Use of depleted uranium gets thumbs down from military experts


Publish date: May 18, 2007

Written by: Niklas Kalvø Tessem

BRUSSELS - A conference of scientists, military technical experts and armed forces brass met in Brussels this week to speak out against the controversial use of depleted uranium in modern weaponry, and concluded that the risks to military and civilian health outweigh its tactical benefit on the battlefield.

The conference represents one of the first admissions by military experts that the use of depleted uranium in war zones poses dangers to the soldiers using it as weaponry. Many powerful military circles have defended it as having no harmful effects on soldiers and civilians exposed to it.

Lethal dust
The radiation dose contained in a standard casing of depleted uranium is about 60 percent that of natural – that is un-enriched – uranium. Still, even this small amount of radiation can lead to complications when digested by the human body. The United States and the United Kingdom are today among the few countries that actively use depleted uranium in weapons because it is an efficient and relatively inexpensive armour piercing projectile.

There are potentially several severe risks to human health connected to the use of these weapons – besides, of course, being the target of such weaponry. First, there are problems associated with safely storing weapons made with depleted uranium. There have been several incidents in the United States when cylinders containing stored uranium have leaked, releasing the toxic substance uranium hexafluoride.

The scientists speaking at the conferences identified dust released from the impact of artillery encased in depleted uranium as the most urgent threat in war zones, beyond the actually war itself. The dust can travel several kilometres and stays in the proximity of impact.

When inhaled deeply, the lungs absorb the dust and the depleted uranium may lead to very severe health problems, ranging from sleep disorders to leukaemia. Furthermore, impact sights in war zones are very slowly purged of dangerous materials in the wake of any conflict.

Children play around, and adults trade in, abandoned armoured vehicles and weapons that missed their targets. Cancer specialist Dr. Jawad Al Ali from Basra, Iraq, who spoke at the conference, claims a higher cancer rate in the region due to the widespread use of depleted uranium during the last two of the US-led wars in Iraq.

Personal experience
According to Al-Ali the problem has been especially visible in Iraq. Depleted uranium in warheads has been used in both US-led Iraq wars, and scientists believe there to be around 300 uranium contaminated areas in the war ravaged country.

Dr. Al-Ali works at a cancer hospital that treats patients who have possibly been subject to radiation from depleted uranium. He has observed a higher cancer rate for children and birth defects among newborns in comparison to other areas with radioactive damage. The Iraqi doctor now wants to raise money for research, as his government is reluctant to acknowledge the claims of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW).

Gerard Matthew, an Iraqi war veteran, also shared his personal experience as a soldier at the conference. His daughter was born with birth defects, and he himself suffers from several disorders, like headaches, kidney failure, blurred vision, low concentration, and others.

The scientists at the conference attributed these problems to exposure to depleted uranium, as German tests showed trace of contamination. The US Army also took initial tests, but now claim that the test samples are missing. Matthew is now in a court battle with US Army to claim compensation for his medical care and acknowledgement of his health difficulties.

International dispute

The debate about depleted uranium is heated, and the European Parliament panel represent one disputed position. The ICBUW consists mainly of military personnel interest groups, nuclear scientists and other scientists. Their position is that all uranium weapons should be banned world wide, and that war zones should be cleaned of un-spent weaponry as quickly as possible.

The ICBUW has wide support in some countries, such as Belgium, which passed a law banning depleted uranium on March 7th this year.

The United States, on the other hand, USA, is one of several governments that claim the amount of radioactivity in uranium weapons is too small to pose a risk to human health.

Some nuclear scientists present evidence that backs the US conclusion – but also say that the theoretical risk is too high to put soldiers in a position of using it. The Federation of the Dutch Military Union, which was present at the meeting, said that even if the human health risks are not fully scientifically proven, they did not wish to expose soldiers as long as the potential threat is detrimental.