Andreas Späth

Uranium kills in Namibia

2014-04-22 08:25

Andreas Wilson-Späth

That uranium is a radioactive and toxic substance with potentially lethal impacts on the people who dig it out of the ground is generally glossed over by those among us who argue for nuclear power as a clean, green, safe and sustainable source of electricity.

Along with other intractable problems faced by the atomic energy industry – like its propensity to lay to waste entire landscapes if and when things go wrong and the fact that we still don’t have a long-term solution for storing its noxious waste products – this is not in dispute. It’s merely a matter of unintended side-effects. Collateral damage.

For uranium miners in Namibia, however, their occupation in proximity to the metal has much more first-hand and personal consequences. A report soon to be released by Earthlife Namibia and the Labour Resource and Research Institute argues that long-time workers at the Rössing uranium mine are routinely exposed to unhealthy working conditions, radiation and dust.

The survey of current and former Rössing employees suggests that an anomalous number of them are dying of cancer and other mysteriously unexplained illnesses caused by their working conditions.

Rössing, which is located in central Namibia and employs over 1500 people, is majority owned (69%) by British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The next biggest shareholders of the mine are the government of Iran (10%) and our own Industrial Development Corporation (10%).

Rio Tinto officials have consistently denied that they’re to blame for any harm, insisting that their operations at Rössing and elsewhere, including their copper, gold, coal, bauxite, iron ore and diamond mines around the world, are well monitored and run ethically, for the benefit of local communities, respecting human rights and protecting the environment.

But a closer look at the multinational’s global operations reveals that Rio Tinto isn’t quite as squeaky clean as they would like us to believe:

• At the end of last year, radioactive and acidic slurry spilled from a uranium processing tank at Rössing. Two weeks later the damaged rubber lining of a similar tank at the company’s Ranger mine in Australia’s Northern Territory leaked more than a million litres of the stuff.

• In 2013, 33 miners perished when a tunnel collapsed at Rio Tinto’s Grasberg gold and copper mine in Indonesia – the largest portion of the total of 41 deaths at their global operations during that year which international trade union IndustriAll claims the company should have done more to prevent.

• Locals have blamed the Grasberg mine for pollution affecting the environment and population.

• In Madagascar, activists have accused Rio Tinto of “land grabbing and environmental devastation”.

• A lawsuit has been filed against Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine in the US state of Utah for five-year breaches in air pollution regulations. The organisations that brought the case claim, that on some days the dust from the mine has a similar “effect on people who are consistently outdoors” as “smoking a pack of cigarettes a day”

• In Mongolia, indigenous nomadic herders have raised concerns that an expansion of Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi desert would threaten the integrity of the local ecosystem along with their access to fresh water.

Of course Rio Tinto also made over $1 billion in profits last year. I guess in the minds of the company’s executives that justifies the occasional mishap.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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