Van Wyk tests water in a run-off canal in Soweto. Image: Melusi Nkomo

Johannesburg’s population is living on the largest concentration of radioactive uranium in the world due to a century of mining activities.

This is according to the Bench Marks Foundation who called on the National Nuclear Regulator to immediately legislate against what it has called “an immense health problem.”

The Bench Marks Foundation’s Chief Researcher, David van Wyk explained in an interview that the foundation conducted a study, where they have found dangerously high radiation counts in mine waste, indicating the presence of uranium and its bi-product, radon gas on vast amounts of areas in and around Johannesburg.

“The research will be used to put pressure on government and the National Nuclear Regulator to put legislation in place to combat the maladministration of the toxic tailings, Van Wyk said.

“We are demanding that they legislate. Most countries have radon legislation where you are not allowed to build in areas with high levels of radon gas (from natural breakdown of uranium). We’ll be insisting that they pass legislation to control the building of housing in proximity to these dumps.”

According to Van Wyk, Johannesburg was established primarily on it being a gold mining town. Its historic mining activity has contributed to toxic living environments and improper waste water management that has resulted in high levels of radioactive activity on the dump sites, which are situated close to townships, and have been left untreated.

“Between 1955 and 2017, various local governments have increasingly built housing closer and closer to the dumps. There needs to be marked exclusion zones around the tailings.

“People living in the toxic areas have shown very high levels of asthma, and very high levels of respiratory problems in excess of 45% in all the communities around Main Reef Road.

“Sometimes you find water seeping out of these tailings and you often find children swimming in the shallow waters, which contains various toxins, and is radioactive.

“The National Nuclear Regulator should ensure that every dump is licensed, fenced and that every dump is sign posted,” said Van Wyk.

He added that the local government could also help fence the dumps and claim rates from the mining companies.

Background and rationale of study

Van Wyk explained that all along Main Reef Road, there are about 270 piles of tailings.

“These yellow mountains you see on the side of the roads or so-called ‘mine dumps’ are not as innocent as they look. Uranium is a bi-product of gold, it occurs naturally with gold as lead and other platinum group metals,” said Van Wyk.

“The problem was that in the early parts of the discovery of gold in 1886-1935 the uranium was unknowingly dumped into the mines because people didn’t know it was there.

“From about 1945, with the establishment of nuclear power, the uranium was extracted; there was about 27 processing plants in the country stretching from the west rand right though to the east rand. After a while uranium lost its appeal and people started dumping it again. As the price of uranium started to drop, it was no longer economically viable to mine it,” explained Van Wyk.

According to the senior researcher, eventually a lot of the uranium got concentrated in these dumps.

Going forward

“The problem with Johannesburg is that the winds blow in a southerly direction. We did a yearlong study, 24 hours monitoring the Johannesburg wind direction, and it all blows across Soweto,” said Vany Wyk. “As a result, the research study will move into Soweto in a big way and begin to train people on the ground to understand the impact of mining, and toxic waste.”

Currently, the Bench Marks Foundation has monitors in 35 communities where they have trained young people.

The Foundation’s study, has received support from the Department of Health, the mayor’s office, and the Department of Mineral Resources.

The foundation believes the support is there for legislation, and they hope to follow up those meetings and insist there is action taken.