Nuclear-Free Future

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12 October 2003

Souad Al-Azzawi

In the confused tangle of nuclear weaponry treaty clauses, a new radioactive hazard has found its fatal niche: depleted uranium or DU. A waste product of the process to enrich uranium ore for use in nuclear weapons and reactors, DU is a chemically toxic alpha particle emitter with a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years – the age of our solar system. Because of its extreme density, DU is used to plate conventional shells so that they can pierce concrete and armour. When a DU-plated shell impacts its target, between 10-70 percent vaporizes into micrometer-size uranium oxide particles that can be inhaled or ingested. In the fine sand of the Gulf, uranium micro-particles, because they are electrically charged, attach themselves to the sand and remain suspended in the air for very long periods. Wind storms re-suspend the settled particles and transport them to new locations far outside the war zone. The U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute states: “DU is a low-level radioactive waste, and, therefore must be disposed in a licensed repository.” Yet there are no restrictions on DU’s use.
The deadly hazards of radioactivity are no fresh concern of Souad Naji Al-Azzawi: at the beginning of the eighties she left Iraq with her three children to study geology and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines; she received her Ph.D. for research on underground water contamination in Colorado due to nuclear power generation. Immediately after graduating in January 1991, she returned home to Iraq in the midst of the Gulf War to soon become director of the doctorate program in environmental engineering at the University of Baghdad.


“The important thing is to let people around the world know the hazards of DU.”


Though the Iraqi scientific community was nearly cut off from the outside world during the years following Gulf War I., in 1996 Dr. Souad Naji Al-Azzawi (47) was finally able to perform a survey studying the radiation in the soil, air and water in southern Iraq. The survey defined the total effective radiation dose civilian people and the American and Iraqi troops received during the 1991 Gulf War. For the international media, reports on depleted uranium are rare – the word “depleted” makes this uranium enrichment process leftover sound harmless, a fatal misunderstanding aggravated by US experts who whitewash all toxic risk. It is this mantel of silence and disinformation which Dr. Souad Naji Al-Azzawi first must pierce when she holds press conferences to publicize the results of her research. The harmful effects of DU exposure include respiratory and neurological problems, rashes, cancers, kidney and lung damage, joint and muscle pain, fibromyalgia, cataracts, memory loss, changes in the RNA in DNA, causing genetic birth defects, and a host of other conditions associated with exposure to heavy metal toxicity and radiation. In Southern Iraq there has been a sixfold rise in cancers, most especially leukaemia and lymphomas. Birth defects have soared, and flora and fauna throughout Southern Iraq also show signs of genetic mutation. Soil samples taken by Souad Naji Al-Azzawi at five sites where depleted uranium munitions were used contained 850 to 65,200 Becquerel per kilogram of thorium-234. “The natural radiation figure for thorium,” she explains, “is zero.”


What Souad Naji Al-Azzawi needs most is a mass spectrometer that can accurately measure alpha radiation. She also needs a laptop computer she can take with her to survey sites. “I want to collect more accurate scientific data. This is not so much to argue with the Pentagon. The important thing is to let people around the world know the hazards of DU.”


–Craig Reishus