Robson supports halt to uranium munitions use

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 19, Easter 2001

New Zealand’s Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Matt Robson, is backing Italian calls for a suspension on the use of depleted uranium munitions.

Mr Robson has voiced his support for the suspension being advocated in Italy and Germany.

‘Depleted uranium released from fired munitions in the form of fine particles may be inhaled, ingested, or remain in the environment. In all cases it is potentially dangerous. Good science requires taking a precautionary approach, and suspending use until the risks have been properly and independently assessed,’ says Mr Robson.

Depleted uranium is somewhat less radioactive than naturally-occurring uranium but, Mr Robson notes, it is the concentration that is the issue. ‘Just as there were good reasons for moving to lead-free petrol, so also we have to be wary of the toxic effects of uranium.’

The high density and hardness of uranium when alloyed with titanium makes very effective armour-piercing shells. Depleted uranium has both low-level radioactivity and a degree of chemical toxicity. It is used in shells because the United States has large stockpiles derived from its nuclear power industry.

‘It is a very macabre form of recycling,’ Mr Robson says.

‘Prior to the present investigations, the United Kingdom and United States defence establishments argued that there was no risk from long-term radioactivity following the use of depleted uranium ammunition. Now they have agreed there needs to be further investigation. That is a step forward. As Minister I have asked officials to follow closely independent investigations currently underway.’

‘I fully support that work, but I am also concerned about the civilian population in areas where depleted uranium munitions were used. At the beginning of February the World Health Organisation appealed for $2 million to kick-start an estimated $20 million study of the effects of depleted uranium. I will be asking officials to consider how New Zealand might contribute to the proposed study.’

National investigations are taking place in European countries. Independent of these, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study is underway and the World Health Organisation sees a need for full-scale epidemiological and toxicological studies of the effects on people living in the Balkans and the Gulf.

Depleted uranium was used extensively in the 1991 Gulf War, and to a much lesser extent by NATO in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and in Kosovo last year. New Zealand Defence Forces personnel who may have been exposed on uranium battlefields in Iraq and the Balkans are being surveyed.

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