OPINION: Depleted uranium needs a rapid inquiry

There are times when I despair. I particularly despair over the latest health hysteria to dement the media - depleted uranium. Those who cause me most despair in this context are the Government, the Ministry of Defence (which is merely offering soldiers screening), the medical profession, insurance companies and the nuclear industry (in which I have an interest as secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy). You would have thought that if only as a matter of simple public relations they would be demanding a manifestly independent, international and exhaustive - but speedy - investigation into the causes of the ill-health among our soldiery and in Iraq and the Balkans, which is being blamed on depleted uranium.

There are times when I despair. I particularly despair over the latest health hysteria to dement the media - depleted uranium. Those who cause me most despair in this context are the Government, the Ministry of Defence (which is merely offering soldiers screening), the medical profession, insurance companies and the nuclear industry (in which I have an interest as secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy). You would have thought that if only as a matter of simple public relations they would be demanding a manifestly independent, international and exhaustive - but speedy - investigation into the causes of the ill-health among our soldiery and in Iraq and the Balkans, which is being blamed on depleted uranium.

I am not suggesting that people are inventing illnesses. It may well be that some of the illness stems from a fear of irradiated material.

That was noted in the Chernobyl fall-out areas, where every sneeze, nosebleed and lassitude tended to be blamed on the disaster. But it is not easy to invent cancers, which the press suggests are prevalent in the former battle areas. Cases of leukaemia - or, more accurately, any excess of leukaemia - should be especially investigated because, unlike other cancers which average five years in the making, they can be triggered by high doses of radiation.

But depleted uranium is not very radioactive. It is certainly less radioactive than ordinary uranium, which, under 1962 legislation, can be kept in a public place in amounts up to 2kg. It is not dangerous. If it were, some parts of Britain where uranium ore breaks through the earth's surface would be closed to the public. Depleted uranium is used in the keels of high-tech yachts. Because it is exceptionally heavy - 1kg can be contained within a cylinder 1.5 inches high and 1.5 inches in diameter - it is also used to balance aircraft. Because it blocks gamma rays, it is now found in hospital X-ray shields instead of lead. It has many uses apart from creating armour-piercing shells.

Ah yes, but what happens when it knocks out a tank? What if it vaporises and the vapour is inhaled? Well, the scientists I have spoken to say it doesn't vaporise. It fragments. But even if it did vaporise, I have to tell you that a few years ago, in the interests of medical science, a friend of mine, having been injected with plutonium, which our ignorant press describes as the deadliest substance known to man, then inhaled it. He is still a human dynamo at 75.

Still, common sense - which should always guide PR - tells you that in this age of ignorance, hysteria and compensation culture, depleted uranium is not going to go away. So why isn't every PRO in all those sectors which cause me despair urging a thorough-going independent inquiry? It is time, in the interests of truth and humanity, to do the sensible thing.



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