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<nettime> (fwd) New Scientist on depleted uranium


<http://www.newscientist.com/ns/19990605/newsstory6.html>

     Too hot to handle
     Rob Edwards
                                      
   IN 1991 Doug Rokke went to the Middle East as a US army health
   physicist to clean up uranium left by the Gulf War. He helped
   decontaminate 23 armoured vehicles hit by shells in "friendly fire"
   incidents.
   Today he has difficulty breathing. His lungs are scarred and he has
   skin problems and kidney damage. Rokke, a major in the US Army
   Reserve's Medical Service Corps, has no doubt what made him
   ill--contact with radioactive metal.Three years after he worked in the
   Gulf, the US Department of Energy tested his urine. They found that
   the level of uranium in his sample was over 4000 times higher than the
   US safety limit of 0.1 micrograms per litre.
   Now aged 50 and an environmental scientist at Jacksonville State
   University in Alabama, Rokke is campaigning to stop the US firing
   uranium weapons in the Balkans. "It is a war crime to use uranium
   munitions when men, women and children are exposed to them without any
   medical screening or care," he says. "It is totally, totally wrong."
   Depleted uranium, or DU, is a radioactive heavy metal. It is the waste
   left over when the isotope uranium-235 is extracted from
   naturally-occurring uranium to fuel nuclear power stations and build
   nuclear bombs. DU typically consists of 99.7 per cent uranium-238.
   As a by-product of the nuclear industry, DU is cheap and plentiful.
   And DU shells are a very effective weapon against tanks and armoured
   cars. They can pierce several inches of armour-plated steel thanks to
   DU's extremely high density. They're better at penetrating armour than
   traditional anti-tank weapons made of tungsten.
   DU was used for the first time in battle during the 1991 Gulf conflict
   with Iraq. The US Department of Defense says that US planes and tanks
   fired 860 000 rounds of ammunition containing 290 tonnes of DU.
   British tanks fired 100 rounds containing less than 1 tonne of DU,
   according to the Ministry of Defence.
   Gulf veterans such as Rokke believe exposure to this DU is one of the
   causes of Gulf War Syndrome, the unexplained illness or group of
   illnesses that has afflicted thousands of soldiers since the war.
   Iraqi scientists also claim that DU was responsible for a rise in the
   numbers of cancers and birth defects in southern Iraq. But both the US
   and British governments dispute this. They say there is no evidence
   that DU has damaged the health of military personnel.
   But the row is erupting again with the US admission it is using DU
   weapons in the two-month-old war against Serbia. In a press briefing
   in Washington DC on 3 May, Major General Charles Wald, vice-director
   for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff,
   confirmed that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against
   Serbian forces. The US Joint Chiefs' spokesman, James Brooks, told New
   Scientist that AV-8 Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans
   also carried DU munitions. The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook,
   has said that no DU is "in use" by British forces. But there are more
   than 20 British Challenger tanks, which fired DU ammunition in the
   Gulf conflict, stationed in Macedonia ready for action if ground
   troops move into Kosovo--a move supported by Britain as the
   limitations of an air offensive become apparent.
   NATO says that DU has been used against Serbian forces since the
   second week of May. "It has not been used extensively," says a NATO
   spokesman. "It has never been proved that the use of DU endangers the
   health of people. It is no more dangerous than mercury."
   Neither NATO nor the US will say how just much DU has been fired in
   the Balkans. But there are 40 A10s and 6 Harriers in action, capable
   of unleashing a lot of uranium. A10s, for example, are armed with a
   30-millimetre Gatling gun that can fire 3900 shells a minute, one in
   five of which contains 300 grams of DU. This means that each A10 could
   release 234 kilograms of DU a minute. If US and British tanks take
   part in a ground offensive, observers say more DU is likely to be
   fired.
   As well as its ability to pierce armour plating, DU has the
   unfortunate tendency to ignite on impact, creating clouds of uranium
   oxide dust--facilitating its spread in the environment and increasing
   the danger posed by the alpha radiation it emits. Mike Thorne, a
   uranium expert from AEA Technology at Harwell in Oxfordshire, formerly
   part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, points out that as an
   alpha-emitter, it poses a similar risk to plutonium if it gets inside
   the body. As such, even the tiniest amounts could cause cell damage
   that marginally increases the risk of cancer. DU also emits dangerous
   beta radiation. Its main component, uranium-238, has a half-life of
   4.46 billion years. Thorne argues that it could in theory contribute
   to Gulf War Syndrome: "In view of its poorly defined biochemical
   effects, DU could be a contributory factor," he says.
   Chemically, DU poses a great threat to the kidneys, where high
   concentrations can lead to organ failure. But according to Thorne,
   even small amounts could have subtle but ill-understood effects. That
   is why a major study by the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1989
   recommended reducing the safety limit for uranium in kidneys from 3
   micrograms per gram to 0.3 micrograms per gram.
   There is evidence that civilian authorities take the threat from DU
   very seriously. In the aftermath of the Gulf conflict, the UK Atomic
   Energy Authority came up with some frightening estimates for the
   potential effects of the DU contamination left by the conflict. It
   calculated that if 23 tonnes of DU were inhaled--8 per cent of the
   amount actually fired in the Gulf--this could cause "500 000 potential
   deaths". This was "a theoretical figure", it stressed, that indicated
   "a significant problem".
   Potential deaths
   The AEA's calculation was made in a confidential memo to the
   privatised munitions company, Royal Ordnance, dated 30 April 1991. The
   memo offered to send a team to Kuwait to clear up the DU--an offer
   that was never taken up. The high number of potential deaths was
   dismissed last year as "very far from realistic" by a British defence
   minister, Lord Gilbert. "Since the rounds were fired in the desert,
   many kilometres from the nearest village, it is highly unlikely that
   the local population would have been exposed to any significant amount
   of respirable oxide," he said. The Balkans war, however, is not being
   fought in a desert but in areas where people have, or did have,
   houses.
   As a result of earlier pressure from Gulf veterans, the British
   government commissioned two reports. In April this year, Lord Gilbert
   quoted the 1993 investigation by the Defence Radiological Protection
   Service, which concluded "that there was no indication that any
   British troops had been subjected to harmful over-exposure to DU
   during the Gulf conflict".
   But the other report, published by the Ministry of Defence in March,
   did acknowledge that troops could have inhaled DU dust in the Gulf and
   that this "could theoretically lead to damage to lung tissue and
   subsequently to a raised probability of lung cancer some years later".
   The ultimate irony is that DU could poison the very land that NATO is
   trying to protect, says Rokke. "The aim of this war is to enable the
   Kosovars to return home. But unless the uranium is cleaned up, those
   that survive the Serb atrocities and the NATO aerial attacks will have
   to return to a contaminated environment where they may become ill."
   
                      From New Scientist, 5 June 1999
                                      
                 Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 1999


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