Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


Nuclear wasteland

The spread of deadly weapons has been given a boost by the Balkans war. Judith Orr talked to two campaigners on depleted uranium about the terrible consequences
Tons of DU dust were left on the battlefield in Iraq

Norma Wilson, regional development worker for CND

If the war in Yugoslavia is seen as a success for Nato then the future is very worrying indeed. There is already the push eastwards, making Russia and China very nervous. At the same time as the US was condemning India and Pakistan for acquiring nuclear weapons, it was bringing in a brand new nuclear bomb, the B61-11, the first earthquake bomb to be deployed and a weapon designed specifically for destroying underground targets.

Additionally, the US has already started to colonise space. Former Commander in Chief of US Space Command, General Joseph W Ashey, has said, 'Some people don't want to hear this... but... absolutely--we're going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space.' The US Space Command will soon be able to pinpoint targets on earth from space using infrared, radar and satellite photography. Menwith Hill spy base in Yorkshire is integral to their space based infrared system. The space based lasers will be able to destroy objects perceived as a threat to the US.

The Outer Space Treaty agreed in 1967 by 91 countries including the US and the UK says that space belongs to all humankind, should benefit everyone and should be explored peacefully to promote international cooperation and understanding. The US clearly intends to break this international treaty. The US is spending billions of dollars a year developing a global ballistic missile defence in an attempt to provide a protective umbrella against attack by other nations.

The US armed forces will control conflicts. All the information will be regulated by them. UN security and diplomatic efforts will have even less effect in global situations when the US controls all the information. In the UK we rely almost totally on US information to manage and control our weapons. Our so called independent nuclear weapons system is only usable if the US switches on its worldwide satellite guidance system.

The Cassini space probe launched by Nasa in October 1997 is carrying 72.3 pounds of plutonium. On 18 August it comes hurtling back towards earth. If there is an accident the Cassini probe could crash back into the earth's atmosphere showering plutonium, affecting 5 billion people. Plutonium is so deadly that, in theory, just one pound is enough to give everyone on earth a lethal dose.

I've spoken at meetings recently about the dangers of depleted uranium (DU) weapons. DU is the waste product of the uranium enrichment process used in making atomic bombs and nuclear fuel. After 50 years of making nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel there is about a billion pounds of radioactive uranium waste which they do not know how to store and which would cost billions of dollars to clean up. It has been estimated that one site alone in Indiana which has 152,000 pounds of waste would cost between $4 and $5 billion to clear up.

So the nuclear industry has been looking for alternative ways of disposing of the waste. Because DU is 1.7 times as dense as lead, certain civilian uses have been found, for example as counterweight balances in ships and aircraft.

The military use of DU has been much more significant. Cruise missiles have DU coated tips, but its main use has been as an anti-tank shell or bullet. Militarily it is extraordinarily efficient. A bullet is about the size of a Large cigar and weighs about eight pounds. It can travel with high velocity and accuracy. The use of DU weaponry in the Gulf in 1991 was discovered because of friendly fire incidents when allied tanks mistakenly fired uranium projectiles at other allied tanks. DU bullets killed 35 US soldiers and wounded a further 72.

The low flying A10 Warthog bombers fire 4,200 DU shells per minute. The bullets explode on impact and DU particles are blown into the surrounding air. It is estimated that there is around 630,000 pounds of DU waste in Iraq. Soil samples show radiation levels of over 17 times the permitted level, and there is evidence that it has begun to seep into the water table.

The medical effects of DU are horrifying. It has been estimated that a single uranium oxide particle of smaller than 5 microns in diameter (a micron is a millionth of a metre) in the lung can expose the surrounding lung to 8,000 times the annual radiation dosage permitted for whole body exposure. Particles not trapped in the respiratory system may be ingested and find their way into the kidneys and reproductive organs. Some experts consider this is a greater risk than radiation.

Gulf War veterans who have tested positive to radiation are suffering from cancer, damage to immune systems and to the kidney and liver, and their offspring have been born with congenital birth defects. In Iraq we have seen a phenomenal increase in childhood cancers and leukaemias, an increase in late term miscarriages, an increase in premature births and a whole range of birth defects--babies being born without heads, with cleft palates, with deformed limbs and with no genitalia.

Like many other toxins DU disproportionately affects poor and black people. Fifty percent of those on the front lines of the Gulf War were black and DU assembly and testing facilities in the US are mostly located in or near poor communities.

It was with disbelief that we learned that DU weapons are being deployed in the Balkans. The effects of their use in Bosnia in 1995 has yet to be documented. Their current use in the Balkans poses a threat to neighbouring countries like Austria, Italy, Greece and Hungary, since uranium oxide can be propelled by the wind.

The powers that be--the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the National Radiological Protection Board--tell us that since DU is not a high level radioactive material we need not worry. Why then did the MoD cover up their own research into the connection between DU and Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) and then raid the houses of two Gulf War veterans in order to retrieve papers showing they were engaged in research? The results of this research are not available to the veterans as they are classified as officially secret. Why has the case against one of the veterans recently been dropped--supposedly in the public interest? Why have doctors doing research into GWS and DU had their tests and files stolen and been sacked? Professor Asaf Durakovic, who is a world authority on radiation and who had been testing US veterans, had put up with six years of tests and files going missing. He wrote to President Clinton in February 1997 to say that there was a conspiracy against US veterans. Two months later he was sacked from his post at the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the Veterans Admin Authority in Delaware. He had held the post for eight years. Could it be that DU is as deadly as we and others say it is?

Margaret Ryle, retired biologist

I focused on DU after reading an article in the Guardian about what's happened in Iraq since the Gulf War and the continued bombing there. I started in the two university libraries in Sheffield with some notes I'd made at the time of Chernobyl, when I prepared a lecture on the biological effects of radiation. So I went back to the notes and checked some of the references, and I was horrified to see what the long term effects of using DU might be. I therefore drafted a letter primarily addressed to Tony Blair, and a brief information sheet setting out the properties of DU as I understood them and what I foresaw as the possible long term consequences. I also sent copies to a wide variety of other people who I thought might have some leverage. That's the way it started. Later I did another circular letter to trade union general secretaries, university vice-chancellors, various church leaders and people in the House of Lords. My aim was then to inform people who might influence the government.

The reaction I got from the government, after about three months, came from the MoD, which sent me a letter stressing that DU wasn't very harmful, and I suppose in effect saying that I really should shut up. They also sent me three reports, one from the US and two from the British MoD. I read through these extremely carefully and was able to compose a letter quoting from their own reports to show that in fact it wasn't harmless.

Broadly speaking what I'm trying to do, together with many others, is to alert people and ask them to call for a ban on the use of DU. The main component of DU is one of the isotopes of the metal uranium that is extracted from ores from various parts of the world. Uranium has three isotopes, that is three types of atoms, all of which behave similarly chemically but differ slightly in the structure of the nuclei. One isotope is required by the nuclear weapons and nuclear energy industries. The one in DU is a waste product of these industries.

The type of radioactivity in DU principally consists of alpha-particles, which in atomic terms are quite large. If you shot a pebble from a child's catapult and shot it through air it would go quite a long way--if you shot it through treacle it wouldn't. As far as these alpha particles are concerned, air is like treacle--that is, a few centimetres of air will halt them. They won't pass through a sheet of paper. They won't even pass through the thin layer of dead cells on the surface of our skin. That's to say the radioactivity, the main part of the radioactivity from DU, won't get at you from outside. But if it gets inside you and nestles straight up against living cells the alpha-particles can be very harmful indeed. Official statements have not generally brought this point out, so they say it's relatively harmless. In some cases it is, in others it's not.

When DU catches fire and burns, which it does when ammunition containing it hits a target, it produces a smog of very fine uranium oxide particles which can be breathed in, and this is where the damage starts. Some of these particles are likely to stick to the inside of your lungs and some of those will stay there for a long time. So because they are shooting out alpha-particles and these are being stopped by the living cells they increase the risk of lung cancer. Also DU lying around on the ground will weather and form soluble compounds which can get into the water supply and the soil, and then into the food chain.

An official US army document stated in 1990, that DU admits alpha-particles and that if this happens it could lead to cancer. Yet the US and UK used DU weapons extensively in Iraq. Several hundred tons of DU dust were left on the battlefield in Iraq--a region where dust storms are common.

More recently the US used DU weapons in Kosovo. Tam Dalyell MP asked in the House of Commons what was being done to check the radiological state of the land the refugees were going back to as the matter was urgent. The reply was that it was not nearly as urgent as getting all the evicted people back to their homeland.

The effects of DU will not become visible overnight. The cancers now developing in Iraq may have been initiated several years ago. The leukaemia rate has gone up sevenfold and the incidence of gross foetal abnormalities fourfold since the beginning of the Gulf War. And although some of these may be due to other carcinogens released at that time it is probable that DU has been a major factor. So we won't see the full effects in Kosovo and Serbia for some time.

Presumably in the end the airborne DU particles will settle or be washed down in rain and will be trapped in mud and silt. Waterborne DU will be diluted in the sea and DU in the food chain will be diluted by transfer to a widening range of organisms. DU's uranium isotope will not disappear soon as a result of radioactive decay. Only half of it will have gone after 4,500 million years.

To my mind--I had just grown up when Hiroshima happened--the idea that anyone would deliberately put even a low level radioactive material into armaments is absolutely horrifying. Now there are 14 countries that have DU weapons. Anyone can buy them on the open armaments market and there is no control.

There needs to be a big campaign to demand the banning of production, storage, testing, use and sale of DU weaponry. My letter from the MoD said, 'There's no other satisfactory way of dealing with the big tank.' The combination of the weight of DU and the fact that it catches fire means that it will pierce the armour plating on the biggest tanks. So this is termed 'satisfactory'. Well, my concept of satisfactory includes a few more things!

I read the original article in December and I think I deliberately but unconsciously suppressed thinking about it because I knew once the implications hit me I would have to do something, and I'm rather old. I knew it was going to take a lot of energy and it does. Getting the information across is difficult, but if people don't know they're not going to act.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page