“Koeberg ranks amongst the safest of the world’s top-ranking nuclear reactors of its vintage. In March 2001, Koeberg was awarded NOSCAR status for the fifth time by the National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA).” So declares Koeberg’s website proudly.
“[Recent] allegations of secrecy surrounding the health of Koeberg workers … are unfounded and in keeping with tactics typical of the anti-nuclear groups. All Koeberg staff who work in the nuclear part are routinely subjected to comprehensive medical examinations that include detailed blood analysis.
“Each worker’s medical history, as well as details of occupational exposure to ionising radiation, are kept as statutory records and are subject to independent review and audit. They are available to the employee at any time.
“There is not a single case of any Koeberg worker developing a disease, or having died, from an occupationally induced exposure to ionising radiation.”
Those are the words of Mr P R Prozesky, power station manager at Koeberg in a letter to the press last year. (In the same letter Prozesky accused a Mr Kanty, who had claimed that relevant information was suppressed by Eskom, of making “vague and unsubstantiated allegations.”)
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Step forward Ron Lockwood, a former “radiation worker” at Koeberg who has extremely good reason to find those statements outrageous.
Lockwood is an electronics technician who in the course of his work at the nuclear power station risked exposure to radiation from time to time – for example, when he was required to service the camera that monitors the nuclear reactor itself
In June 1996, having been a “radiation worker” at Koeberg for 15 years, he was persuaded by Eskom’s offer of a package to take early retirement. Still healthy – so he thought – and only 56, Lockwood reckoned he still had it in him to try something else for a living.
He attended Koeberg’s medical facility for his “exit” medical examination on the morning of 28 June 1996. Sister Marie Anneveldt conducted the examination and took a blood sample. The medical appeared to him to be the same as the annual “Radiation Worker” medical usually conducted by the appointed Eskom doctor.
At the end of the examination Sister Anneveldt surprised him when she asked him to sign a blank medical history, saying she would fill in the details later.
The front page of the form detailed the scope and objectives of the Eskom Medical Surveillance Programme. These include “the promotion and securing of the health and safety of employees through the early detection of disease”.
Under the heading “Medical Examiners” it states that the periodic medical examinations of “licensed operators” and “radiation workers” [all those Koeberg employees that are potentially exposed to radiation in the course of their work] may only be conducted by a medical practitioner appointed for that purpose by the Council for Nuclear Safety. Clearly the examination was not intended by law to be a mere formality.
When Lockwood expressed reluctance to sign a blank form, Sister Anneveldt said that if he refused, she would not sign his employment clearance certificate. He would then not be able to leave and collect his final cheque.
Lockwood found parts of section 17 of the form particularly disturbing. It appeared to hold him liable for any misinformation, and exclude Eskom from any liability, so, before signing the otherwise blank form, he put a line through the section and signed the alteration. Sister Anneveldt then signed his clearance certificate and he was able to leave.
Two years later Lockwood was admitted to hospital for a routine surgical procedure. When, in preparation for surgery, a sample of his blood was analysed, he was found to have an abnormally high white cell count. Further tests and a bone marrow biopsy revealed that he had lymphatic leukaemia – and that the disease was so advanced that it must have been present for some years.
With some difficulty, he managed to persuade Koeberg’s senior medical officer to give him copies of all the pathologists’ reports on his file.
Imagine his anger when he discovered that as early as 1986 – 10 years before he was persuaded to take early retirement – the pathologist’s report had indicated signs of illness. The computer-generated analysis report for the blood sample taken in January 1986 highlighted two factors with asterisks: both his leucocyte count and his lymphocytes gave readings above the normal range. This is often the first indication of developing leukaemia. Koeberg’s chief medical officer a the time, Dr Charles de Leeuw, simply wrote “accept” at the foot of the report and initialled it. The report was not shown to Lockwood or followed up in any way.
The same occurred in January 1987, except that this time the counts for both blood factors were even higher. The pathologists report now specifically stated: “A leucocytosis is noted. The differential count [also] shows a lymphocytosis.” On this report there is no comment or initialling by a Koeberg medical officer. The report was, however, addressed to Sister Jewel Dry, suggesting she might have been the responsible medical professional at Koeberg approved and appointed by the Council for Nuclear Safety at the time.
And so it went, from year to year … for 10 years.
In 1989 the pathologist reported: “A leucocytosis is noted. The differential count shows lymphocytosis. A few smudge cells noted.” The analysis report concludes with the comment: “The lymphocytosis may reflect an early stage of a lympho-proliferative disorder.” That’s pathologist speak for blood cancer – one of the cancers that could be triggered by exposure to radiation.
This critically important report, which, again, was addressed to Sister Dry, was filed in Koeberg’s file, but had also not been initialled by medical professionals at the nuclear power station. There are at least two possible explanations for this. One is that the the report was placed in the file by an official when it arrived without anyone bothering to look at it, let alone bothering to tell the unfortunate Mr Lockwood about his condition. The second, more sinisterly, is that there might have been no point in a medical officer putting his (or her) signature and comment on the report – if Koeberg’s management had in any case decided against giving Lockwood (or any other Koeberg employee) such potentially embarrassing information.
The 1991 pathologist’s report has two remarks endorsed on it by Dr De Leeuw: “see me” and “recheck 2/52”, the latter meaning recheck in two weeks. But Lockwood was never summoned to see the doctor, nor was a second blood sample taken and analysed two weeks later (to exclude a short-term cause for the high count).
Looking at it in 1998, Lockwood recalled a meeting he had had with Dr De Leeuw early in 1996 – it was about trade union matters – when Dr De Leeuw confided that he could no longer exercise control over senior staff at the Koeberg Medical Centre. “He told me his instructions were ignored or performed in a tardy way, and that he faced open dissent by the senior staff,” says Lockwood. (Were they, perhaps, taking their instructions from elsewhere?)
Shortly afterwards, Dr De Leeuw left for Canada.
Finally, at the bottom of the bundle of copies of these yearly medical reports that he had finally managed to extract from Eskom in August 1998, Lockwood found a copy of that form Sister Anneveldt had asked him to sign in blank as he was preparing to leave Koeberg for voluntary early retirement in 1996. This “exit” medical report was presumably supposed to record the state of his health at the time of his retirement from Koeberg, when he became the responsibility of the pension and medical aid funds.
Comparing it with the earlier annual reports, he found that nine of the entries that had been made on the blank form, subsequent to his having signed it, directly contradicted the medical facts on record in Koeberg’s files. Most significant amongst them was the tick in the “no” column in reply to question 34: “Have you ever had, or do you now have any blood or thyroid disorder?” Whoever had lied when answering the question, knew what they were doing: in the detailed schedules attached to the report (they are supposed to contain a summary of the results of all the annual medical examinations from 1987 to 1996) the column labelled “Haemopoetic system (full blood count)” is the only column generally left blank. This despite the fact that the schedule is headed with the instruction: “Mention all changes since previous examination”.
Most intriguing of all: the schedule concludes with a statement to be signed by the applicant for early retirement – in this case Mr Lockwood. The statement reads: “I hereby declare and warrant that to the best of my knowledge and belief the above statements are true and complete in every respect and I acknowledge that the intentional misrepresentation or concealment of certain information on my part renders me liable to immediate dismissal from the service of Eskom and/or amendment, alteration or cancellation of pension and medical benefits.”
Despite these very serious threatened consequences – imagine if he were now to have his pension and medical aid cancelled, because of failure to disclose his condition to the pension fund trustees or medical aid fund management! – Lockwood had not signed the form as required, because it was not given to him to sign. Someone at Koeberg simply processed it unsigned.
(The reason now appears obvious: if it had been given to Lockwood to sign, Koeberg’s medical officer would have had to show him the pathology reports contained in their secret files, thereby revealing that he already had the early symptoms of leukaemia – and that Koeberg had known this for years.)
Not only might his reaction on discovering the truth have been hostile – he would undoubtedly have decided against early retirement. It was not in his best interests, under those circumstances, to take early retirement. After all, the most rational thing to do under such circumstances would have been to stay in secure employment, improving his pension status for as long as possible – and enjoying Eskom’s medical aid coverage for as long as possible.
When Lockwood did get to see the report and its patently inaccurate medical schedules, he also noted his “radiation exposure” figures looked suspicious: they had an unnatural consistency and did not correlate with the figures from Health Physics, the section that actually measured them. (They indicated that he had, on a least two occasions, been exposed to potentially harmful doses of radiation.)
“These erroneous entries are a travesty of medical record keeping within the Medical Facility at Koeberg nuclear power station,” he noted in a diary memo.
In August 2000 Eskom officials informed Lockwood’s attorney that an “in-house” investigation had been conducted at Koeberg into the matter of his medical records. On 13 September 2000 Lockwood wrote to Eskom’s senior general manager, Peter O’Connor, requesting a copy of the findings of the investigation.
O’Connor replied with a piously worded denial: “Eskom has not conducted any independent investigation into the specific circumstances pertaining to your medical records.
A review was conducted of the generic process and functioning of the Koeberg Medical Centre as a whole. Eskom believes that the information contained in the generic report is not applicable to your specific case.
“Accordingly, we are not in a position to meet your request for a copy.”
A request for access to the report made directly to Eskom’s then chief executive, Mr Thulani Gcabashe, got a similar rebuff.
To any intelligent observer it is clear: Eskom was lying – and Eskom was on the run. Whether the investigation was particular or “generic”, its findings had to be relevant to Lockwood’s case.
We are not entirely left guessing on this point. Eskom’s officials had been a little less cautious when, at a meeting on 31 January 2001, they first told Lockwood’s attorney that an enquiry into “the whole medical set-up at Koeberg” had been “triggered by his situation”. His contemporaneous notes tell us: “M shown an Eskom report called Review of the Medical Surveillance at Koeberg arising from the investigation. M said they (Eskom) acknowledge they were absolutely wrong in not telling you about the things they knew (medical condition)… that ‘certain things’ were not properly done.”
On the report’s conclusions: “they said it was negligence on the part of the medical staff … they freely acknowledge this; that the part of Dr De Leeuw could amount to medical malpractice, ‘they put it as strongly as that’, and they then go into a whole rigmarole of ‘this was wrong, this was wrong, this was wrong … and the steps to put it right are… There are pages of what they are going to do.”
Finally the note records: “M indicated the report raised the possibility of ‘a huge court case’.”
In a letter written a few days later the attorney confirmed: “This was an internal enquiry and the members holding the enquiry were a Mr Ngebeleni of the Eskom legal dept., Mrs A Pretorius of OCSA and Mr Woodhall of Nuclear Safety. The report is rather long, but it was made available to me to peruse. It would appear that there were certain shortcomings in the administrative procedures in this dept., and arising from this, certain recommendations were made …
“… according to Eskom, while this investigation arose because of your situation, this was … a general report on the whole facility.”
Lockwood’s attorney was not allowed to keep a copy of the report.
Not even the fact that the enquiry was held has ever been made public. But then, of course, things like this are bad news for the nuclear industry. And Eskom boss Reuel Khoza has shares in the company that is being royally sponsored by Eskom to develop a new pebble-bed nuclear reactor – they hope, for Koeberg.
Next issue: Lockwood discovers he's not the only one, plus: the run-around and the cover-up. n
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