Depleted Uranium? Depleted Minds!

The recent and indeed 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 further contains up to 60 per cent 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 pyrophoric 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 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 servicemen’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, 11/1/01).

So convinced was Nato of the rightness of its cause and its preparedness to continue using DU munitions, 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 8th 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.

It was at the same time revealed that the government’s own nuclear safety advisers at the Atomic Energy Agency 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, 15/1/01).

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…there are no risks associated with depleted uranium and certainly no proven link between its use and illness.’ (Times, ibid). If this was the case then why the Mo D 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 inquiry because they refuse to acknowledge any evidence of a significant risk to personnel. The Health and Safety Executive are supposedly monitoring 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 inquiry, 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, to their credit, 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.


David Blunkett

Britain, under Home Secretary David Blunkett, is increasingly coming to resemble something from a Kafkaesque novel, where ordinary people can be arrested in the dead of nigh and locked up without trial and without being told the charges that have led to their imprisonment. Internment – trial and imprisonment without jury is Blunkett’s latest piece of legislation and awaits any ‘foreigner’ mildly suspected of links to a terrorist organisations.

Those lucky enough to be locked up, according to Blunkett’s plans, would be permitted an appeal to a special immigration tribunal, but would be denied access to the information that allegedly lead to their arrest. Moreover, the suspected terrorist could remain in prison indefinitely, subject only to six monthly reviews.

This new chunk of legislation, based on the threat Britain supposedly faces since September 11th – is a technical twist to allow Britain to opt out of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which presently bands detention without trial.

Internment, however, is not new. During the Gulf War, 100 Iraqis and Palestinians were detained without trial in the UK – not one being charged or deported. Amongst them was the writer Abbas Shiblak, who had been an outspoken opponent of Saddam in the days when Britain was arming Iraq to the teeth.

It was more memorably reintroduced into Northern Ireland in 1971 by a Heath Government determined to smash the IRA. By March the following year 924 were interned – 98% of them released without charge. The mass and indiscriminate arrests of Catholics (only) led to widespread rioting and protests and 23 deaths. Indeed, more people were killed in the following week than had been killed in the previous six months. On one night alone, 3000 British troops descended on Catholic areas and arrested hundreds of men. Rather than crush the IRA, the manure swelled their ranks, with many seeing the IRA as legitimate defenders of their communities..

We can only ever be wary of such legislation – not welcome it with open arms. It has little to do with terrorism and far more to do with the state placing itself in a better position from which it can place more control over our lives.


ROGUE STATES: The Rule of Force in World Affairs (book review

This from the previous year:

ROGUE STATES: The Rule of Force in World Affairs
By Noam Chomsky
2000, Pluto Press

Over the years, Noam Chomsky has been described in various ways: as ‘the medic trying to cure a national endemic of selective amnesia’; as ‘the most dangerous man in the US’; as ‘the little boy who told the emperor he was naked’ and, more recently by the New York Times, as ‘an exploder of received truths.’ In his latest book, Rogue States, we find Chomsky very much living up to this time-honoured reputation.

It is often aid that if you’ve read one Chomsky book, you’ve read them all, which is perhaps true in so far as Chomsky is a relentless critic of US foreign and domestic policy, sinking his teeth deeper into the same old foe like a vengeful rottweiler with each new publication. Rogue States is no departure from the norm – it’s Chomsky doing what he does best.

Through skilful analysis of internal documents combined with historical context, a meticulous scrutiny of the activities of the US State Dept and a thorough gleaning of the quality broadsheets both sides of the pond, Chomsky again sets himself the task of gauging the US and its allies by the Standards they use as justification for the interference in the lives of others.

The Balkans, East Timor and Colombia come in for close scrutiny in separate Chapters which reveal the extent of US collusion in the ongoing misery there. In Kosovo, observes Chomsky, the US “has chosen a course of action that, as it explicitly recognises, escalates atrocities and violence…a course of action that undermines – perhaps destroys – promising democratic development”(p.47). The Clinton regime’s praise for Colombia as ‘a leading democracy’ is stringently challenged by Chomsky. Citing Colombia’s human right’s record as one of the worst in the world, Chomsky provides ample proof that the Clinton/Blair doctrine of ‘new humanism – “the historic mission of bringing justice and freedom to the suffering people of the world” (p.84) – is a total sham. Colombia, notorious for its state terror, produces 300,000 refugees and 3,000 deaths per year at the hands of its security forces, yet is presently the biggest recipient of US military aid in Latin America. The same favoured nation status is reserved for Turkey, whose security forces, in their persecution of the Kurdish people, have destroyed 3,500 villages and created 3 million refugees. Meanwhile, the US is keen to promote the redeeming qualities of mineral rich Indonesia ahead of the political fate of East Timor at the hands of the former.

Chomsky further reveals the US to be wholly contemptuous and dismissal of UN resolutions and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights it helped to bring into existence and to be severely lacking in any credible justification for its policies beyond its own borders. In this regard, Chomsky further highlights the US passion for free trade, pointing to the developing countries compelled not only to accept US cigarettes and other drugs and commodities, but also to advertise them under threat of trade sanctions.

Sanctions and indeed debt “is a very powerful weapon of control” says Chomsky, with half the world subject to US unilateral sanctions – a cruel form of economic coercion condemned repeatedly by the UN. In a chapter on the paranoiac US relationship with Cuba, Chomsky reminds us that Cuba has suffered 40 years of embargoes – the longest in history, and in spite of two thirds of the US population opposing the sanctions and in breach of WTO rules, all of which is dismissed with the defence that Cuba is a threat to US national security.

Though this can at times be a hard going book for the uninitiated, the mountains of information make it an indispensable reference work and guide to the methods the powerful use to further their own interests to the detriment of so many. It is moreover an invaluable tool for deciphering the rhetoric the powerful use to rationalise their excesses.