Friday, July 20, 2012

The problem with depleted uranium

A news "blip" caught my eye.

The headline said, basically, that a New Zealand deal to ban depleted uranium weapons had been struck down.  For a long while I have been hearing about the unintended dangers of depleted uranium, especially when used as ammunition.  Therefore, I set out to discover what I could.

Depleted uranium is a nuclear by-product that substantially lacks fissionable quantities of U-235.  In other words, it can't blow up like a nuke.  But it has any number of applications from airplane and sailboat parts to military ammunition.  During the Cold War, development and deployment of depleted uranium ammunition was essential.  Soviet conventional capability rested in the thousands upon thousands of T-72 and T-80 tanks they could field.  Depleted uranium ammunition absolutely shreds through tank armor.

The problem is that this ammunition is full of toxic chemicals.  It also gives off radiation in the form of alpha particles.  These particles are the weakest form of radiation and are unable to pass through clothing much less body armor.  If however they are in smoke and then inhaled or embedded in someone as the result of shrapnel...well, that's a whole other ballgame.  There have been many studies that suggest a correlation between contact with depleted uranium and serious health problems.

After DU weapons were used to defend Kosvo in 1999, contaminants were found in the drinking water and incidents of malignant disease rose sharply.  Iraq has also seen higher incidents of child leukemia and other cancers while environmental contamination has been found in Afghanistan.  DU is also a prime suspect in the immune system disorder commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome.  To be fair, other studies such as the 1999 research project by the Rand Corporation have found no causal evidence between DU and the health/environmental effects mentioned.

Yet the effects are there and DU still looks like the most likely culprit.  Several movements have taken place to ban DU weapons.  The Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU) and the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons are probably the most active ones.  A motion was made in the European Union to ban DU weapons.  It was quickly struck down by Britain and France.  The UN attempted to require DU using states to turn over any data relevant to DU use and the environment.  The US, the UK, France, and Israel balked and voted the request down.  Ah yes, that paper tiger that is the UN.

So in other words, none of the major players want to acknowledge what may be happening.  Call it the product of my qualia of cynicism, but there is no doubt in my mind that money is a chief motivator in the military's adamant denial of any ill effects from DU.  The Pentagon gets what it wants and if you believe things should be otherwise, you are either "unpatriotic" or you do not "support the troops."

Well I do support the troops.  I don't want them using weapons that make them sick (remember Agent Orange in Vietnam?)  I don't want innocent civilians contracting cancer and leukemia as a byproduct of their "liberation."  I don't want the environment poisoned for years long after the conflict has ended.  Truth is, the need for DU may be waning.  The Soviet Union is gone and no one is likely to unleash fields of armor anymore.  Warfare will increasingly be a matter of air, sea, and UAV operations.  That and spec ops.  Yes, a whole lotta spec ops.

Upon consideration, DU looks like a classic case of "burning the village to save the village."

Oh one quick note.  I'll be busy for the next few days so mind the gap in my postings.

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