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Depleted Uranium? Depleted Minds!

The question of whether or not dropping radioactive bombs on people is dangerous is exercising the top minds in the bourgeois media

The recent and still ongoing debate about the effects of depleted uranium adds a whole new dimension to the time-honoured quote that truth is the first casualty of war. Recent evidence would suggest that dishonesty is not only a midwife to war, but very much its bastard offspring.

Depleted uranium (or U238) is what is left of natural or pure uranium after the isotope U235 has been removed for use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants. It contains up to 60 percent of the radioactivity found in its pure form and, because it is more concentrated, it is potentially more lethal.

A heavy and dense silvery metal, U238 is also highly incendiary which makes it an ideal core material in anti-tank projectiles and bunker-busting Tomahawk missiles (each one of these contains 3kg of DU). Upon impact, the core of the DU projectile ignites and oxidises at such high temperatures that it becomes glass or ceramic micro and nano particles, containing lethal alpha, beta and gamma rays. The ensuing conflagration other than burning to a cinder the inhabitants, smothers the target tank or bunker with a fine radioactive dust, contaminating a surrounding area for up to 50 metres of the impact sight with lesser contamination detectable many kilometres away. The extent to which British, European and American soldier's health has been effected as a result of such contamination forms the basis of the debate.

The British and US governments, NATO and the medical experts they have hired to fight their corner insist there are no medical side-effects to the inhalation of DU dust particles. Just as John Speller the Armed Forces Minister, could claim in December of last year that "we are unaware of anything that shows depleted uranium has caused any ill health or death of people who served in Kosovo or Bosnia," so too could NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, in a 10th January damage limitation press conference nonchalantly argue there was "no link of any kind" between depleted uranium and leukaemia, that there was "nothing to fear from this particular type of munitions", and that "we act with the interests of our troops and civilians in mind" (Independent, 11 January).

So convinced were NATO of the rightness of its cause and its preparedness to continue using DU munitions, that their staff distributed dossiers of scientific evidence stifling claims that DU was harmful and even called upon the services of two Pentagon medical experts to refute the claim that DU was harmful.

The broadsheet press, however, wasted no time in revealing an army report entitled The Use and Hazards of DU Munitions, dated 8 March 1997 which stated that "All personnel . . . should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long term risk to health." This same MOD report warned that exposure to depleted uranium, as used in British and US tank shells, increased eight-fold the risk of lung, lymph and brain cancers.

At the same time it was revealed that the government's own nuclear safety advisers at the Atomic Energy Agency had warned 10 years ago that depleted uranium shells fired during the Gulf War would pose a health risk. The 1991 AEA report says:

"Handling heavy metal munitions does pose some potential hazards as does the spread of radioactivity and toxic contamination as a result of firing in battle . . . and can become a long-term problem . . . and pose a risk to both the military and civilian population" (Times, 15 January).

All of which cuts no ice with Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon who still maintained days after the revelation of the MoD report that "there is no scientific evidence to support that the use of radioactive material caused illness, including leukaemia . . . here are no risks associated with depleted uranium and certainly no proven link between its use and illness " (Times, 15 January). If this was the case then why the MoD warning? What scientific evidence were they working from?

One wonders whether those defending the government and manufacturers of DU munitions are aware of the related facts. That of the 53,000 servicemen/women who were stationed in the Gulf, 5,000 are recorded as suffering illnesses including leukaemia and that there have since been 521 deaths.

Are they aware that British and US tank ammunition alone during the Gulf War contained 55,000 lbs of depleted uranium? That 300,000 rounds of depleted uranium rounds were fired during the Gulf War, or that levels of irradiated particles in the air above Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are 20 times higher than over Baghdad?

Researcher Dr Chris Busby found that urine samples taken from Gulf War vets showed that mass spectrometry tests revealed soldiers inhaling dust received doses of up to 778 millisieverts, not the 20-30 claimed by the MoD and suggested as being "of no cause for concern".

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, revealed that DU particles stayed in the lungs for 10-20 years and that 10,500 of Britain's Gulf War personnel could develop fatal cancers. He further warned that thousands of people living near the firing ranges in Britain and the factories producing the DU munitions were likewise at risk of contamination.

The present government position is that there is no case for an enquiry because they refuse to acknowledge any evidence of a significant risk to personnel. The Health and Safety Executive are supposedly monitoring of ranges in Britain, but as their findings are of ringing no alarm bells their level of monitoring can be seriously questioned.

The most the 19 NATO ambassadors will agree to is a working party to coordinate information on DU shells. Reluctant to conduct their own enquiry, they have passed the task over to the UN who they believe are better equipped to deal with the matter, not least because the UN is largely controlled by the US. However, better late than never, they have since demanded that 11 of the 112 sites NATO have pointed them at be cordoned off.

The underlying factor of course is costs. A clean-up operation in Bosnia and the Gulf would, it is estimated, run into $trillions, not to mention the cost in compensation to the military and civilian population involved.

Moreover, the DU shells are a relatively cheap and highly effective method of murder, bearing in mind the core material is a waste product, and indeed manufactured by an industry that governments do not wish to take contracts from; they exist as powerful lobbies. And which government would ever come clean and admit to error? That so much of the evidence emerging pertains to the Gulf War, when the Conservative Party were in power, helps explain why they, the Tories, have not sought to make political capital out of the issue, and hasn't Tony Blair an election on the horizon?

So we can expect the issue to be no nearer a propitious outcome in the coming months than we can expect the causes of war itself to be abolished. The lies and disinformation will counter every new revelation proving the detrimental effects of DU. For the defenders of capitalism, there is too much at stake for them to concede just one inch that maybe, just maybe, their critics are right. When it comes to counting the casualties of war, we must still be prepared to list truth right up there with them.

JOHN BISSETT