Uranium Weapons Row Won't Go Away

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - A special debate is being held in Britain's upper legislature Monday on the alleged health hazards of depleted uranium munitions, used by Britain and the U.S. in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans.

A Labor lawmaker to mark the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War - when a U.S.-led coalition reversed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, launching operations on January 16, 1991, is sponsoring the House of Lords debate.

It comes amid a deepening row over the use of weapons tipped with depleted uranium (DU), which the UK government continues to maintain are safe despite the disquiet of many British veterans, as well as NATO allies.

On Monday, a leading newspaper reported that the government's nuclear safety watchdog warned a decade ago that DU shells left in Kuwait after the Gulf War could pose a health risk to British troops.

"Handling heavy metal munitions does pose some potential hazards, as does the possibility of the spread of radioactive and toxic contamination as a result of firing in battle," said the confidential Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) report, according to The Times.

It said this could pose "a long-term problem if not dealt with," to military personnel and the civilian population alike.

Lord Morris, the lawmaker sponsoring today's debate and founder of a parliamentary group on the Gulf War, says that more than 450 UK servicemen had died since the conflict.

Campaigners suspect that exposure to the toxic dust emitted when a DU armor-piercing shell detonates may be one cause of the condition, which has been dubbed "Gulf War Syndrome."

Britain and the U.S. used hundreds of thousands of DU rounds in the Gulf, and some 31,000 were again fired during the three-month NATO operation in Kosovo in 1999. They were also used in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

The European Union and a number of European countries are investigating the cancer-related deaths of almost 20 soldiers who served in the Balkans.

Last week the UK government was pressured into announcing it would offer voluntary health screening for veterans, but Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon on Sunday reiterated its view that there is no proof of a link between DU and illnesses among veterans and peacekeepers.

Hoon said the army would not stop using the "extraordinarily effective" DU shells in its Challenger 2 tanks. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, will be phasing out use of DU in the Phalanx anti-missile defense systems used on 14 warships, because the manufacturer of the U.S. system has switched to tungsten-tipped rounds.

Defense specialists say tungsten is a safer alternative to DU, although Rupert Pengelley, technical editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, says DU is more effective and cheaper than tungsten, which is itself also toxic.

Pengelley said it was argued that future tungsten rounds could prove as effective in stopping tanks as DU-tipped ones, and without posing any environmental hazard. But he said this would only be possible if the shells were fired at a higher velocity than tank guns are currently capable of producing.

Most European states involved in the Balkans are now testing their troops, and Italy and Germany have led calls for a moratorium on deployment of DU pending further inquiry.

The current controversy has re-ignited the "Gulf War Syndrome" debate, which despite the passage of time has come nowhere near resolution.

The editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, Clifford Beal, says the focus of the row may now turn to claims for compensation by Yugoslavia and Iraq. Belgrade has already said it is reserving the right to seek compensation, and Iraq on January 10 asked the United Nations to investigate the effects of DU in that country.

"This could prove politically damaging to NATO in its Kosovo Force operation and embarrassing to the U.S.A. in sustaining its containment policy against Iraq," Beal said.

The AEA paper cited by The Times recommended that the subject of contamination be brought up with the Kuwaitis "in a sensitive manner."

"It's in the Kuwaiti and UK interests that this is not left to rear its head in the years to come," it said. "The DU will be spread around the battlefield in varying sizes and quantities, from dust particles to full-size penetrators [shells] and it would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods."

"The problem will not go away and should be tackled before it becomes a political problem created by the environmental lobby," the report concluded.

AEA spokesman Andrew Munn confirmed Monday that the report was authentic. "We're not denying that the paper was written," he said. "We're not contradicting anything or going back on anything we said. It stands as it is."

The chief prosecutor at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said Sunday the body may launch an investigation into the use of DU ammunition by NATO in the Balkans. See Earlier Story. See Earlier Story

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow