World

Cancers fell nuclear ore miners

John Vidal

Rio Tinto's Namibian miners are said to be dying of cancers after extracting uranium ore for the British and US military in the 1970s.

Rio Tinto's Rössing mine in the Namib desert produces around 7% of the world's uranium.

Miners who dug uranium ore that supplied the British and United States military with the raw material for bombs and civil nuclear power in the 1970s are reported to be dying of cancers after working in one of Africa's largest mines.

A study of current and former workers at the giant Rio Tinto-owned Rössing uranium mine in Namibia says that everyone questioned was aware of people who are now suffering lung infections and unknown illnesses.

The Namib desert mine produces around 7% of the world's uranium but was operated with rudimentary safety when it opened in 1976. "People get sick. We are seeing it in people that have worked for Rössing for a long time. They just go back and die after working," one man told researchers working with Earthlife Namibia and the Labour Resource and Research Institute.

"Two current workers are on sick leave since 2000 and 2003. One worked as a laboratory technician for 24 years and claims to have proof he was radiated," says a summary of the paper seen by the Guardian.

Rössing, which mines millions of tonnes of rock a year to extract uranium, employs more than 1 500 people. "Many of the older workers are now retired and many have already died of cancers," says the report.

Independent evaluation
A spokesperson for Rio Tinto said that Rössing has been recognised by independent consultants as one of the world's safest mines. "Effective controls ensure that radiation exposures to employees are kept well below the Rössing standard for occupational radiation exposure.

"The company keeps detailed records of the health status of its workforce from the day of employment to the day they leave the company. It therefore does not need to speculate on health issues of its employees."

One former worker said: "Yes, I have cancer now. In the beginning they [Rio Tinto] did not want to give money for the treatment but later when they referred me to a doctor for an operation they gave me money for treatment."

Another said: "Doctors were told not to inform us of our results or tell us [of] our illness. They only supply you with medication when you are totally finished up or about to die."

During the first years of operation, Rössing operated with a migrant labour system that the International Commission of Jurists declared illegal and said was similar to slavery. Black workers lived on the mine premises and were exposed to dust and radiation 24 hours a day and the mine became the focus for protests by anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear groups.

Shares in the mine are owned by Britain-based Rio Tinto (69%), and the government of Iran (15%). The Namibian government has denied supplying Iran with Namibian uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

"Uranium companies generally deny that workers get sick because of exposure to radiation. They blame the bad health conditions to unhealthy lifestyles such as eating habits, tobacco smoking and alcohol," says the study. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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