Apartheid’s Nuclear Shame via Ground up

During apartheid, a nuclear weapons programme at Pelindaba used workers from nearby settlements. Decades have gone by and millions of rands have been spent on investigations, yet questions remain and hundreds of workers who claim to have become ill after exposure to hazardous material are still fighting for compensation.

Former workers claim exposure

It’s a drizzly day ahead of the 2014 elections. We have arranged to meet Alfred Sepepe, a man who claims that in the 1990s he was illegally exposed to nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals while working for the Uranium Enrichment Corporation of SA (UCOR). Highly enriched uranium is used to make nuclear weapons.

Decades after working in apartheid’s nuclear programme, Sepepe is now an activist organising for himself and hundreds of others to try and get compensation from the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). This has been a long, hard fight, and many of Sepepe’s comrades have died along the way from illnesses. The case now sits at the office of the Public Protector, the only person that these former nuclear workers think can help them.

When we arrive at the KFC in a bustling strip mall in Atteridgeville, we are met by Sepepe and 30 others. These are workers who claim to be sick from exposure to nuclear materials, or spouses and children of those who’ve passed on. One man pulls up the legs of his trousers to expose skin covered in what looks like a mutation of blisters and sores. He says his legs have been like this for many years.


Greenpeace states in its report ‘The True Cost of Nuclear Power in South Africa’ that “De Klerk ordered that 12,000 pages of documentation covering the project should be shredded, protecting the hundreds of people involved in the programme.” Production of highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium was stopped, and the facility to produce it (known as Y-plant or Valindaba) was dismantled. In the late nineties, the AEC was restructured as Necsa, and the focus of SA’s nuclear programme became nuclear energy and medical research.

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