Report From the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium's UK Parliamentary Lobby and Meeting
Our research had shown there must have been some official disquiet about the use of these weapons because the UK MoD has been running trials for alternatives to the CHARM 3 120mm DU shells used in wartime operations by Challenger 2 tanks.
Predictably enough, the MoD has continued, in correspondence with us, to stick to their line that DU is harmless and that it is a vital part of the UK’s ‘defences’ - a line prompted, no doubt, by their discovery that their alternative, tungsten, was just as dangerous and a lot more expensive.
Many CADU supporters were unable to get to London on the day of the lobby but planned instead, to lobby their MPs by post, using CADU’s new lobby pack – copies of which are available from the office free of charge.
After introducing our international guest speakers to the heroic Brian Haw – who later beat Tony Blair to be voted the Most Politically Influential Man In Britain by viewers of Channel 4 News – CADU supporters met in Westminster Hall to meet with their MPs.
Three MPs in particular stood out during the afternoon; MP for Blaenau Gwent Dai Davies‘ assistant spoke with us at length over alternative approaches to the question of environmental legislation. This included invoking the Euratom Treaty to challenge DU pollution in the Irish Sea from the Dundrennan testing range. He also offered to arrange for Dai Davies MP to raise the issue in Parliament by asking whether the survivors of the 2003 US friendly fire attack that killed Lance Corporal Matty Hull were tested for DU exposure.
Meanwhile the wife, and assistant, of Labour’s Jim Dobbin - MP for Heywood and Middleton - was sympathetic to the issue and listened intently to the case against DU. Of particular note however was the Lib Dem MP for Rochdale Paul Rowen. He offered to ask parliamentary question on why the UK had ignored the European Parliament’s calls for a moratorium and ban and offered to post an Early Day Motion on the issue.
Later that evening, 30 people attended a public meeting in one of Palace of Westminster’s sumptuous committee rooms overlooking the Thames.
Rae Street (in the chair) opened the meeting by giving a brief history of the launch of CADU and its international conference, covering major areas of concern from mining, testing to use. In the face of Government denial of any risk, CADU had continued to collect and disseminate information and was working as a member of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) towards a draft treaty banning the manufacture, testing and use of uranium munitions.
She was followed by the first of our international guests John La Forge from the Wisconsin based group Nukewatch. Nukewatch have been campaigning against the activities of the US arms giant Alliant Tech Systems (ATK) for years and have a history of trespass, arrests and court cases, where Minnesota juries have consistently ruled against them.
They have produced astronomical numbers of DU munitions, including a recent order worth $38 million for DU tank rounds. ATK is the largest producer of ammunition in the world. In 2006 it produced 12 million bullets. It makes 95% of the Pentagon's small calibre ammunition, as well as machine guns, cluster bombs, landmines and Trident D5 rocket motors.
“The US is the number one manufacturer of DU munitions. And ATK is the largest DU producer in the US. The discussion by civil society of this issue is drowned out by the voices of war - and sport. There is little understanding of the grim consequences of these weapons, which are in violation of rules that both the US and the UK have sworn to obey,” said La Forge in his opening.
He went on to explain how the arms industry’s role is to: “Obscure our criminal conspiracy to wage war in violation of international law.” It does this by masking the contents of its products, denying their effects and ridiculing peace activists - all with the help of supportive politicians fed by tactical donations.
He described how, in the face of denials from ATK over the impact of activists’ work, they have removed all mention of DU from their website – favouring the term ‘high density penetrators’ and have removed all photos of clean-up from one of their sites that was contaminated by DU.
In hiding the effects of its products ATK’s publicity talks in vague terms of developing a new generation of weapons to defend the US. It does not mention their potential to kill - only their ‘outstanding lethality’. Their marketing peddles a dreamworld of doublespeak as they say they have provided a capability 'critical to national security'.
They have approximately 15,000 employees located in more than 50 facilities in 21 states, and have representatives in more than 50 countries. With an annual turnover of $3.3bn, they also make vast amounts of money. Waste uranium is given away free, but each 30mm round costs $21.50. The A10 can shoot $80,000 in a minute.
Supporters may recall the findings of several labs following the NATO attacks in the Balkans. Tests found that penetrators were contaminated with highly dangerous radioactive elements, including plutonium and technetium. Both elements, and the uranium isotope U236 can only be produced in nuclear reactors. This indicated an extremely lax approach to nuclear waste controls. Quoting a US National Commission Report, La Forge suggested such contamination was far more commonplace than previously thought, with up to half the US DU stockpile being contaminated – more than 250,000 tons.
In campaigning against ATK, Nukewatch and Alliant Tech Action activists have used all the legal mechanisms at their disposal, included the Geneva conventions and The Hague and Nuremberg declarations. The judiciary has usually ignored these arguments from international law, but their last trial was the first that found in their favour and agreed with them that that their attempts to disrupt the company were an attempt at crime prevention under international law.
CADU then welcomed independent radiation advisor Dr Ian Fairlie. Dr Fairlie was the secretary of CERRIE (Committee Examining the Risks from Radioactive Internal Emitters) and has worked for both government departments and for NGOs such as Greenpeace.
“There are great similarities between uranium and depleted uranium and it is nonsense to say that depleted uranium is less harmful than uranium,” he began. “When the US used DU for the first time they thought it was going to be a bonanza: in fact it turned into a horror show.”
As an aside he described how, in 1999 when he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, he had been aware of a huge cover up over the crash of a Korean Air 747 at Stansted Airport. At the time 747s had 150 kilos of DU in their wings as ballast and agencies spent six and a half months removing and disposing of contaminated soil from the site – something that the press was never made aware of.
His presentation, (PDFs of which are available to download at the end of this article), covered all the basics of uranium’s radioactivity and chemical toxicity. From the complexity of decay chains and what they mean for exposure rates, to the activity of DU particles lodged inside the body, he went on to compare the specific activity of typical forms of uranium: DU 15Bq, Uranium Oxide 08.3Bq, uranium mill tailings >4Bq and 0.2% uranium ore 0.15Bq. This reinforced his original assertion that DU is just as hazardous as uranium.
He then analysed the four main hazards from DU – that it is a heavy metal, that it is a radionuclide, additionality (that the first two risks can be added together) and finally synergism, where the combination of radioactivity and chemical toxicity enhance each other’s effects.
DU's chemical effects make it a cytotoxin, a neurotoxin, a nephrotoxin and a renotoxin. These chemical effects were the main concern of the Royal Society’s 2001 report into DU, which is now well out of date. Little attention was paid at the time to radiation, additionality or synergism.
He discussed the relative roles of radiological and chemical effects. Citing much of the research by Alexandra Miller from the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute, he explained how DU causes increases in dicentric chromosome aberrations (a globally recognised marker for radiological effects), which are not observed with heavy metals. That research has also shown that the number of neoplastic transformations (i.e. changes which can lead to cancer) depends on the activity and not on which isotope it is. It also showed that DU is capable of inducing oxidative DNA damage in the absence of significant radioactive decay – i.e. through chemical toxicity alone - and that uranium’s radiological and chemical effects might play a tumour initiating as well as a tumour-promoting role.
Almost all of this new research and understanding supports CADU’s long held belief that uranium is far more hazardous than governments and the military claim. And much of it has been triggered by the activities of campaigners who have continued to raise the profile of DU amongst the scientific mainstream.
Finally he discussed the ‘untargeted’ effects of radiation. These are worrying observations that have yet to be included by bodies calculating radiation risks. Perhaps the best known is the Bystander Effect, whereby cells adjacent to a cell that receives a radiation dose, also exhibit signs of radiation damage. It is thought that chemical messengers called cytokines transmit the information to the adjacent cells but it unclear why they should do so. Of equal concern is the emerging science of Genomic Instability whereby the genetic processes within cells that are irradiated but not killed suddenly collapse 20 or 40 cellular generations down the line. The third of these untargeted effects are minisatellite mutations - these areas of the genetic code that are more susceptible to mutations than the code as a whole. It has been found that even fairly low doses of ionising radiation can radically increase the mutation rate in these areas – adding extra uncertainty when trying to calculate dose.
And it’s calculating dose that was at the crux of Fairlie’s talk. With every new discovery our ability to accurately model the health effects of certain types and levels of exposure decreases, yet this is not accurately reflected in the safety standards. This more than anything should back calls for the Precautionary Principle when dealing with internal emitters such as DU dust.
He concluded by saying that as we find out more about radiobiology, uranium’s toxicity increases. Yet the new radiation effects are still being denied. He stressed that DU and uranium are essentially the same, that beta particles are as important as alpha particles when assessing DU’s hazards and that there is indicative evidence that uranium's radiological effects are as harmful as its chemical effects. However it is difficult to establish uranium risks with precision and more than anything else, we lack epidemiology.
European lobbyist for the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, Ria Verjauw, discussed how the Belgian Coalition ‘Stop Uranium Wapens’ have tried to use Belgian law to bring in a domestic ban in the country. Although Belgium isn’t a user of DU it is a part of NATO, the seat of the European Parliament and regularly has US DU shipments travelling through its port of Antwerp.
In 2005 and 2006, Senators Sabine de Bethune and Erika Thijs of the Christian Democrats and Senator Lionel Vandenberghe of Spirit launched the first parliamentary initiatives against DU. Unfortunately they did not have a large enough majority of votes to get the issue on the agenda of the Commission of Foreign Affairs and Defence.
The initiatives of Joseph Arens (Christian Democrat) and Dirk Van der Maelen (Socialist), both members of the Chamber of Representatives, who introduced two proposals to ban uranium weapons under Belgian law, were more successful. The two parliamentarians convinced the president of the Commission of Defence to organise two hearings in Parliament. Experts from different disciplines were invited. Representative Arens stated during the Commission of Defence meeting that: 'Belgium needs to play a pioneering role in the campaign for a worldwide ban on uranium weapons'.
In June 2006 Belgium adopted a new law that deals with economic and individual activities concerning weapons. Art. 8 of this law stated that: ‘nobody is allowed to produce, repair, buy, sell, store, transport or posses those weapons that are forbidden by Belgian law.’
Members of Parliament Van der Maelen (SP.A), Arens (CdH), Gerkens and Nagy (ECOLO, Green) have proposed an amendment to this law, which would add to the list of forbidden weapons (now 18 in total): ‘weapons and munitions that contain DU and industrial manufactured uranium.’ Ria expects that the Belgian Parliament will vote on this law to ban uranium weapons in the very near future.
From January 1st 2007 Belgium is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. On 14th of December 2006 the Commission on Foreign Affairs and Defence of the Belgian Senate adopted a draft resolution on this membership. Page 11 of this resolution states: ‘The Commission requests the Belgian Federal government to use its seat as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to realise the following recommendations: encouraging other states to sign the treaty on certain conventional weapons (Geneva convention October 10th 1980) and to sign and ratify the protocols; to enlarge the application of Protocol III of the treaty on certain conventional weapons dealing with incendiary weapons to prevent further use of white phosphorous shells, and to stop the use of ammunition containing depleted uranium.’ (Emphasis added)
We await the outcome of the Belgian vote with great interest.
Green Party MEP Dr Caroline Lucas spoke passionately about the recently approved resolution at the EU parliament, which again calls for a moratorium leading to a ban on the use of DU weapons. She said the resolution also called for independent research into the effects of DU on civilians and on the land.
Dr Lucas had had a lengthy correspondence with the former Junior Defence Minister, and now peer, Lewis Moonie about DU. He had insisted that the use of DU ammunition 'remains an important option for the armed forces'.
She had visited Basra and heard how at the beginning of 1991 there was hardly any leukaemia there. By 2003 they were seeing three or four cases per week. Discussing Lebanon she said she found the evidence compelling and she felt that UNEP were not looking in the right place or with the right instruments.
Acknowledging that it can be seen as having little political power, Dr Lucas urged us to use the EU Parliament, calling it a valuable forum to link international campaigns and somewhere where we can find out who are our allies, whether they are Trades Unions or Veterans' Associations.
She concluded by criticising the Government for its attempts to mystify the public over topics like DU and radiation. This is completely at odds with its remit to simplify these issues for the public. Her message to all was that we can make a difference.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour, Islington), to whom CADU would like to express its gratitude for making this meeting possible, echoed Dr. Lucas' message about mystification. He said he had been raising the question of DU since its use in Kosovo and in the first Gulf War but had been met with obfuscation. The government had always insisted that DU dust was entirely benign and would do no harm. Yet the study from the World Health Organisation in 1998 had already shown a huge rise in the incidence of cancer since 1991 in Southern Iraq.
With more DU used in the second Gulf War than in the first, the future looks even worse and Iraq is set to become in fifty years the cancer capital of the world. Yet still our government refuses to remove what it sees as a 'strategic advantage' from our arsenals. He said it was crucial that we remove the benign image DU has.
- 451 Kb - Format pdfDr Ian FairlieDr Fairlie's Powerpoint presentation on the risks from DU weapons.
- 139 Kb - Format pdfRia Verjauw