Al Pope, June 25, 2007
Depleted Uranium: slow motion mass destruction
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Nuclear power plants have always faced the question of what to do with the leftovers, a toxic residue that remains lethal for tens of thousands of years. The plants tend to be close to the large population centres they serve, and the stuff must be held there or transported through high density urban areas to be isolated in someone else’s backyard at great cost and risk. Fortunately, through the wonders of science, there’s now a new use for much of our nuclear waste. It gets made into weaponry.
Depleted uranium is what’s leftover when you make enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors. As the name suggests, it’s uranium that’s lost some of its oomph. If you happen to be exposed to it, you don’t go straight home and die. Beyond that, there is some dispute about its health implications. Scientific studies have shown that the stuff can cause mutations in DNA, a fairly good sign that it could be connected to the outbreaks of cancer that follow modern war, but the Pentagon insists its own studies show DU to be harmless. Curiously, a fact sheet for American soldiers declares it to be “one of many potentially hazardous substances that soldiers may be exposed to during deployment and combat operations”.
The fact sheet also says that "DU's high density, self-sharpening qualities and the fact that it is easily combustible make its projectiles capable of readily penetrating armour”. In fact it’s used both for armour and for armour-piercing bullets. The bullets hit walls and tear right through, turning into balls of fire. Anyone in their path suffers a horrible death. Australian journalist John Pilger saw the bodies of children burned to death by DU bullets in Iraq during the Gulf War. He wrote that their "skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead.”
In addition to the horrors they inflict on anyone in their direct path, DU bullets kick up a lot of dust, and that dust is filled with uranium oxide. After the war has passed and the battlefield is just a city, or a village, or a farm again, children play in the dust, men and women work in it, everybody breaths it in. A report in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1998 found that since the Gulf War, 500 children a day were dying in Iraq as a result of cancer and birth defects. Some of the birth defects were virtually unknown – headless children, children with their intestines on the outside.
Today, Canada is the world’s largest producer of Uranium. Canadian policy is that we do not sell uranium to be used in the manufacture of bombs. It’s about like our policy on the War on Terror. We refused to be part of the Iraq fiasco, but provide Canadian troops to serve in Afghanistan, freeing up American troops to serve in Iraq. By the same token, ‘civilian use only’ Canadian uranium frees up American uranium for making bombs. As for D.U., it’s considered a waste product, and its use falls under a far less stringent protocol. In short, Canada is supplying the world with the means to make weapons of slow-motion mass destruction.
The Canadian military denies using DU in its armour piercing bullets in Afghanistan, and perhaps it speaks the truth. But there is no denying the tonnes of the stuff raining on that country in the form of bombs and missiles from coalition air strikes. And you can be sure the army recognizes the danger to its own; Canadian troops in Afghanistan wear radiation meters, which the military laughably asserts is in case they happen to run into an abandoned Russian jeep with a radium speedometer.
In 1996 and 97, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed three resolutions that concern DU. In one they list “nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium” as threats to “international peace and security”. In other words, DU is a weapon of mass destruction. It’s use is a crime.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are on the rise. Even Hamid Karzai, whose repressive gangster regime we’re fighting to uphold, has demanded that NATO forces make a better effort to reduce civilian deaths. Most of these deaths are the result of air strikes, and most of those air strikes involve DU weapons. How long will Afghan civilians continue to die as a result of that toxic dust? Ten, twenty, a hundred years?
No one knows. And when history judges Canada’s role in Afghanistan, that may be our biggest crime of all.