29 Oct Did Israel Use Uranium-Based Weapons in Lebanon?
Robert Fisk has a troubling story in the Independent (UK) today raising the possibility that Israel used uranium-based weapons against Hezbollah targets during the recent conflict:
[S]cientific evidence gathered from at least two bomb craters in Khiam and At-Tiri, the scene of fierce fighting between Hizbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops last July and August, suggests that uranium-based munitions may now also be included in Israel’s weapons inventory – and were used against targets in Lebanon. According to Dr Chris Busby, the British Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, two soil samples thrown up by Israeli heavy or guided bombs showed “elevated radiation signatures”. Both have been forwarded for further examination to the Harwell laboratory in Oxfordshire for mass spectrometry – used by the Ministry of Defence – which has confirmed the concentration of uranium isotopes in the samples.
Dr Busby’s initial report states that there are two possible reasons for the contamination. “The first is that the weapon was some novel small experimental nuclear fission device or other experimental weapon (eg, a thermobaric weapon) based on the high temperature of a uranium oxidation flash … The second is that the weapon was a bunker-busting conventional uranium penetrator weapon employing enriched uranium rather than depleted uranium.” A photograph of the explosion of the first bomb shows large clouds of black smoke that might result from burning uranium.
The soil sample from Khiam – site of a notorious torture prison when Israel occupied southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, and a frontline Hizbollah stronghold in the summer war – was a piece of impacted red earth from an explosion; the isotope ratio was 108, indicative of the presence of enriched uranium. “The health effects on local civilian populations following the use of large uranium penetrators and the large amounts of respirable uranium oxide particles in the atmosphere,” the Busby report says, “are likely to be significant … we recommend that the area is examined for further traces of these weapons with a view to clean up.”
Asked by the Independent whether it used uranium-based weapons in Lebanon, Israel said that it “does not use any weaponry which is not authorised by international law or international conventions.” As Fisk points out, however, that is a somewhat misleading answer:
Much international law does not cover modern uranium weapons because they were not invented when humanitarian rules such as the Geneva Conventions were drawn up and because Western governments still refuse to believe that their use can cause long-term damage to the health of thousands of civilians living in the area of the explosions.
Many experts do indeed dismiss the dangers of depleted uranium. A commission of experts appointed by the EU concluded that NATO’s use of depleted uranium shells in Bosnia and Kosovo posed no discernible health risks, even though numerous veterans of the conflict later developed cancer. On the other hand, three leading radiation scientists accused the WHO in 2004 of suppressing a report in which they concluded that depleted uranium weapons are hazardous:
Baverstock’s study, which has now been passed to the Sunday Herald, pointed out that Iraq’s arid climate meant that tiny particles of DU were likely to be blown around and inhaled by civilians for years to come. It warned that, when inside the body, their radiation and toxicity could trigger the growth of malignant tumours.
The study suggested that the low-level radiation from DU could harm cells adjacent to those that are directly irradiated, a phenomenon known as “the bystander effect”. This undermines the stability of the body’s genetic system, and is thought by many scientists to be linked to cancers and possibly other illnesses.
In addition, the DU in Iraq, like that used in the Balkan conflict, could turn out to be contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive waste . That would make it more radioactive and hence more dangerous, Baverstock argued.
“The radiation and the chemical toxicity of DU could also act together to create a ‘cocktail effect’ that further increases the risk of cancer. These are all worrying possibilities that urgently require more investigation,” he said.
Baverstock’s anxiety about the health effects of DU in Iraq is shared by Pekka Haavisto, the chairman of the UN Environment Programme’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit in Geneva. “It is certainly a concern in Iraq, there is no doubt about that,” he said.
UNEP, which surveyed DU contamination in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002, is keen to get into Iraq to monitor the situation as soon as possible. It has been told by the British government that about 1.9 tonnes of DU was fired from tanks around Basra, but has no information from US forces, which are bound to have used a lot more.
Haavisto’s greatest worry is when buildings hit by DU shells have been repaired and reoccupied without having been properly cleaned up. Photographic evidence suggests that this is exactly what has happened to the ministry of planning building in Baghdad.
He also highlighted evidence that DU from weapons had been collected and recycled as scrap in Iraq. “It could end up in a fork or a knife,” he warned.
Time will tell who’s right.