UK’s depleted uranium plan shows no lessons have been learned from the Iraq war
The UK plans to give tank-busting depleted uranium (DU) ammunition to Ukraine. This shows, once again, that nothing has been learned from the Iraq war. The plan to send the radioactive arms came to light as the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion passed. Fallujah in Iraq still records high rates of birth deformities and cancer years after the munitions were used there.
Russian president Vladimir Putin slammed the decision. He said Russia would:
respond accordingly given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component’.
Meanwhile, US sources said the munitions were in common use. Effectively, the US is suggesting that the use of this form of weapon is unremarkable. However, the dangers are undeniable.
The West used DU ammunition in the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. The effects of DU became most evident in Fallujah. As the NGO Nuclear Risks has it:
The use of depleted uranium in the war on Iraq in 2003 has led to exposure of the local population to radioactive uranium dust. This could potentially explain the significant rise in cancer and congenital malformations documented in Fallujah after 2003. In addition, soldiers who were in contact with the radioactive ammunition also have increased morbidity rates.
But there is another aspect to British DU munitions. The 2016 Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq drew on an important military report. It detailed that the UK sees no need clean up its deadly remnants. As a 2016 report in The Ecologist outlined:
In other words, the UK’s stance is that chemically toxic and radioactive DU ‘ash’ from spent munitions is strictly the problem of the country in which the munitions were used, in this case Iraq – and that the UK, which fired the DU shells, has no formal responsibility of cleaning up the mess.
The key point here is that DU takes a deadly toll long after a war ends:
Vehicles contaminated by DU – for example destroyed tanks, armoured personnel carriers – pose a particular risk to civilians, both to workers in the scrap metal industry and to children who may play on them. Levels of contamination can be high and, because the interiors are not exposed to the elements, DU may remain in the vehicles for long periods.
Deadly waste is a major concern in modern warfare. Ukraine’s vast farmland is already being poisoned, as revealed on NPR:
Soil tests performed by scientists found high concentrations of toxins like mercury, arsenic and other pollutants that, you know, we assume are byproducts of the war in Ukraine. It’s my understanding that these tests show that these toxins are in millions of acres of farmland and forests.
Indeed, other forms of toxic war waste also endanger people in Iraq and Afghanistan even after military withdrawal. Burn pits, where all manner of toxic material was torched daily during the occupations, are a prime example. The Centre for Cultural Anthropology warned:
Pollution and toxification are central to US military violence. The burn pits both exemplify and render in microcosm the way such violence fosters some privileged lifeworlds by destroying others.
Modern warfare turns the battlefield toxic. Ukraine’s vast farmlands – the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ are already showing these effects. To add more radioactive munitions to the chaos is highly irresponsible.
On top of this, the UK still maintains that it has no duty to clear up its toxic war waste. The world desperately needs a commitment by all countries to step away from these kinds of lethal materials.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to 770 x 403.
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