Back in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, the UK Atomic Energy Authority produced a report estimating that if 50 tons of residual dust from depleted uranium (DU) shells was left in the Iraqi soil, it could cause up to 500,000 extra cancer deaths in the region over a 10-year period. At least 300 tons of DU-tipped shells - possibly much more - were used against Iraqi tanks.
Pentagon scientist Doug Rokke has now claimed that in 1991 he warned the allied powers that these explosives could cause cancer, mental illness and birth defects - but that they chose to cover it up. Iraq has long claimed a steep rise in birth defects and other unexplained illness since the Gulf War.
Rokke was head of the Pentagon's DU Project. Now suffering from reactive airway disease, nerve damage and kidney problems, he says: "DU is the stuff of nightmares. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short-term memory damage. In semen it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system."
Recently leaked to the press, an unpublished British government document of 1997 warned that "inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance - if any." It added: "All personnel should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long-term risk ... (the dust) 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 headquarters that there is nothing to worry about and no proven link between DU and leukaemia or other illnesses. For citizens' organizations and many other governments, as well as for military personnel who have been sick since serving in Kosovo or the Gulf, the "no proven link" argument deliberately avoids the issue. At a NATO meeting in January, Italy, Germany and Greece all pushed for a moratorium on DU, but they were overruled.
DU continues to be produced in large quantities because it is the residual substance from making fuel for nuclear reactors and from reprocessing spent fuel. For nuclear states, storage of this waste is an increasing problem - Britain alone has 20,000 tons of it - so any opportunity to recycle is welcome.
Apart from its re-use in ammunition, which is a perfect solution for the military-industrial complex, both the United States and Britain are planning to allow low levels in the manufacture of consumer goods. In this way they will be able to get rid of it - without the need for warning labels for consumers - and better yet, get paid for it.
In the meantime, some nuclear companies cannot 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 tip near urban areas of Lancashire.
Chris Busby, a specialist in low-level radiation has been invited to brief the European Parliament on his findings that the risk of leukaemia from depleted uranium ammunition may be 100 times greater than official estimates. His research has shown that actual leukaemia deaths after the Chernobyl disaster were much greater than those predicted by Britain's National Radiological Protection Board.
The reason, which would apply equally in Iraq since the Gulf War, is that forecasts have been based on radioactive rays rather than the radioactive particles created when a uranium shell explodes and shatters. The European Parliament's Green Group has called for an investigation and a total ban on DU weapons.
Only a month after the public furore over DU in January, the British military resumed test-firing of DU shells in Scotland. Since 1982, more than 7,000 shells have been fired at the range. They are meant to land in the sea, but attempts to retrieve them afterwards have failed, so 28 tons have gone missing. An independent nuclear consultant called this "a disaster waiting to happen: Sooner or later it will end up in the food chain."
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.
Third World Network Features