Monday, January 17, 2011

War and the Environment - Depleted uranium, a radioactive waste

While talking to Matt the other night, the topic of depleted uranium came up. Depleted uranium is a byproduct, in essence a waste, of uranium enrichment processes for nuclear fuel and nuclear arms. I am sure you would not be terribly surprised to hear that the US and other nations produce vast amounts of depleted uranium, given that nuclear reactors are now commonplace. What I am sure you will find shocking, just as I did last week, is that depleted uranium, a radioactive waste substance with a physical half-life of 4+ billion years, and a biological half life of 15 days, has been used as ammunition in Iraq, as well as in Serbia (please click here, here, here and here). Depleted uranium is denser than lead, and therefore can more readily penetrate armour, making it particularly useful to violence. While making it much easier to blow the "enemy" up, it can also be aerosolised into sub-micron size dust that is easily inhalable. The US has used several thousand tonnes of depleted uranium in Iraq. I do like to think that I believe in the precautionary principle - if I don't know whether or not something is harmful, especially considering my judgement and gut instinct, I won't do it. (Of course, the world has thrown the precautionary principle out of the window with most environmental and public health harms.) Any level-minded person would think that any sort of radioactive substance, which is a byproduct of human activity, is likely to be environmentally damaging and toxic to both humans as well as plants and animals. (Of course, there is natural radioactivity.) It is therefore not surprising to me that investigative reports by the BBC (do not click there if you are queasy) have shown that depleted uranium has caused increased levels of cancer in new born babies in Iraq. Efforts to make toxicity information public were, of course, stamped down upon.

I think it is particularly telling of the morality and ethics of a government and state to use obviously toxic materials in war. What is more toxic than these materials is the fact that war itself is accepted and condonable. These last few posts have been dealing as much with peace as they have been with the environment, and these two issues are not mutually independent. A society and culture that condones violence to the environment, to the land, air and water that sustains it, is likely to use violence as a means to an end in dealing with other creations of our environment, namely humans. Peace with humans will only come out of a sustained and thoughtful peace with our environment - an environment that is thought of as a life-sustaining force, greater in emotional and spiritual value than any priceless monetary value we may be able to comprehend.

No comments:

Post a Comment