By Alok O’Brien
In recent years I have become aware of the issue of depleted uranium (DU) and its use by the US Military in Iraq in 1991 and again in the current Iraq war. The photos of birth deformities and stories of suffering resulting from DU shocked me, reminding me of the Agent Orange victims of America’s Vietnam War. Then I watched David Bradbury and Peter Scott’s new film, Blowin’ in the Wind. Its content shocked and appalled me, and spurred me into researching and writing this article. It is undoubtedly by far the most significant issue on the planet today, and yet the mainstream media stay quiet.
Depleted uranium (DU) is what is left after raw uranium has been enriched to the highly radioactive isotope U-235 used for weapons and power generation. For every ton of U-235 produced, there are seven tons of DU. Estimates vary, but it seems that currently the US alone has in excess of five million tons of stockpiles of DU. This has no commercial use beyond its function as a radiation shield in medical devices, and for adding to concrete to form radiation-containing bunkers. However, this requires an insignificant amount of the DU produced each year. The half-life of DU is 4.5 billion years. So storing it safely and indefinitely is cost prohibitive. To remedy the situation, the US Department of Energy has made it freely available to the Pentagon and US armaments and armour manufacturers, and it has been used in weapons exported to 29 countries. It is simply cheaper to make it into weapons than store it.
It is widely accepted that DU itself is fairly stable, as the dangerous alpha particles which it emits cannot pass through more than a couple of centimetres of air. The problems arise when DU is in contact with water or is used in weaponry and explodes. (See the photo above — the sparks are DU that is on fire and exploding.) It then creates a vapourised, radioactive gas composed of tiny nanoparticles. The microscopic particles in this vapour are then littered, depending upon prevailing winds, up to 100km around (estimates on this vary – with some sources citing up to 1000km), where they fall on crops, water, or just on the ground to be picked up by the next gust of wind or by car tyres. Later, when this enters the atmosphere, it can spread worldwide. The nanoparticles of DU enter the body, from the air, from landing on clothing or skin and from food or water. These nanoparticles penetrate all protective clothing and masks, and once they come in contact with the body, they immediately disperse and begin to alter DNA. As they are not soluble, they cannot be excreted from the body. Uranium is a toxic chemical element, just like lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium.
According to the declassified Groves memo from the Manhattan Project in 1943, the properties of DU in weapons have been known and strategised with for 60 years. It is clear that the US has known for 60 years about the effects of DU on the battlefield; also the danger to its own soldiers.
Gulf War Syndrome
Over the past 18 months there has been an erupting scandal in the US in the Department of Veterans Affairs as DU is blamed by more and more respected scientists for Gulf War Syndrome (and also, Balkans War Syndrome).
Of the 580,000 US soldiers that served in Iraq in 1991, by mid 2004 518,739 were on medical disability pensions. This figure is 150,000 higher than just one year earlier. There are no more recent statistics, but it would appear that by now the percentages of soldiers affected would be reaching 100%.
According to Leuren Moret, in a group of 251 soldiers from a study group in Mississippi who had all had normal babies before the first Gulf War, 67% of their post-war babies were born with severe birth defects. They were born with missing legs, arms, organs or eyes or had immune system and blood diseases. In some veterans’ families now, the only normal or healthy members of the family are the children born before the war. ‘The use of depleted uranium weapons is a crime against humanity, a crime against all species, and a war against the earth’, says Moret. ‘It is imperative that we demand a permanent international moratorium on the sale and the use of depleted uranium weaponry.’
Depleted uranium: coming to a country near you
A 20-year agreement was signed last year between the United States and Australia, the specific terms of which are secret, but which allows the US military to train and test its latest weapons in Australia. This involves bombing ranges in the pristine Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton in Queensland and at Lancelin, the lobster fishing village 150km north of Perth where there would be ship-to-shore bombing from nuclear powered and capable US navy ships.
Also in the Northern Territory a ‘test’ bombing range has been designated where B52s and stealth bombers will be, as of January 06, and as you read this, dumping their payloads on their flights from Guam. The US Navy uses DU in its shelling, and the B52s will be most likely (presumably they will be testing the weapons they actually use) carrying bunker buster bombs with their 2.2 tons of DU each. Retrospective legislation was passed to remove the need for any Environmental Impact Study (EIS) before or after the duration of this agreement.
When asked in the Australian Senate about whether or not the US would be using DU in its bombing of Australian sites, Defence Minister Senator Hill said: “In relation to Depleted Uranium used by our allies we have said that, if they believe it is the most appropriate element to use in their particular munitions in certain circumstances, we do not think it is appropriate for us to press a different view upon them.” Senator Hill has since retired from Australian politics and has taken up residence as the Australian UN Ambassador in New York.
The death economy
More and more it appears that the things that are most important are simply those that generate the biggest growth in profits, in the GDP. Sickness generates business, cancer rates generate research dollars, war accelerates growth, and we wonder why peace is so elusive when we worship the economy. The following is as applicable to Australia now as it was to the US in the 1960s.
Too much and for too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over $800 billion a year.
But that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads, and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our passion nor our devotion to our country.
It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America — except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Robert Kennedy, 18/3/1968
Ultimately we do not know how much DU is being used in Shoalwater Bay, or Lancelin or dumped daily in the Northern Territory. We do know that Japan, the Philippines and Puerto Rica no longer allow the US to bomb their lands with DU, and that there is no ship-to-shore bombing allowed anymore on the US mainland. We know that there are hundreds of very vocal groups in opposition worldwide to the use of DU, who have devoted their lives to this issue.
It could be said that the US government does not particularly care about the safety of their troops or anyone else’s, and is seemingly content to poison the world for eternity, and poison themselves in the process. We know that weapons usage is classified and that such information will never be freely supplied to the Australian people, while nuclear powered and armed ships are cruising the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. In January, the largest nuclear powered and capable aircraft carrier in the world, boasting 6000 marines on board, docked in Brisbane.
If the contamination of Shoalwater Bay and Lancelin is anything like Iraq, Kosovo, or Afghanistan, then the vicinity of these places should be avoided. But it would be a mistake to think that the troubles are confined to those areas. The beef and pineapples from Rockhampton, and the seafood from Lancelin, could be contaminated and end up on your BBQ. After this article was first published a reader contacted the West Australian Government who assured them that the Federal Government had told them, in writing, that DU was not being used in WA. The Federal Government may in fact believe what it is saying, but given the photo that appeared on the US Navy’s own website, of DU shells being loaded into a ship’s gun in Shoalwater Bay (see http://www.c7f.navy.mil/ts05/photos.htm, scroll to near bottom of page), it challenges belief that they would not be using DU in WA. After all, according to the Defense Department, DU is perfectly safe. They test weapons that they use, and they certainly use DU weapons.
Why is DU so useful as a weapon?
Depleted uranium is very hard, the hardest and densest of metals, and so is used for armour-piercing rounds, fired from tanks, ships, aircraft and by snipers, and for the bunker-buster bombs made famous in the 2003 attack on Baghdad. It is also in the Tomahawk Cruise missiles fired from ships. Being so hard, it is also used extensively in the armour plating of tanks and armoured cars.
DU is a pyroforic metal, meaning it burns. The bullets and large calibre shells are actually on fire when they come out of the gun barrel because they are ignited by the friction in the barrel and explode on contact — armour piercing incendiary ammunition. Most of the DU metal becomes a metal vapour. So it is really a radioactive gas weapon once the initial destruction has occurred. DU weaponry is a nuclear weapon. No question.
However, the military use of DU violates current international law including the principle that there is no unlimited right to choose the means and methods of warfare.
When speaking of the quantities of DU used in various wars it is worth understanding that the amount of uranium used in the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was approximately 13kg, about the size of a two-litre milk container. A Japanese professor, Dr. K. Yagasaki, has calculated that, in terms of the atomicity (the amount of radiation produced), a ton of DU used on the battlefield releases the equivalent of 100 Hiroshima bombs’ worth of radiation released into the atmosphere. Thus when experts refer to the 2000 tons of DU dropped on Iraq in the past three years, what is being released in the Iraqi atmosphere, and then spreading worldwide, is the equivalent of 200,000 Hiroshima bombs. The total amount of DU the US has used since 1991 is approximately 4600 tons (1000 in the first Gulf War, 800 in Kosovo, 800 in Afghanistan and a further 2000 tons in the current Iraq war). This amounts to approximately 460,000 Hiroshima bombs, ten times the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere from all previous nuclear testing worldwide.
According to Leuren Moret, it is simply no longer possible to go to Afghanistan or the Middle East without being contaminated. How long before that is also true of Australia?
There are questions that need to be asked by everyone related to the integrity of our political leadership.
Does our government have our best interests in mind…
- when they sign up for bombardments on Australian soil and in Australian waters by DU tipped weaponry?
- when they refuse to stipulate that no nuclear weapons are to be used on our shores, and will they guarantee that our children will not grow up breathing in DU nanoparticles?
- when they sign up for Son of Star Wars, which will cost in excess of $50 billion? (To protect us from what? Who?)
Does our government have our best interests in mind when they decide to sequester large tracts of land in the Northern Territory for eternity for a nuclear dump, so the US and UK can dump their ‘spent’ nuclear fuel and we can export more uranium?
Do they have our best interests at heart when they sign up for a de facto [unshielded] nuclear dump under the guise of a joint bombing facility in the Northern Territory?
Who is running the agenda that says that all of a sudden it is OK to talk about new nuclear power stations as if nuclear power is an answer to global warming? David Goodstein, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) said on ABC’s Lateline in October, 2004, that if nuclear power were to provide all of the energy that fossil fuel currently provides, there would be enough uranium for just 10 years!
Westinghouse and GE build most of the nuclear power stations in the world, and also happen to own significant stakes in most major media companies in the US, which is largely why no real discussion will arise from the US on this issue. Nuclear power becomes unviable if the cost of disposing of the DU is factored in, which is why it is given to the Pentagon. Now Australia wants to expand the number and size of its uranium mines to sell to India and China. (Who knows how they will dispose of their DU!)
Together we need to do something. Research the internet, find out for yourself what the DU debate is about. Do the research before you speak to anyone so you know what you are talking about, as you will find that most people will not want to believe that this is happening. The list of websites supplied at the end of this article is by no means definitive, but is a good place to start. Get in touch with any of the many groups that have mobilised over this issue all over the world. Start your own group. Do not let the size of the opposition and the scale of the ignorance and unwillingness to know the truth that you will be confronted with, convince you that you are helpless and cannot do anything about DU. This is what they depend on.
Contact your local politician, and do not accept anything that smells like a brush-off. This may well be the most important thing you ever do.
Buy a copy and arrange a showing of the film Blowin’ in the Wind at your local cinema, and get your local community radio station to broadcast talks, interviews and lectures like those available on www.alternativeradio.org or www.traprockpeace.org and many other websites.
If you live or holiday near the affected areas, make lots of noise with the local councillors and media. Be disobedient. Be seditious. Get the use of DU weaponry stopped. It is nuclear weaponry.
Find out who provides the Public Liability insurance for the army, and does that insurer know the risks associated with DU? Perhaps the way to stop this is through the public liability requirements that the Australian population is tied up with. Any insurance lawyers out there?
This is our home that is being poisoned. It is our country. Demand that it is respected and protected for our children and their children. History will not forgive us if we stand by idly.
This article was first published in Kindred (formerly known as byronchild magazine, issue 17), the magazine for sustainable family living. For more information see www.kindredmagazine.com.au
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