Depleted Uranium's Legacy
In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the UK Atomic Energy Authority produced a report estimating that 50 tons of dust from depleted uranium (DU) shells left behind in the Iraqi soil could cause up to 500,000 extra cancer deaths in the region over a l0-year period. At least 300 tons of DU-tipped shells (and possibly much more) were used against Iraqi tanks.
In 1997, a British Ministry of Defense paper—recently leaked to the press—warned that "inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance—if any" and noted that "uranium dust inhalation... has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers."
These warnings are seriously at variance with claims from Washington, London and NATO that there is no proven link between DU and leukemia or other illnesses. For citizens` organizations and military personnel who have fallen sick since serving in the Gulf or Kosovo, the no-proven-link argument deliberately avoids the issue. NATO members Italy, Germany and Greece all have pushed for a moratorium on the use of DU, but they have been overruled by the US and Britain.
Storage of DU—a byproduct of the nuclear fuel and reprocessing industries—is a growing problem. One British site alone has 20,000 tons of DU. Recycling DU into ammunition is a perfect solution for the military-industrial complex.
In the meantime, some companies can't wait. After an employee tipped off a national newspaper, British Nuclear Fuels admitted it was dumping 30,000 bags of nuclear waste containing DU on a municipal waste heap near Lancashire in northwest England. This is alleged to pose a long-term risk, because when uranium decays it breaks down into radon gas—a well-known cause of lung cancer.
The risk of leukemia from depleted uranium ammunition may be 100 times greater than official estimates. Research by low-level radiation specialist Chris Busby has shown that leukemia deaths after the Chernobyl disaster were 100 times greater than predicted. The reason (which would apply equally in Iraq) is that forecasts have been based on short-term exposure to intense blasts of radioactive rays rather than on exposure to the long-lived radioactive particles created when uranium shells explode and shatter. The European Parliament's Green Group has called for a total ban on DU weapons.
In January, the British military resumed test firing of DU shells at the Dundrennan firing range near Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Since 1982, more than 7,000 shells have been fired at the range. The shells are meant to land in the sea, but attempts to retrieve are not always successful and 28 tons of DU shells have gone missing. An independent nuclear consultant called this "a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually it will end up in the food chain. What they have done is outrageous and irresponsible." Environmentalists fear that the shells could break up and be washed ashore after a storm, posing a hazard for children playing on beaches.
Furthermore, up to 24 shells have misfired and hit the ground, generating clouds of DU dust. In most cases these "malfunctioning penetrators" buried themselves in the ground and have not been recovered.
Excerpted from Cornerstones, the newsletter of the Research Office of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation [Box 15072, S-10465 Stockholm, Sweden].
© Earth Island Journal,Winter 2001-2002
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