Namibian miners who dug uranium ore that supplied the British and US military in the 1970s with the raw material for bombs and civil nuclear power are reported to be dying of cancers and unexplained illnesses after working in one of Africa's largest mines.
A study based on questionnaires of current and former workers at the giant Rio Tinto-owned Rossing uranium mine in Namibia says that everyone questioned was aware of people who are now suffering lung infections and unknown illnesses thought to be linked to their work.
The mine, in the Namib desert, produces around 7 per cent 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 Rossing for a long time. They just go back and die after working at Rossing," one man told researchers working with Earthlife Namibia and the Labour Resource and Research Institute.
The study, which is expected to be published this week, accepts that working conditions in the mine have greatly improved but says that all workers questioned said that they were exposed to high levels of dust.
"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.
"Most workers stated that they are not informed about their health conditions and do not know if they have been exposed to radiation or not. Some workers said they consulted a private doctor to get a second opinion," say the authors.
"The older workers all said they know miners dying of cancers and other illnesses. Many of these are now retired and many have already died of cancers," says the report.
A spokesman for Rio Tinto said that Rossing had been recognised by independent consultants as one of the world's safest mines. "The health and safety of our employees is the top priority. We have health management systems in place to make sure that everyone goes home safe and healthy every day. Effective controls ensure that radiation exposures to employees are kept well below the Rossing 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."
Shares in the mine are owned 69 per cent by UK-based Rio Tinto and 15 per cent by the government of Iran. The Namibian government has denied supplying Iran with Namibian uranium which could be used for nuclear weapons.