1. Defying the United Nations

Chapter 6: Brazil and Namibia
Part 2: Namibia’s Uranium Mines

On March 21, 1990, the end of colonialism in Africa was celebrated with the independence of Namibia from the Republic of South Africa. However, few people are aware that for many years a United Nations decree banning the export of uranium was ignored by the South African government in order to capitalize on the world's fourth-largest resource of the mineral. The predominantly black and Coloured miners in Namibia have been forced to work under atrocious conditions with no knowledge about radiation whatsoever.

1. Defying the United Nations

The Namib Desert, stretching for eight hundred miles along Africa's Atlantic coast, is home to the Rossing Mine, one of the largest opencast uranium mining operations in the world.

In 1968, the multinational London-based corporation Rio Tint Zinc (RTZ) obtained the rights to develop the area from the South African government, bringing the Rossing Mine under its jurisdiction. Preparations for mining began two years later in 1970 when companies such as the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Kansai Electric Power Co. signed long-term contracts for the purchase of uranium.

However, in 1974 the United Nations issued a decree banning the mining, refining, and export of uranium from Namibia, in an effort to forestall a plundering of its natural resources. The Decree No.1 for the Protection of the Natural Resources of Namibia invalidated all mining rights granted by South Africa, as well as viewing all exported raw materials as stolen goods for which a post-independence Namibia would be entitled to seek compensation.

Despite these explicit instructions from the U.N., mining began in March 1976. RTZ has taken a great deal of care to devise an export route making it possible to ship uranium despite international criticism. The route the product takes to Japan has been traced by African affairs expert Kitazawa Yoko.

A subsidiary company formed by RTZ in Switzerland is responsible for the sale of the uranium. RTZ sends the intermediate product, uranium oxide (yellowcake), to the British Nuclear Fuels processing plant, where it is converted into uranium hexafluoride. This is then used in the uranium enrichment process in the United States whereby the proportion of uranium-235 in the fuel is increased. Before being exported to Japan, it is mixed with uranium from Australia and Canada along the way, so by the time it arrives at its final destination, the country of origin is unclear.

Uranium mined in Namibia is supplied to seven of Japan's nine nuclear power companies, which, in deference to the U.N. decree, have vowed not to renew their contracts after they expire. However, the uranium they have already purchased under the terms of their previous contracts continues to be transported to Japan to drive the turbines of nuclear power stations.

The Rossing Branch of the Mine Workers Union of Namibia (MUN) has demanded wage increases and improved working conditions on a number of occasions, but when it comes to the issue of uranium export, the union's position is a little more complex. "Ethically it's probably not correct, but there are 2,200 workers here who rely on the mines to keep their families alive, and there are no other industries nearby of a comparable size," was the comment of Winston Gruenewald, president of the union.