An Ethical Stance Against
Depleted Uranium Weapons.

by Gordon Edwards (Ph.D.) and Marc Chénier (B.Sc.)
of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

The use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO forces during the Gulf War and in the Balkans raises serious ethical problems.

Because uranium is the heaviest naturally-occurring element on earth, it can be used to armour-plate tanks and to make bullets and shells more penetrating. Uranium metal burns with a fierce intensity -- like magnesium or sodium -- which adds to the penetrating power of uranium ammunition.

But uranium is also a very long-lived radioactive material, posing a perpetual danger to human health. Not only combattants, but innocent people thousands of years in the future will be harmed by exposure to uranium residues left as litter on the battlefield. As in the case of land mines, uranium weapons can keep on killing long after all hostilities have ceased.

According to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, a cardinal rule in radiation protection is that ALL unnecessary exposure to radiation should be avoided. The use of radioactive ammunition violates this dictum for soldiers and civilians alike.

The kind of uranium used by the military is called depleted uranium. It is a waste product of the uranium enrichment process, used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor fuel. Although enrichment is enormously expensive, depleted uranium is considered cheap since it is an unwanted byproduct, having no significant civilian use.

Uranium is not harmful outside the body -- but neither is E-coli. The "alpha rays" given off by uranium are stopped completely by a sheet of paper or by a person's clothing or skin, so there is no external exposure hazard.

Inside the body, however, alpha radiation is the most potent carcinogenic agent known to science -- twenty times more damaging than x-rays or gamma rays. Large numbers of miners and radium workers have been killed by internal exposure to minute quantities of alpha-emitting radioactive materials, causing lung cancer, bone cancer and a variety of blood diseases including leukemia.

On the battlefield, some of the uranium is vapourized on impact, producing a radioactive heavy-metal smoke that is easily ingested or inhaled. Respirable particles of uranium can stay airborne for days, and can become resuspended in a light breeze.

There have been no scientific studies of the long term health effects on humans or animals exposed to such metallic uranium vapours. As in the atomic bomb atmospheric testing program, humans are once again being used instead of guinea pigs to find out what the harmful effects may be.

To maintain that depleted uranium is harmless, without proof, is irresponsible. It has long been known that uranium is a deadly substance. For centuries, men who mined for silver in Germany and Bohemia died in large numbers from a mysterious lung disease, later identified as lung cancer. By the 1930's, it was proven that the cause was alpha radiation given off by a radioactive gas -- radon -- spontaneously emanating from uranium atoms in the ore.

Canada has had a similarly sorrowful history with uranium. Miners in the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Ontario have experienced between two and five times the "normal" mortality from lung cancer -- and this is true for smokers and non-smokers alike. The killer is alpha radiation from uranium deposits in the ore.

In 1931, the Canadian Department of Mines warned about uranium-bearing ores:

"The ingestion of small amounts of radioactive dust ... will cause a building up of radioactive material in the body, which eventually may have serious consequences.

"Lung cancer, bone necrosis, and rapid anaemia are possible diseases due to the deposition of radioactive substances in the cell tissue or bone structure of the body. . . ."

Canada has always been the world's largest exporter of uranium. As uranium from all sources is blended during enrichment, every round of uranium ammunition contains a significant fraction of uranium from Canada.

At present, the world's richest uranium mine -- Cigar Lake -- is being developed in Northern Saskatchewan. The ore is up to 70 percent uranium, and is so radioactive that robots, rather than humans, may be required to mine it.

Imagine future archaeologists discovering metallic remnants of NATO's depeleted uranium weapons, like arrowheads left by prehistoric hunters. Those uranium relics will be comparable in radioactivity to the Cigar Lake ore. For uranium gets MORE radioactive as time passes, due to the spontaneous production of radioactive byproducts including some of the most potent carcinogenic agents known -- radon, thorium, radium, and polonium.

Lawyers are now arguing at the UN that uranium weapons are already illegal, under existing international law, because they are inhumane, environmentally damaging, harmful to non-combattants, and remain harmful after hostilities cease. Canadians should insist that the use of such weapons be banned.

[ Discussion Guide on Uranium ] [ The Deadliest Metal ]
[ Health Dangers of Uranium ] [ Uranium & Gulf War Veterans ]


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