South Asians Against Nukes | January 27, 2004


by Padmanabhan VT *
[27 January 2005]

The explosion and fire in a smelter recycling the military scrap imported by a recycling unit in Delhi in Sept 2004 had received wide media coverage. As per the reports the cargo originated from Iran. Iran and Iraq were locked in a 10 yearlong war during the eighties. In comparison to the wars fought by the US and allies in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan during the past 14 years, that one was a very low-key conflict. All these countries also share a land border with Iran. Moreover, Iraq and Afghanistan are still in a state of disequilibria, their foreign trade is not normalized as of now. Hence, it is likely that the scrap is the byproduct of these recent conflicts. The wars fought during the past fifteen years under the leadership of USA in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo were radioactive wars. They did not use atom bombs, but the projectiles they fired contained uranium238, which is generally known as depleted uranium (DU).

What Is Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium is a waste generated during the production of atom bombs and nuclear power. Uranium found in nature contains two isotopes, U235 and U238. The atoms of U235 can be fissioned by a neutron and this generates one or two fission products, well known among them being strontium90, cesium137 etc and a couple of neutrons. A part of the matter in the fissioned atom is converted to energy, as per the well known Einstein's equation-- E=mc2. This conversion happens instantaneously in a bomb and slowly in a controlled manner in a nuclear power plant. U238 is not in itself fissile, but it can capture a neutron and transmute into plutonium239, which is fissile. U238 is known as a fertile material. The uranium ore found in nature contains 99.3% of U238 and 0.7% of U235. The concentration of U235 has to be increased to about 3% in the case of reactor fuel and about 20% for the atom bombs. (All the reactors in India, other than the US supplied ones in Tarapur are of CANDU type, which uses natural uranium.) During the enrichment, the natural uranium goes through a centrifuge, where the metal is gasified and the two isotopes are separated. With the technology now available, only about 75% of U235 contained in the natural uranium can be extracted. This leaves a waste that contains 99.8% of U238 and about 0.2% of U235, known as depleted uranium (DU) -- depleted of U235. An estimated 1.5 million tons of DU is lying as radioactive waste in about half a dozen major nuclear nations, like US, Russia, France and Germany. This is growing by about 50,000 tons a year. The stockpile in US is about 600,000 tons.
DU in Conventional Weapons

U238 in the densest element found in nature. It has a specific gravity of 18.5, it is 75% denser than lead. American and British military industry has been coating the conventional weapons (artillery, tanks and aircrafts) with DU since the seventies. Projectiles with DU can penetrate the armoured steel of military vehicles and buildings, more easily than the conventional warheads that use a lead and tungsten alloy. Likewise a tankís DU-coated armour plate can withstand the hits from conventional projectiles. Secondly, it is pyrophoric, i.e., it inflames when reaching its target generating such heat that it explodes. Apart from the USA, countries like the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan and Japan are reported as having DU weapons. When a projectile hits a target, 70% of its DU burns and oxidizes, bursting into highly toxic, radioactive micro particles. Being so tiny, these particles can be ingested or inhaled after being deposited on the ground or carried kilometres away by the wind, the food chain or water. A 1995 technical report issued by the American Army indicates that "if depleted uranium enters the body, it has the potentiality of causing serious medical consequences. The associated risk is both chemical and radiological". Deposited in the lungs or kidneys, uranium 238 and products from its decay (thorium 234, protactinium etc) give off alpha and beta radiations, which cause cell death and genetic mutations causing cancer in exposed individuals and genetic abnormalities in their descendents over the years.
Until 1990, these weapons were tested within the national territories of US and Okinawa in Japan. In its 110,000 air raids against Iraq, the US A-10 Warthog aircraft (which is essentially a plane made around a gun) launched 940,000 sorties using projectiles, each having 300 grams of DU. In the land offensive, their M60, M1 and M1A1 tanks fired a further 4,000 larger caliber DU projectiles. According to the data released by the pentagon, 300 tons of DU has been used up in the 1990 assault against Iraq. A few more tons of DU munitions were burnt and aerosolized in a fire at the US military base in Doha, Qatar. Quantity used in Kosovo was 11 tons. Pentagon has not released the data on DU used in Afghanistan and in Iraq during the wars of this century.
After the Gulf War, Iraqi and international epidemiological investigations have revealed the appearance of new, difficult to diagnose diseases (serious immunodeficiencies, for instance) and a spectacular increase in congenital malformations and cancer, both in the
Iraqi population and amongst several thousands of American and British veterans and in their children, a clinical condition known as Gulf War Syndrome. More than 90,000 of the 600,000 US soldiers who participated in these wars have illnesses attributed to their exposure to DU aerosols in the battlefield. These new class of victims are known as DU veterans. Similar symptoms to those of the Gulf War have been described amongst a thousand children residing in areas of the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia).
Who are at Risk in India?
The UK war minister was arrogant enough to say that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will decontaminate the West Asian battlefields! That did not happen. The orphaned and impoverished children around the war zone, who make a living out of selling the scrap, do this dirty job which could have cost about a billion-pound for the polluter. The first victims in India will be the workers in the smelting plant. Part of the melting metal will be aerosolized, the workers will inhale these micro-particles, which will settle down in their lungs, irradiating the stem cells that are the target cells for lung cancer. If uranium deposited in the respiratory tract is dissolved by the body fluids, it will further move to kidney and other internal organs. Part of the uranium that reaches kidney will be excreted through urine. The aerosolized uranium can also travel beyond the shop floor. In the US, DU has been found in the air, some 50 kms away from the source of emission. If the smelting unit is in a densely populated region, children and pregnant women in the neighborhood will also receive their exposures. Fetus and children are more susceptible to radiation insult. From the smelting units, the recovered metal will be shipped to factories manufacturing consumer goods, exposing the workers there also. And from here, it finally reaches the homes and offices.
Radium-Laced Ganapathi Idols
As if that is not enough, India is also importing radioactive consumer goods. According to a Lucknow datelined report in the Hindu during the last festival season, radium-coated Ganesha --(the Hindu God with an elephant's head, the one who removes the hurdles in the path of the believers) idols from China was available in the market at Rs 500 and upward. Radium is a daughter of uranium. Because of its luminescence, it was earlier used in dials of wristwatches and military hardware. Radium is now being replaced by a less hazardous element. A little bit of radium in the dial will not cause any hazard to the wearer, but its ingestion, even in nano-gram quantities can have dangerous consequences. Like DU, radium is also a by-product of the nuclear weapon and power projects.

The Regulatory Regime

There are rules that prevent the movements of radioactive materials. These rules are more or less common in all the nations today. A German physician working with the affected children in Iraq was arrested at the Berlin airport for carrying a small piece of DU ammunition from Iraq for laboratory investigations. In India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the citizens from all unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. The radiological dimension of the recent wars is not unknown to the Indian nuclear scientists. On hearing the news, the agency should have acted immediately, cordoned off the area, analyzed the scraps and declared them as radioactive waste, if they contained DU. Exposure to the soldiers who defused the live ammunitions, firemen, workers of the smelting units and of course the journalists who covered the story should have been avoided.

The DU recycling industry in India may be as old as the new radiological war. In which case, Americaís radioactive waste is now in many an Indian homes and offices. Thousands of workers may have also been exposed, without their knowledge. AERB has to step in, as it is never too late. All the scrap and the smelted metal ingots containing DU will have to be treated as radioactive waste as per the international guidelines. The believers who have installed the idol in their homes and the traders who are holding the stock should avoid personal contacts and deposit them with the nearest science labs for their final destination, i.e. the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay.

India, as they say, is a responsible (sic) nuclear weapon state. Besides the bombs, India also has nuclear power stations in six States, all of them near densely populated cities and villages. The US supplied reactors in Tarapur, Maharasthra, are more than 40 years old. According to the textbook, the maximum useful life of a nuclear plant is 30 years. More than three fourth of the nuclear reactors under construction in the world today are also in this blessed land. All of us should feel relieved as we only narrowly escaped from a Chernobyl like accident at Kalpakam recently. The floodwaters of the Asian quake of 27th Dec 2004, surely might have carried the intermediate and low level radioactive waste, which are usually dumped in the open ground, to the Bay of Bengal. That surely will come back to the land and enter the human bodies through fish. The amount of radioactivity lost to the sea will probably remain unknown for a long time.

Radiation cannot be seen, felt or smelt. Sophisticated gadgets are required to detect its presence in the environment. There are only about half a dozen crude portable radiation counters with non-governmental individuals in India, about one dosimeter per 200 million people, not bad for a cow country, if the comparison is between the N weapon states in our neighborhood. Almost all the sophisticated gadgets that measure radiation are with the nuclear establishment. None of the well-known environmental NGOs in the country have any expertise in any branch of radiation either. The mainstream media, print as well as audio-visual, seem to be blissfully ignorant of the sources and hazards of ionizing radiation. A Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India to look into the environmental hazards from industries in Cochin, Kerala, did not know what do look for in the Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL), which has one of the largest radioactive waste repositories in Asia. The committee members who visited the industrial area might have inhaled a few aerosols of alpha emitting thoron-daughters like polonoium, thalium, bismuth etc, which originate from the stocks inside IREL and move along with the wind to other factories, homes and schools. Incidentally, unlike other nuclear facilities in India, independent data on this facility are available in the public domain, lot of it in EPW also.

If the cargoes contained radioactive elements, their import and further movements in the civilian arena is illegal. The regulatory regime in the country has been caught napping. They have to be woken up. But as the regulators are also embedded in the weapon establishment, they might desist from 'scarring' the people. Who knows, the Indian soldiers may also have to fight the radiological battles some day. It is time that the information industry, non-weapon establishments and the civil society in Pakistan, China and India behaved as responsible institutions in a nuclear weapon State.

For the Adivasi (First People) uranium is the Rainbow Serpent. Disturbing the Serpent, they believe, will cause unimaginable suffering to all life forms on the planet. Half a century through the fissile era, writing in the science journal Nature in 2002, Eyre-Walker and Keightly -- two prominent scientists in evolutionary biology and genomics, tell us that the human genome is essentially disintegrating. Several independent scientists believe that this disintegration manifested in the form of infertility, genetic disorders and hereditary cancers is caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. From the sacred lands of the aboriginals in Saskatchewan and Colorado in North America to the banks of Tigris and Euphrates -- one of the cradles of civilizations, and from there to the fertile plains of the Yamuna and the Kaveri - the abodes of Kaali, Patanjali and Kabir - the Serpent has had a long, dangerous and torturous journey. This is not an ominous sign. India can do well without the warmongers' crap.


This writer is aware that this is not an analytical paper to be published in an academic journal and hence accepts part of the moral responsibility for the unnecessary exposure of several people after the news of explosion was flashed. The excuses that he had sent emails to some newspapers and that he was busy reviewing the post-Chernobyl infant leukemia epidemiologies in Europe is not very convincing at this stage.

(* Padmanabhan VT
Pathayakkunnu PO, Tellicherry, Kerala 670 691 [India]
E-mail: vtpadma @ )