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Uranium 238: Depleted Uranium

Broadcast Saturday 15/6/2002 ABC Radio National Australia

Anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott says that although it's not generally known, the Gulf War was a nuclear war and the leftover radioactive pollution, Uranium 238, has had devastating health consequences for the Iraqi people, among them dramatic increases in serious birth defects and cancer in the general population. Another critic is Dr Robert Hunter of Scientists for Global Responsibility, who also comments on depleted uranium.
Helen Caldicott: Yes, uranium 238 is called depleted uranium because 235 has been removed which is a fissionable portion. It’s only present in 0.7% when you mine it, it’s enriched to 3% for nuclear power and over 50% for weapons, so the stuff left behind is useless, it’s very radioactive, it’s all the stuff up at Ranger and Olympic Dam and all over the place. But it’s 1.7 times more dense than lead. Now, shells are usually made of lead or titanium, which is more expensive. So this stuff’s free, so if you make shells out of it, it actually, at high momentum, penetrates the armour of tanks, slices through it like a hot knife through butter. But when it hits it, it’s pyrophoric and burns and produces tiny particles less than 5 microns that are inhaled into the terminal air passages. Now this is an alpha emitter, highly carcinogenic, so it sits in the lungs for many years irradiating a small volume of cells and causes lung cancer. It’s translocated from the lungs, excreted through the kidneys where it can cause kidney cancer or bladder cancer, it’s a heavy metal where it can produce renal failure. It’s deposited in bones like calcium where it can cause leukaemia and/or bone cancer.

The men who fought in the Gulf War, they are excreting uranium in their semen; they call it 'burning semen' and their wives notice it too. Now what’s in the semen? The genes for all future generations.

Robyn Williams: Are there signs of this already in Iraq?

Helen Caldicott: Oh yes, the incidence of childhood cancer in Basrah, where they used a lot of it, has gone up 6 to 12 times and the paediatricians stand at the food of the children’s beds wringing their hands, actually weeping, because they have no drugs, no radio therapeutic instruments because of the sanctions. The incidence of genetic malformations has doubled and women are too frightened to give birth because they give birth to Cyclopses, or babies with no brains, anencephaly, who breathe, suck, cry and sneeze for a week and then die.

Robyn Williams: So, the uranium is on the ground: how can it be removed?

Helen Caldicott: Well, it’s on the ground and it’s half life is 4.5 billion years. It will never be removed, it’s blowing around in the desert winds. Those people are subject to those cancers and genetic diseases for the rest of time. This is obscene. It violates all the Geneva conventions of war. They’ve left a radio active battle field for the rest of time. How dare they! And you bet, there’s Australian uranium in those weapons too. Then they used them in Kosovo, and if you’re in the north of Greece and it’s a windy day with the wind blowing from there, they measure high levels of radiation in the wind. And I’m sure they used it in Afghanistan and they’re selling these things all over the world. And we are participants.

Robyn Williams: What is the evidence for Afghanistan?

Helen Caldicott: Afghanistan. Yeah, I’ve watched very closely. I haven’t got any hard actual data, but if you go to Janes, where all the weapons are enunciated.

Robyn Williams: Janes books of war.

Helen Caldicott: Yep, the weapons they’re using are the same weapons they used in the Gulf with uranium in them. I haven’t got any hard data yet, but I am surmising that that’s what they did.

Robyn Williams: OK, so in war zones in the Gulf there are these remnants of uranium.

Helen Caldicott: They used 300 to 800 tons of it, Robyn.

Robyn Williams: But this is not generally known.

Helen Caldicott: No, it was a nuclear war.

Robyn Williams: Why isn’t it generally known?

Helen Caldicott: Well, it’s known in Europe. The European Parliament and the Danish Parliament, the Italian Parliament were fit to kill because their soldiers are getting leukaemia in high numbers than normal, their peace keepers. I was asked to write a piece for the New York Times about this: I did it, and they sent it back and said, we are unable to publish this - as if someone is preventing them. Yeah, probably the Pentagon. So I sent it to USA Today: they said, too technical. It wasn’t technical at all. The LA Times, they wouldn’t publish it. There is a total blackout on this event in the US media, a total cover up. Now, you see that Dan Rather was interviewed the other day by the BBC and he said, never before has there been such press censorship of a war as there was in Afghanistan. They learnt from Vietnam – body bags is bad for business for the Pentagon, so they just block the media out and there’s no one with the guts to go in and show the babies with their heads blown off; show the children playing with radioactive shells on the desert floor in Iraq. Well, there are a few: Robert Fisk and a few like that.

Robyn Williams: From The Independent.

Helen Caldicott: Yeah, well the British papers are good but the American papers are terrible, terrible.

Robyn Williams: Well, Dr Helen Caldicott talking on a theme from her new book The New Nuclear Danger. Listening to that interview is Professor Bob Hunter who’s had a long association with debates about the use of nuclear material. Were you surprised to hear those figures about depleted uranium.

Robert Hunter: No I wasn’t. I’ve worried about it for sometime. We don’t see much of it in the newspapers but there’s quite a lot on the net. If you go to a web site and just say: what can you tell me about depleted uranium, you get a pile of downloads that make very interesting reading.

Robyn Williams: If I was to turn up and look at materiel, would I actually find weapons covered in depleted uranium as armour?

Robert Hunter: Oh yeah, it is the modern armour-piercing shell. It’s used all the way from things like Gatling gun-type bullet things, up to cannons or particularly anti-tank weapons, where you want to pierce the 5 or 10 centimetres of armour-plated steel which protects the vital parts of the tank, and depleted uranium is better than titanium, which was the one used earlier. And the wonderful thing from the American point of view is, of course, it costs them nothing. It’s the waste material from their production of enriched uranium for power generation or pure 235 for weapons production.

Robyn Williams: And if you were to hold one of these things with a pointy end covered in this uranium, it’s perfectly OK to handle, is it?

Robert Hunter: Well, before it goes off it probably is, because the rate at which it radiates is not all that large. The problem is after the weapon’s been fired. I haven’t actually done a calculation on what the casing would produce but the thing that makes the spent shell more dangerous is that, in the process of penetrating the armour plate, the high pressure and temperatures to which it’s subjected as it pierces through, actually sets in on fire and it produces very small particles of the oxide, uranium oxide.

Robyn Williams: As we’ve just heard. Yes.

Robert Hunter: Those would be the things that would be the problem.

Robyn Williams: OK, well, if so much of it is there in the Gulf is it the case that it’ll be dangerous almost forever?

Robert Hunter: Well, I think so. There’s something like there’s something like 500 tonnes of the stuff was fired off there. Some sizable fraction of that is still there and the Americans took away some obvious large pieces of equipment that were damaged by 'friendly fire': they were able to identify that interestingly enough, because of the radioactivity of the 'friendly fire'.

Robyn Williams: Is there some sort of plan as to what you do after a conflict with such material?

Robert Hunter: Well, there is, but I mean, in decontaminating soils evidently you’d have to go through an enormously complicated process. They haven’t done it in Iraq of course, they’ve had to do it on some of their weapon’s ranges where they’ve been firing depleted uranium shells to test them, and to attempt to clean them up has been an enormous operation. At one particular site in, I think Indiana, was to cost $5 billion just for this military firing range. So, spread that to the sort of size of the battle field in Iraq and you imagine the kinds of money that would be involved and there’s no doubt the Americans are not going to clean that up.

Robyn Williams: We’ve just had some horrifying facts and figures about the health effects in Iraq. Do you agree?

Robert Hunter: Oh yes, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There’s a very interesting article by Felicity Arbuthnot in which she outlines her own experiences there. She spent some time there talking to people particular in Basrah, which is a city in the south of Iraq, the closest large city to the action, it’s got a population of about 1.5 million people and the stories that come out of there are just horrendous. I mean, a doctor trained in England and America who was working there was saying, for example, that he would have expected in England to run into a case of bone cancer perhaps once in three years, he was getting one a fortnight in Basrah. So there is no doubt that there are huge increases in the incidences of cancers particularly, and the incidence of birth deformities.

Robyn Williams: There should be surely a good case for banning depleted uranium then?

Robert Hunter: Well, it should be. I mean, there’s a very interesting article by a fellow called Doug Rocke; he was a medical physicist with the US army, he was actually given the job of going over there and recommending what should be done after the war in 1991. He went out there as something of a fitness fanatic, you know, he could do a forced march for 20 kilometres with 100 pound pack on his back, and he came back almost a total wreck, he can hardly breathe now, his lungs are totally ruined because he was out there looking at the stuff, appraising it, but his recommendations have just been completely ignored.

He’s presented his material to the British government, the British parliament, and no action has been taken as far as one can gather. They just don’t want to know because it’s just such a lovely material because it costs nothing and is enormously effective and they don’t give a hill of beans about the effect, even on their own soldiers.