Depleted uranium (DU) is a dense radioactive waste; it is a by-product of the enrichment process for nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It is extremely expensive to maintain, and stockpiles of it have accumulated since the 1940s (there are hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it in stores in the US and UK).

Military scientists are ever on the lookout for better ways of destroying things and killing people. They were able to turn this potentially hazardous waste into a weapon that does actual harm.

Depleted uranium has physical properties that are useful to the military. It is almost twice as dense as lead. Shells made with it ignite on impact and burn at 10,000C, incinerating everything around them and spreading fine particles of depleted uranium that can travel for many miles. The attraction of the seemingly unlimited cheap supply of DU with its highly effective armour-piercing properties was irresistible.

During the 1991 Gulf War, US and Allied forces fired close to a million DU shells, scattering hundreds of tons of DU particles and dust over ground and water in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The 'effectiveness' of these shells led the United States and Allied forces to introduce them into their military arsenal. Since then DU shells have been used in Kosovo and Afghanistan and again in the Second Gulf war.

This child was born in Iraq since the Gulf War. While there is no direct evidence (or research for that matter) linking depleted uranium exposure with such birth defects, doctors in Iraq report a tenfold increase in certain kinds of birth defects (including webbed or fused fingers and toes, missing eyes and vital organs, and severe brain damage) since the end of the war - and many Gulf War Veterans have parented children with similar birth defects.

Many campaigners against DU suspect it of causing the unexplained cancers among Iraqi civilians, particularly children, since the previous Gulf war. In Iraq, particularly in the south where DU shells were widely used in 1991, contamination of water, soil and crops is high and there appears to be an increase in leukaemia and other cancers.

Children are the most vulnerable, because DU accumulates in their bones, replacing calcium. High rates of leukaemia, lymphoma, and bone cancer have been recorded in Iraq. DU also causes birth deformities: children are born with shortened or webbed arms and legs, lacking eyes, mouth, brain, and there may be abnormalities in the number and shape of organs.

DU has contaminated large areas and can also be found in US military training grounds around the world and close to weapons factories.

In Britain, DU shells are test-fired at the MoD's Kirkcudbright training area and now lie in the Solway Firth. Local anxiety seems to have been calmed by MoD reassurances.

'Inevitably people are interested to know what is happening but I think that they will consider it to be part of the normal routine process of testing these weapons. It is a necessary evil and I think is perceived to be so by the populace. We have got to have defence,' said local Councillor Jane Maitland. (Question: Why is evil necessary?)

Among those against the use of DU is Professor Doug Rokke, a one time US army colonel who is also a former director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project, and a former professor of environmental science. He has said that a nation's military personnel cannot willfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions. He has called on the US and UK to 'recognise the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation'.

The effects of DU remain controversial
In the UK the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific institution, was incensed because the Pentagon had claimed it had the backing of the society in saying DU was not dangerous. In fact, the society said, both soldiers and civilians were in short and long term danger. Children playing at contaminated sites were particularly at risk. Hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium used by Britain and the United States in Iraq should be removed to protect the civilian population, they said. A UN study reached a similar conclusion. Lack of adequate medical records in war-torn countries make definitive conclusions difficult.

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