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Depleted Uranium: A slow, silent killer

Brig (Rtd) M Abdul hafiz

President Kostunica of Yugoslavia has characterised the use of Depleted Uraniun (DU) weapons as a crime against humanity. He wants the International War Crime Tribunal in the Hague also to look expeditiously into this matter and apportion blame. After the disaster caused by DU weapons both in the Gulf and Balkans, countries like Russia had repeatedly warned NATO about the dangers of using DU.

The trail of the devastation left by the Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons the US and other western countries deployed in the gulf war failed to stir the emotions in the offending countries let alone the question arousing the conscience of the perpetrators of the crimes. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had already fallen victim to the deadly effects of DU munitions used in profusion during the gulf war. After the war thousands of Iraqis developed the symptoms of memory loss, headaches, muscle pain, abdominal pain, dissiness and respiratory problems. The incidence of cancer has increased rapidly and at abnormal rates. Leukaemia in children is especially rampant: it has shown a fourfold rise after the gulf war. The incidence of breast cancer among the women is around four times higher than it was before 1990. Abnormal births have drastically increased since the war. Many American and British veterans of Gulf War also developed syndromes that were euphemistically called the 'gulf war syndrome'. But the DU's primary victims were the people of Iraq where some 300 tonnes of uranium from the spent munitions lay scattered across the battlefields of the Gulf War. A confidential report prepared in 1991 by United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority described the presence of DU in Iraq and Kuwait as a 'significant problem' which would cause "tens of thousands of potential deaths."

Yet the danger of DU evoked no reaction from the Western circles which kept turning it down. The Pentagon, despite mounting evidences to the contrary, continued to insist that the DU was only "very, very mildly radioactive." But there are indications that the US military establishment did have some clue about the lethal nature of DU. An US Navy instruction manual noted that the teams recovering Tomahawk missiles during the test rounds must have radiological protective gadgets. The DU munitions developed by the Pentagon during the late 70s was, in fact, a radioactive byproduct of the enrichment process used in producing atomic bomb and nuclear fuel rods. The material was provided free of cost to weapon manufacturers by nuclear arms industries. During the Gulf War the armour piercing rounds made of depleted uranium were used in a big way. The Tomahawk missiles which went into action from the very first day of operation desert storm were all tipped with DU. The US Army reported that a total of 14000 DU tank rounds were used during the course of Gulf War while another 7000 rounds were fired during the training in the sands of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon could not but be aware of the resultant concentration of the DU and its potential dangers.

The choice of DU for use in munitions manufacturing was made primarily for its effectiveness and economy. But at no stage the users could have been ignorant about its inherent danger both for the civilians and combatants. Because the US Army Armaments, Munitions and Chemical Command itself states: "When a DU penetrator impacts a target surface, a large portion of the Kinetic energy is dissipated as heat. The heat of the impact causes the DU to oxidise or burn momentarily. This results in smokes which contains a high concentration of DU particles. These uranium particles can be ingested or inhaled and are highly toxic". Even before the gulf war the armament experts in US had warned that the combat conditions with the new weaponry will lead to the uncontrolled release of DU-aerosol. They also warned that the DU exposures to soldiers on the battle field could be significant with potential "radiological and toxicological effects".

The US administration, however, did not care and tended to give clean chit to the use of DU. The scientists close to the Pentagon are at pains to prove it innocuous. The former US secretary of state Ms Madeleine Albright even administered the Europeans not to be "excessively nervous and hysterical about DU." The west woke up only after its own soldiers started dying of the complications believed to have originated from the exposure to the DU. It was only after the complaints of the European government that the eyebrows were raised in the west as to the dangers of the use of DU munitions. Last year soon after the Balkan wars the Italian soldiers started developing "mysterious illness" while seven of then already died of cancer. French and Portuguese peacekeepers in the Balkans were also diagnosed with cancer. As a result, the Norwegian soldiers refused to sign contract to go to Balkans for peacekeeping duties. A group of Belgian soldiers sued their government for the health problems caused to them by service in the Balkans. Five Belgian soldiers who served in Bosnia and Croatia died of cancer.

Bernard Kouchener, the UN administrator of Kosovo brought up the issue of the dangers that DU posed to the region. In the mid-1990s the US combat aircraft used limited amounts of DU ammunitions against former Yugoslavia. But in 1999 during the war over Kosovo NATO resorted to blanket bombing of Yugoslavia using the DU weapons despite documented evidence of extremely harmful effects of the DU piling up in the gulf region. More than 100 places only in Kosovo are littered with DU particles. Kouchener forced the NATO to urgently address the issue but it seemed worried only about the health of its soldiers stationed in the region and not the local people. Only in early January last signs were put up by the UN and NATO warning civilians also to exercise caution while approaching areas in Kosovo where DU were dropped. NATO has, of late, admitted to dropping of 12 tonnes of DU in Kosovo alone. In all an estimated 31,000 DU shells were dropped over Yugoslavia.

President Kostunica of Yugoslavia has characterised the use of DU weapons as a crime against humanity. He wants the International War Crime Tribunal in the Hague also to look expeditiously into this matter and apportion blame. After the disaster caused by DU weapons both in the Gulf and Balkans, countries like Russia had repeatedly warned NATO about the dangers of using DU. Boris Alexeyev, the head of Russia's environmental department in the Defence Ministry said that by using DU ammunition NATO has wilfully violated the agreement on radiation security. However, the most significant development with regard to increasing clamour against the DU weapons took place on 4 January last. On that day European Commission President Romano Prodi became the most important European leader to demand an investigation into the claims that the DU used in the NATO munitions had caused death or illness among Balkan peacekeepers. The German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that it was not 'right' to use such munitions.

The pressures are being built up even in the United States against the use of DU by the Gulf and Balkan wars Veterans. But there is little likelihood that Pentagon and arms manufacturers would take it in right spirit. The Pentagon, the EU and the UN have all set up Commissions to investigate the risks posed by the DU but at the same time the efforts are afoot to whitewash the investigations. In the US where the public opinion carries considerable weightage a number of scientists and academics have already joined the campaign to justify the use of DU. According to the UN half a million Iraqi children have died as a direct result of decade long sanctions. When asked about the cruelty, former US secretary of state Ms Madeleine Albright memorably replied "It is a price worth paying". With this state of cynicism prevailing in some quarters of US administration and elsewhere it is not surprising that a virtually invisible killing agent like DU has so far been disregarded by the US authorities as well as NATO. But perhaps the tide has turned now when it will be increasingly difficult to ignore the protests against DU ammunitions. The development and use of DU weapons, however, is yet another example of how the nuclear industry in the west works together with military industrial complex to support its military ventures around the world regardless of the consequences.

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