By Christian Darby
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the production of enriched fuel for nuclear reactors, the spent uranium that’s left behind from the nuclear energy cycle. Like all nuclear material, it’s highly radioactive and fatal to humans, causing leukaemia, lung cancer and genetic defects. And with a half-life of billions of years, storing it safely is a problem that has never been properly solved.
So it would seem slightly insane to suggest that, of all the things that could be done with depleted uranium, the best option would be to use it for the tips of bullets, bombs, shells and missiles used as ammunition by armies, and then fire it off into the open air by the millions during battles.
But in an insane world, of course, this is exactly what’s happening.
Because depleted uranium is one of the heaviest metals on earth – denser than steel itself – if you shoot it hard enough, it’s likely to be able to go through anything. Put it in the tips of weapons, and shells and bombs containing it are capable of slicing straight through the thickest tank armour and the strongest concrete bunkers. Furthermore, the uranium actually sharpens as it enters the target, and when it penetrates through the armour itself it ignites and burns at several thousand degrees, incinerating everyone and everything inside. Short of a nuclear bomb, it’s the most powerful weapon an army can have.
There’s just one drawback, of course – uranium, with a half-life of several billion years, doesn’t go away. When a round hits its target, the uranium burns briefly, and then aerosolises into a deadly, radioactive mist, which can settle near the target or be swept up and spread around by the wind.
It can be inhaled or ingested and trapped in the body, it can contaminate crops or livestock and be spread through the food chain, or a shell can hit a water treatment plant and it can be passed on through the water supply. The consequences are impossible to predict. Fire hundreds of millions of rounds of this ammunition in a war and the results, unsurprisingly, are utterly, utterly devastating.
Following the Gulf War of 1991 – the first war in which uranium munitions were used on a large scale – 10,051 US veterans came down with mysterious, inexplicable illnesses, so-called “Gulf War Syndrome.” Of these victims, the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that 82% had been on or near destroyed Iraqi vehicles, the main target of DU rounds.
In occupied Iraq itself, a study by the Iraqi government in January this year found that vast areas home to millions of people were severely contaminated by radioactive poisoning, which had spread deep into the country’s air, water and soil. Recent investigations by the UK’s Guardian newspaper discovered that, in a single Iraqi hospital over the course of three weeks, 37 children were born with genetic defects, including the presence of several extra heads and the absence of limbs. Similar stories have been produced from Afghanistan Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, all of which have been subjected to large scale bombing with depleted uranium.
“If we equip these tanks with these sorts of munitions,” wrote French general Pierre-Marie Gallois in 1995, “that means that chemical-nuclear war is morally allowable.” The US is doing a thriving trade selling DU weapons to other countries, and it can only be expected that nearly all future wars will include their extensive use.
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Australia sits on 40% of the world’s uranium stocks, and with the government’s scrapping of its “no new mines” policy in 2007 and its plans to massively expand the uranium mining industry, it will be our uranium that inevitably ends up in these weapons. Indeed, as part of a new, unprecedented $85 million “Defence Materials Technology Centre” arms research program, Wollongong, Melbourne, Queensland and Swinburne universities, as well as RMIT, are now themselves performing research to help design military hardware that will almost certainly be delivering depleted uranium weapons.
And if that holds no moral problems for you – think again. Under secret agreements signed with the US in 2004, 30,000 American troops will be arriving on the east coast of Australia next year to conduct massive ship-to-shore and air-to-ground bombing exercises. And you can guess what’s likely to be in that ammunition. So on the next breezy day, it might just be more than just dust and leaves that are blowing in the wind.
Students at Wollongong University have recently organised to fight for a permanent ban on military research and courses on non-violent alternative to military defence at their university. If you’re at RMIT, Melbourne, UQ or Griffith and are interested in getting involved and organising on your campus, by all means get in touch!! Contact Christian Darby at email@example.com or 0466 525 024 – we’ll be at SOS so let’s met up!