The nuclear nightmare

By Davey Garland

When questions were asked in the British parliament a year ago about whether depleted uranium (DU) weapons had been used in the military strikes on Afghanistan, "It is not being used at present" was defense minister Geoff Hoon's reply.

A few days earlier, Hoon had been similarly vague on the issue. He assured us that "No British forces currently engaged in operations around Afghanistan are armed with depleted uranium ammunition. However, we do not rule out the use of depleted uranium ammunition in Afghanistan, should its penetrative capability be judged necessary in the future."

The defense minister played his cards close to his chest, no doubt having been informed that DU or other uranium weapons were being used by the U.S. (and no doubt British) forces to penetrate the caverns of Tora Bora and other targets (including civilian ones), especially in the vicinity of Kabul.

The refusal of the Ministry of Defense to fully admit that dangerous uranium weapons may have been used in Afghanistan and the conflicts in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosova), when evidence shows the contrary, illustrates just how sensitive the government is to the possibility that its use, or its collusion in the use, of weapons of mass destruction may be discovered.

This is not just because thousands of innocent civilians will suffer due to radiological (and heavy metal) poisoning, but also because the government is prepared to send British troops and aid worker for a possibly long occupation of the war zones, ill-equipped and vulnerable to contamination.

When the Afghan crisis began, many believed a great amount of DU would be used to achieve the U.S.-British campaign objectives -- both to penetrate the opposition's hideouts in rocky terrain and to test new weapons systems (dirty uranium contains radioactive contaminants, such as plutonium isotopes, derived from spent fuel from power reactors). The amount used in Afghanistan might have exceeded the several hundred ton's of DU used in the 1990-91 Gulf War and the Balkans conflicts.

Worst fears realized

A startling new report based on research in Afghanistan indicates our worst fears have been realized. The study, produced by the Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC), points to the likelihood of large numbers of the population being exposed to uranium dust and debris.

Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a professor of nuclear medicine and radiology and a former science advisor to the U.S. military, set up the independent UMRC. He has been testing U.S., British, and Canadian troops and civilians for DU and uranium poisoning over the past few years. His findings confirm significant amounts in the subjects' urine as much as nine years after exposure.

Two scientific study teams were sent to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the conflict in 2001-02. The first arrived in June 2002, concentrating on the Jalalabad region. The second arrived four months later, broadening the study to include the capital, Kabul, with its 3.5 million people.

The city of Kabul contains the highest recorded number of fixed targets during Operation Enduring Freedom. For the study's purposes, the vicinity of three major bomb sites were examined.

It was predicted that signatures of depleted or enriched uranium would be found in the urine and soil samples taken during the research. However, the team was unprepared for the shock of its findings. They indicated, in both Jalalabad and Kabul, that DU might have caused the high levels of illness, but that high concentrations of non-depleted uranium were also present. Tests taken from a number of Jalalabad subjects showed concentrations from 400 to 2,000 per cent above that for normal populations -- amounts that had never before been recorded in civilian studies.

Those in Kabul who had been directly exposed to U.S./British precision bombing showed extreme signs of contamination consistent with uranium exposure and with some types of chemical or biological weaponry. These included joint pain, back and kidney pain, muscle weakness, memory problems and confusion, and disorientation.

Many of these symptoms are found in Gulf War and Balkans veterans and civilians. Those exposed to the bombing, report symptoms of flu-type illnesses, bleeding, runny noses and blood-stained mucous. The study team members complained of similar symptoms during their stay. Most of these symptoms last for days, even months.

The team also conducted a preliminary sample examination of newborns, discovering that at least 25 per cent may be suffering from congenital and post-natal health problems that could be associated with uranium contamination. These include undeveloped muscles, large heads compared to body sizes, skin rashes, and infant lethargy. Considering that the children had access to sufficient levels of nutrition, the symptoms could not have been due to malnourishment.

Durakovic and his team searched for possible alternative causes, such as geological or industrial sources, or the likelihood of Al Qaeda having uranium reserves. But the uranium found is not consistent with the "dirty bomb" scenario proposed by the U.S. (in which stores of radioactive materials might explain the findings) -- nor is it connected to DU or an enriched uranium-type dust that has been found in Iraq and Kosova.

The only conclusion is that the allied forces are now possibly using milled uranium ore in their warheads to maximize the effectiveness and strength of their weapons, as well as to mask the uranium, hoping it might be discounted as part of any local natural deposits.

However, marked differences between natural uranium and the uranium used in the metal fragments found in Afghanistan were uncovered with the use of an electron microscope. This revealed the presence of small ceramic particles, produced by the high temperatures created on impact. This method of disguising uranium would benefit governments that are under pressure from the growing anti-DU lobby.

Repeated warnings of this possible contamination were sent to both the British and Afghan governments in April by scientific researcher Dai Williams in her report, "Mystery Metal in Afghanistan."

Warnings were also sent to the U.N. Environment Program, the World Health Organization, and Oxfam. All have ignored them and not one has conducted its own investigation.

Conditions in Iraq

Current information and studies stress the growing mortality rates amongst young children, especially the newborn. They indicate that malnutrition and other social causes cannot be the only attributable source of this phenomenon.

This is confirmed by health specialists, international observers, and a few brave officials from local hospitals who are convinced that this rise in illnesses and malformation is due to uranium/DU weapons.

In October, Durakovic spoke on al Jazeera television. He claimed that the amount of DU/uranium used in Afghanistan far exceeded that of past conflicts. He also warned that if the scale of the attacks in Afghanistan was matched or exceeded in a forthcoming war in Iraq, the consequences would be of appalling proportions, for civilians and military forces alike.

This scenario has substance, if the $393 billion defense authorization bill that Congress approved recently is taken into account. More than $15 million was assigned to modifying bunker buster bombs to nuclear capable -- quite apart from uranium being added to conventional and bunker buster systems. Money was also invested in other weapons of mass destruction, including thermobaric and electromagnetic weapons.

The anti-war movement must oppose radiological and other weapons, as well as research and access to the source materials.

Many have seen the heart-wrenching pictures of deformity and death in Iraq and know of the growing cancer wards in Bosnia and Kosova. Add to that the 80,000 American, 15,000 Canadian and thousands of British, Australian, French and other troops who are suffering a painful existence from the Gulf War Syndrome, as well as a growing number suffering from a Balkans equivalent.

Davey Garland is a coordinator of the British-based Pandora DU Research Project. To see this and other stories on a wide range of topics, visit the web site: http://www.greenleft.org.au

Depleted Uranium Hazard

The Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, saying there have been no known health problems associated with the munition. They do, however, contradict themselves by acknowledging the hazards of DU in an Army training manual that requires anyone coming within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain to wear respiratory and skin protection. The manual also warns that "contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption."

Scientists, fishermen and activists are expressing concern about the U.S. Navy's routine testing of weapons by firing radioactive, toxic ammunition in prime fishing areas off the coast of Washington and elsewhere. Although the Navy says not more than 200 rounds would be fired during a typical test, U.S. combat ships now carry the rapid-fire Phalanx that fires up to 4,500 rounds of depleted uranium per minute.