining, to show that it is in fact Rossing Uranium which has been economical with the truth over a period of many years.

Dropkin and Clark demonstrate that, despite the company’s claims to operate within recognised international standards of health and safety, workers have been continually exposed to excessively high levels of silica dust and of uranium dust and radiation which cause, amongst other things, diseases of the chest and lungs, kidney failure, and cancer and hinder the mental and physical development of unborn babies.

In the case of radioactive radiation the authors show that there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure and that, even if there was, the company has not, despite its claims to the contrary, been properly measuring and monitoring the levels of radiation doses received by workers. The workers most exposed to silica dust and other health hazards tend to be black. The specialist in charge of monitoring chest complaints ascribes these to smoking and “ethnic" differences!

The detailed discussion of water pollution caused by uranium mining completely demolishes any company statement that it has not polluted any groundwater systems or the Khan river. Radioactive waste from uranium mills is stored in tailings dams. It leaks into the surrounding air and water and develops a serious long-term environmental problem. It seeps into the soil and enters food chains as well as poisoning the water. Rossing’s water management data is a well-kept secret but Dropkin and Clark estimate that
780 million gallons of tailings liquid seeped out in a twelve-month period . . . the contamination may be anywhere from the ground-water system to the Khan and/or Swakop rivers reaching the sea at Swakopmund.
Past Exposure has two main objectives. Its first is to empower the workers at Rossing Uranium in their efforts to negotiate a health and safety agreement with RTZ in line with agreements at other uranium mines, mostly notably Rio Algom, RTZ’s Canadian uranium mine. At this mine, as the authors point out in some detail, far superior though by no means perfect standards of health and safety prevail as a result of sustained and informed pressure put on the mining company by the Canadian mineworkers.

The publication of the book has already caused a stir in Namibia. Extracts were published in The Namibian newspaper which has as a result faced threats of legal action from the mining company. Since the publication of the book the Namibian government has requested the International Atomic Energy Agency in conjunction with the World Health Organisation to investigate issues of health, radiation exposure and waste disposal at the mine.

The book’s second main objective is to raise awareness about the hazards of the nuclear industry of which uranium mining is a primary feature. In the present economic recession miners are not only fighting for better health and safety agreements but also for their jobs in the face of savage redundancies. Like many workers around the world they are caught in that cruel contradiction of having to fight for a job that is useless or dangerous producing a commodity that is useless or dangerous, or face the prospect of unemployment.

This is a contradiction which the authors, as long-standing opponents of the nuclear power industry, acknowledge; and while they themselves would wish to see the end of the nuclear industry they point out that it is “most important that the workers employed at Rossing and elsewhere in the nuclear industry' should be engaged in a real debate about its future”.

It is difficult to see how the Namibia Support Committee who co-publishcd this book can square their anti-nuclear position and their obviously sincere support for the mineworkers of Namibia with their long history of support for SWAPO, the government of the Namibian state which gained its independence in 1990.

SWAPO does not appear to be interested in engaging in any serious debate over the future of the Namibian workers without a uranium mine. Nor would it be in its interests to do so. The nuclear industry is highly profitable and controlled on a global scale by a few multinational conglomerates. The Namibian economy is heavily dependent on uranium mining. If any Namibian government is to successfully ensure its position then it does so by working closely with those multinationals who control uranium mining.

As early as 1975 SWAPO was in negotiation with RTZ when they asked the company to issue a statement recognising SWAPO as the prospective Namibian government. In 1985, despite calling on all multinational companies to quit Namibia forthwith because they “fuel Pretoria’s war machine”, SWAPO made the following statement:
When Namibia is free we will certainly reach an agreement with [the multinationals] which will be beneficial to all of us. (Quoted in Plunder by R. Moody).
Beneficial to all but the workers in the Uranium mines and ordinary people around the world who in growing numbers watch with dismay as the world’s resources are plundered to fill the pockets of'a few leaving a trail of human and environmental devastation, the effects of which will be felt for generations to come.
Kerima Mohideen

"The company keeps saying that the uranium we work with is harmless but I never had a skin ailment until I started working in this area. Because they have never taken interest I conclude that Rossing are concerned about profits and not the health of workers. We desperately need outside expertise to tell us about the short-term and long-term effects of working with uranium. For this we need international help, especially from the international trade union movement'’.
—statement made by worker at Rossing Uranium mine in Namibia.

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