MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling - February 4 2003

Published by MAC on 2003-02-04

London Calling! February 4 2003

An Inspectorate Calls:

Rio Tinto, the UN, Namibia and Iraq

Around the time of the so-called "First Gulf War" (clearly early western conquest of Iraq and Iran's oil fields doesn't count), Rio TInto was accused of having provided Iraq with a key chemical component for waging germ warfare. The British company denied the claim, there was no proper investigation and the trail ran dead. Of course Rio Tinto didn't stand alone - there must have been scores, if not hundreds of companies supplying, not just the weaponry but the ancillary equipment and facilities to "aid" Saddam Hussain's regime in the period leading up to the conflict.

So much of it in fact that one wonders why few - if any - commentators are now asking whether Bush and Blair's "tails we win, heads you lose" attitude to the very presence of the UN Weapons Inspectorate isn't partly motivated by fear of what it WILL identify, should it remain much longer in Iraq. Rather than the opposite?

Parallels have recently been drawn by the Bush-Blair Axis between Blix's allegedly poor team work and those of the UN inspectors who investigated South Africa's nuclear weaponry when the government wanted to sign back onto the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and rejoin the international community. The South Africans, it's said, cooperated fully, while the
Iraqis are being willfully obstructive.

Whoops! We didn't notice the bomb

There's no reason to doubt that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectorate did a thorough job in South Africa and was granted open access to what it wanted to check. It's more moot whether the pentagon's own military "intelligence" was up to scratch. Or still is - as Bush prepares to present the puportedly irrefutable case against Saddam Hussain. Remember the spectacular and unpredicted off-shore detonation of a nuclear warhead by the apartheid government in its dying years? No amount of intercepts, eavesdropping, or satellite probing, had alerted the western powers to the event. They were caught completely on the hop.

Not a B-52's payload away from South Africa is Namibia, where the UN also sent an investigatory team in September 1992, two years after the territory's independence from it's vampiric neighbour. The trigger for this particular IAEA inspection was a report published by the Namibia Support Committee and Partizans (People against RTZ /Rio Tinto), entitled Past Exposure. Authored by Greg Dropkin and David Clark, this swingeing condemnation of conditions at the Rossing uranium mine in its early years (from inauguration in 1976 until 1980) was mainly based on eye-witness accounts and highly confidential documents (dated 1982-1985), leaked from the Rio Tinto operation.

Discovered documents

The documents revealed appalling breaches of basic health and safety precepts. Dust levels in the open pit and crushers had approached thirty times Rossing's official limits for respirable siliceous dust. Airborne uranium concentrations had been around 36 times the levels imposed by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1990.

Workers' lifetime risk of fatal cancer in the period when Rio Tinto was pushing as much ore as possible through its plant (partly out of fear that it be expelled from Namibia/Southwest Africa when it finally gained freedom from South Africa), could - claimed Dropkin and Clark - be as high as 1 in 9.

Moreover, in a twelve month period before 1980, there occurred a "massive seepage of radioactive liquid ... estimated at 780 million gallons". The breach continued, though at lower thresholds, at least until 1985 "as monitored by the company's own boreholes".

The inspectors spent only five days at Rossing. They acknowledged the truth of some of Past Exposure allegations (especially "serious problems with management of liquid waste"), but then declared the mine was the best of its kind they had ever seen.

Undisclosed documentation

This satisfied neither the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN) nor the authors of Past Exposure. The IAEA had gained access to some of the damning documents, but, by its own admission, "radiation dose records for the 1976-1980 period are unreliable or unavailable". (Dropkin and Clark had not accessed these either). Yet these were precisely the years when Rossing's operations were at their most dangerous and least regulated.

Nor had the IAEA requested the internal papers relied upon in Past Exposure. The inspectors did not display any environmental monitoring data before 1980 and - despite their avowed aim - failed to make an assessment of the long-term health effects of radiation exposure.

Despite - or rather because of - strenuous attempts over the last decade to bring Rio Tinto to court to answer for its early maltreatment of the Rossing work force, those vital health safety and environmental records have still not seen the light of day. Of course they may no longer exist.

Uranium trails

The IAEA Inspectorate did not deliver any further report on Rossing. Few people outside the MUN, the Namibian lobby, or the anti-nuclear movement, ever questioned. the agency's integrity or thoroughness. The key recipient of Namibia uranium - the British government - ignored the entire issue, even though there were strong allegations that some of Rossing's uranium oxide had fed its weapons programmes. Namibian-sourced uranium may also have contributed to the enriched form (U-235) sent to the US, and therefore finished up in atomic warheads. Researchers hit a brick wall, when trying to unmask the role of Rio Tinto's use of its shady, Swiss-based Minserve trading arm, in order to flout US-led sanctions against South Africa, hit a brick wall.

However, in the past year workers and families suffering from the deadly effects of the company's filthy Capper Pass smelting and "recycling" operations, have been able to put their claims before a British tribunal. This raises the prospect that the company may have to answer recent speculation that the Capenhurst plant, as well as spouting out a cocktail of pollutants and radioactive mateials, also produced "depleted uranium". If so, much of this will surely have ended up being used in the earlier desert war against Iraq.

Depleted truths

In 1992, the IAEA in Namibia fell far short of minimal standards for scrutinising a vital link in the global nuclear fuel and weapons chain. Eleven years later, as part of the Iraqi inspectorate the IAEA seems to be doing a much more thorough and conscientious job. In the first case, the British and US governments stood back and said nothing. Little wonder! For a period of 16 years Britain had flagrantly violated the UN's Decree Number One on Namibia's Natural Resources - passed in 1974 by the UN Commission for Namibia - which sought to penalise any person or entity, for exploiting the territory's minerals, farm and fishing produce.

At the same time Rossing's output was meeting nearly half of British uranium demand. By contrast, official anglo-american knives are now out against the UN, not least the IAEA, for its recent diligence in Iraq. And both Bush and Blair have said they're ready nuclear terror (and no doubt depleted uranium missiles) on the peoples of the Middle East. If you're a world leader then what ye sow, you might as damn well reap.

[Sources: Greg Dropkin and David Clark Past Exposure: Revealing health and environmental risks of Rossing Uranium, Namibia Support Committee and Partizans, London 1992; Greg Drokpin "Critique of the IAEA Report on Rossing Uranium", London 3/6/1992; The Namibian,. Windhoek, 7/5/1993; Parting Company, Partizans, London, Spring 2003]

[“London Calling” is published by Nostromo Research, London. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual, organisation or editors of the MAC web site. Reproduction is encouraged with full acknowledgment

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