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Opinion: Use of depleted uranium in Ukraine ignores environmental & health consequences

By Caroline Hurley

Military authorities increasingly try to categorise armaments containing depleted uranium (DU) as conventional, despite epidemics of cancers and genetic mutations following their use in Iraq and elsewhere. These arms use nuclear waste and take advantage of the dense weight and flammability of uranium, primarily to penetrate tank metal, of the likes of Leopard 2. Massive stores of DU are now held in the Netherlands (Almelo), Germany (Lingen) and the UK, since the cessation of arrangements to send nuclear waste to Russia for dumping. An estimated one million tons of the poison had been produced in the world by 2016. Re-use for genocidal ecocidal destruction is a highly questionable recycling choice, showing up the entire nuclear industry as a redundant albatross.

DU features in radioactive shielding and in aircraft, forklifts, and boat keels for weight. The National Crime Prevention Office oversees a small number of high-activity field sources in Ireland e.g. radioactive material to sterilise medical equipment, and radiography, which requires secure transport in solid containers. Nuclear-powered marine vessels, and vessels carrying nuclear material or other radiation-emitting materials, are expressly prohibited from entering an Irish harbour without prior dispensation, under Section 52 of the Harbours Act 1996.

In contrast, the aerosol powder released on impact and combustion of DU munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas, depending on weather, and result in the inhalation of radioactive nanoparticles. Since uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, any harms spreading worldwide are cumulative. Health conditions like those observed after the Chernobyl accident have been noted since the first use of DU weapons in 1991. Survivors of bombings in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Serbia, Syria, the Lebanon and Afghanistan share far higher rates of cancer, deformities, blood diseases and other symptoms than the military personnel who struck them. Overburdened health and social services struggle to cope, no matter how NGOs try patching things up. Will that be Ukraine’s fate?

Abandoning compassion is the ultimate crime against the biosphere’s endangered future

The WHO/IAEA Agreement (WHA12-40) of 28 May 1959, giving the IAEA power of veto over WHO’s activities. Similar “agreements” constrain other UN agencies. Rather than being independent, the IAEA’s objective to promote nuclear power is enshrined in its constitution, requiring the WHO to remain subservient in matters of radiation and health. This conflict of interest may prejudice decisions. Research on tissue damage from low-level radiation by John Gofman, and Helen Caldicott’s consciousness-raising about related diseases, garnered official opprobrium. UN brush-offs ring hollow e.g. “The results of the radiological assessments conducted by IAEA in cooperation with UNEP and WHO provide the basis for public reassurance”.

An international campaign calls for WHO to be independent of the nuclear lobby. Disquiet about WHO governance extends to other areas, including pandemic management, power imbalances, and funder influence. Top-down WHO regulatory controls being drafted are failing to please everybody.

DU releases mainly alpha radiation, which wreaks havoc on internal organs. The EPA does not monitor for DU in the environment but focuses on radioactivity sources normally delivering the highest radiation doses to members of the Irish public – namely, exposure to radon gas, medical exposures, cosmic radiation, terrestrial gamma radiation (which includes natural uranium), radioactivity in food and drinking water and occupational exposures. Atmospheric radioactivity due to depleted uranium is not a significant source of exposure to members of the Irish public when compared to those mentioned above, according to the EPA, while accepting that Uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and emits alpha radiation not routinely monitored. The EPA reports no evidence from Ukraine of nuclear weapon use or power plant leaks (yet) and points out that DU is less radioactive than natural uranium, is used commercially, and DU weapons are not nuclear.

But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Instead, emerging reports of harm should spur further studies, as the inbuilt societal systemic response. During the Iraq war, German (Bavarian), Austrian and Swiss scientists detected traces of DU in air and soil samples. Conversely, no testing means no information and silent risk.

Since DU’s first military deployment, the trend of rising cancer rates among young people worldwide is attracting attention. After more than 15 tons of uranium bombs were dropped on Yugoslavia in 1999, over 4,000 citizens of Serbia, including Kosovo and Metohija, are suing NATO for causing their cancers. 400 have already died. More than 30,000 people are now diagnosed with cancer each year, compared to fewer than 7,000 cases before 1999. Blood analysis shows 500 times more metal than normal.

Healthcare services are already being stripped back and exploited for profit. Entities like Physicians for Social Responsibility, and SHAPE are trying to reverse this trend. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) collates facts and updates. Other nuclear watch organisations include ICAN, the UN’s Unfold Zero, Arms Control Association, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and World Beyond War. The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons focuses primarily on DU usage in war, “since its residuals prolong the war into an indefinite time. The aim of the coalition is to ban DU weapons, eliminate the environmental damage caused by uranium weapons, help the victims, and prevent future damage from such weapons and actions”. UN inertia persists as member states refuse to comply with principles, but credible evidence and expert warnings mount.

Primum non Nocere (first, do no harm)?

2022 research recognises that “Uranium contamination has become a nonnegligible global health problem” about which understanding is “still at a preliminary stage”. However, the US EPA clearly warns that DU is a “serious health hazard”. Britain has admitted sending DU weapons to Ukraine, while Europe goes along with the ammunition-as-solution fantasy by obligingly arranging more arms production, which only builds momentum towards more wars. Where are the leaders who care more for life than for economics?

Similar warnings from parties such as the IPPNW, and the Organization of Doctors for the Prevention of Nuclear War, are gathering. A lawyer for 400 sick Italian soldiers exposed to DU cautioned Britain to “think about the risks and the consequences” of supplying Ukraine with DU shells. 300 of the veterans have won court cases against Italy’s military. Risks exist.

Radioactive hazards threatening the survival of life on earth are just one among many (plastics, water shortages, climate changes, ‘forever chemicals/PFAs, soil depletion, monoculture, emissions from livestock density, mining, pesticide residues, biodiversity loss, military ruin…). Twenty-first century global citizens are up against intersectional poly-crises, yet long warned about in Limits to Growth, Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful, Diet for a Small Planet, COPs, IPCC reports, and elsewhere. The Stop Ecocide campaign works towards making ecocide an international crime. Initiatives like this seem desperately overdue, on hearing that in 2019, 99% of the world’s population was living in places, including Ireland, where more stringent WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met, and highly-polluting LNG production is increasing. Through the fog of officialese promising green sustainable policy adjustments, glimpses of business as usual are becoming ever more entrenched, profitable and dirtier; with diminishing regard for fellow beings, activists, and indigenous leaders, whose ancestral land-use wisdom is key for this moment.

The aim of the coalition is to ban DU weapons, eliminate the environmental damage caused by uranium weapons, help the victims, and prevent future damage from such weapons and actions

Intensive lobbying leads to regulatory and legal capture, obstructing due process and precautionary practices. Loopholes facilitate corporate gain. Routine imprecision about institutional roles diffuses responsibility and makes navigation labyrinthine for outsiders. The illusion of evidence-based conduct observed in medicine, where public health objectives are increasingly conflated with state security goals, also infects science at large. Special interests of international bodies predominate.

Abandoning compassion is the ultimate crime against the biosphere’s endangered future. The enduring large-scale nature of concentrated radioactive lethality argues statistically and morally against the sustainable use on earth of such materials. Omissions in radiation protection systems and no decommissioning policy negate grounds for confidence in the integrity of current strategies to ensure a safe and healthy future.