In every war there are casualties, but in modern wars, many of the casualties are yet to have been born, or even conceived. This is the case in Fallujah, where the suffering certainly did not end after the US onslaught in 2004 that directly killed many hundreds of civilians and thousands of “insurgents” (as usual in Iraq, the full death toll remains uncertain), and left much of the city in ruins, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium (DU)* have since brought new horrors in the form of birth defects, infant mortality, and a huge increase in cancers. Yet this on-going atrocity, which is hidden away behind stringent Iraqi security lines, receives almost no media attention.
If you are a person of goodwill, then before getting behind the next call for “humanitarian intervention”, be it in Syria or Uganda or elsewhere, I implore you to first watch “Fallujah: A Lost Generation?” An investigative documentary covertly filmed in Fallujah during Winter 2011, with the testimony of residents carefully backed up by evidence from scientific experts and conflict veterans, that unflinchingly shows, not so much what modern warfare looks like, as what it leaves behind.
Fallujah, A Lost Generation?
Directed by Feurat Alani
Produced by Baozi Prod
With the participation of CANAL+
Click here to watch on vimeo.
* The whole issue surrounding the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) is deliberately obscure; the term in itself being intentionally misleading to the general public. Depleted meaning ’emptied’ or ‘diminished’ and so ‘depleted uranium’ to the untrained ear sounds like a substance that is dilute in uranium, or at least significantly different from ordinary uranium such that its properties and effects are substantially reduced. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depleted uranium IS uranium, but depleted of the isotope U-235, for the simple reason that U-235 is very useful in nuclear power plants and weapons. After enrichment, the 99% of the uranium left over is mostly U-238, which is the depleted uranium.
So how are the properties of depleted uranium different from natural uranium? Well, firstly, and from a chemical point of view, uranium is uranium is uranium. U-238 being just as toxic as any of the other isotopes. But even radiologically, there is little difference between the two main isotopes. Both are alpha-emitters of similar energy. Alpha emitters produce the worst damage when taken internally compared to other types of radioactive decay. Unfortunately, they are also the hardest to detect, and so we learn from a Nato document on depleted uranium that:
With an usual hand monitor for the detection of radioactivity, a DU metallic fragment can be detected from a distance of some 10 cm without any problem.
Since the alpha and beta radiation in the air have a very limited range and only a small amount of gamma radiation is present, it is very difficult to detect remains of DU ammunition from a distance of one meter or more.
Therefore, an efficient and extensive search for DU fragments is practically impossible. A determination of the DU content in a soil sample or in the dust of an air filter with the help of gamma detectors is barely possible or even impossible. This makes it extremely difficult to establish a reliable geographical distribution of the DU contamination on the former battlefields in Iraq or Kosovo.
U-235 has a half-life of 700 million years, whereas U-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion year, which means both isotopes stick around for a very, very long time. But there is another side to this. Activity (how many radioactive particles are emitted by a sample) is also a measure of the rate of decay. Activity is therefore inversely related to half-life. So if something decays quickly, it might well be causing a lot more damage as it does so. U-235 does have a slightly higher activity, whilst other trace isotopes in natural uranium (also ‘depleted’ in the enrichment process) have shorter half-lives again, and thus, even higher activities. The removal of these trace isotopes (mainly U-234) will reduce the overall activity, but it should be noted that since 99.99% of natural uranium is either U-238 (99.27%) or U-235 (0.72%), these other isotopes make up less than a one hundredth of one percent!
In short, depleted uranium is just another name for nuclear waste – and I suppose you’ve got to put it somewhere. The estimated stocks of DU worldwide are reported to be in excess of a million tonnes. Thousands of tonnes of that waste have now been spread out across the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan (although this is still disputed) and in other parts of the world (including test ranges).