Aussie Dirty Bombs

by Dr Bill Williams (June 2003)


MAPW weaves together many strands of social concern, though our mainstay has always been nuclear weapons abolition.

Nowadays we are flat-out untangling the threads of political expediency, war mongering, nukes and terrorism. Those of us lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Australian paediatrician, Dr Helen Caldicott, on 'Enough Rope' (ABC) recently, had an eloquent reminder of the basic criteria of our concerns, concerns that we raised time and again through the eighties. In those days we demonstrated before the public, and our colleagues, the detailed breakdown of blast, incendiary and acute radiation impacts anticipated from nuclear weapons detonations. Graphics of New York, Sydney or Geelong that we projected onto targets, depicting the estimated casualty impacts according to distance from ground zero, moved a lot of people and influenced history.


In the background of these catastrophic scenarios a subtler poison lingers a lot longer than the blast and the fire: low level ionising radiation (LLIR). The nuclear industry is fond of reminding us that we evolved in a habitat bathed in LLIR, but in the last century, particularly during the days of atmospheric weapons testing, we have added drastically to its quantity and virulence. Extremely radioactive novel isotopes notorious for high-energy particle emission and the capacity to permanently disrupt DNA chains, like plutonium-239, americium-241 and strontium-90, have been incorporated into the air and the food chains of Earth as a direct consequence of man's atom-splitting extravagances.

We've known for a long time that ionising radiation was bad for us: Marie and Irena Curie's aplastic anaemiae were not the first recognized cases of radiation-induced disease, but they were probably the most momentous. And the realization that even 'low' levels of radiation are genotoxic was well documented fifty years ago, when Alice Stewart published her world-changing study of in-utero radiation-induced leukemia. Stewart, who died last year in her nineties, still hot on the trail of LLIR, struggled for decades against antipathy and resistance from the nuclear and radiological establishments. But she must have the last laugh, when every medical student on earth learns - largely because of her work - to exclude pregnancy in women of childbearing age before x-ray exposure.

The pressure exerted by Stewart and others over the ensuing decades has guaranteed the trend of sequential reductions in the official public exposure limits to LLIR. These exposure limits were initially introduced in the late forties by the world's radiation umpire, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (IRCP), a body that arose out of the nascent nuclear physics club. Physicists largely supported by the military constructed the science of radiation risk during an atmosphere of Cold War secrecy and control. ICRP still governs the orthodoxy, which (tautologically) countenances little dissent.

But certain areas of scientific discovery, particularly cell biology and the study of the immune system have made tremendous progress since the inception of the nuclear era.

During the same decade another bunch of elite scientists were coming to grips with the double-helical structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid. One unsolved aspect of the enigma was to physically image DNA, which had proved impossible, until Watson and Crick met x-ray whiz Rosalind Franklin and she showed them her snaps. Sadder than Franklin's near erasure from the history was her untimely demise from ovarian cancer, yet another prominent victim of the rays. Since those early days, biologists have identified specific LLIR-induced damage at the molecular level to nucleotide sequences on chromosomal DNA, including double-strand breaks, large deletions and sister chromatid exchange. Mutational events at key points such as the proto-oncogene or suppressor gene loci provide a credible mechanism for radiation-induced malignant transformation.

It is disturbing that the risk model within which the nuclear programme currently operates was drawn up before the discovery of DNA.


Other researchers have suffered similar treatment to Stewart in the malignant aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986. The response of the radiation risk establishment to the unexpected surge in paediatric thyroid cancer in territories most affected by the fallout was to shoot the messengers ('screening artefact', 'inadequate controls' etc.) rather than question their own flawed model. There were (probably) two significant errors in the risk models of the ICRP, apart from the fact that the effect was orders of magnitude larger than that predicted by the ICRP risk factors. The first error concerned the belief that internal irradiation of the thyroid by radioiodine was less effective than external irradiation in causing cancer. The second was in the belief that there would be a time lag of more than ten years in the onset of the clinical symptoms. In the event, thyroid cancer increases began a few years after the doses were delivered.

The ICRP applies the results of studies of external acute radiation exposure (the studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors in particular) to internal chronic exposures from point sources. By relying mainly on physical models for radiation action to support this the ICRP cannot account for the probabilistic exposures that occur at the cell level.

Two recent sets of post-Chernobyl exposure studies further falsify the ICRP risk models by factors of between 100 and 1000. These are the studies of infant leukemia and the observation of increased minisatellite DNA mutations following Chernobyl. There was a dramatic increase in genetic damage found in Belarusian children exposed to fallout isotopes and also in the children of Chernobyl liquidators born after the accident.

The data from Chernobyl has driven the further downward course of official recommended exposure levels worldwide, as organizations like ARPANSA (Australia's nuclear watch-puppy) have reluctantly acknowledged that their current guidelines are dangerously feeble. A recent report from the World Health Organisation recommends dropping the exposure limit for emergency administration with stable iodine in children to 10mGy, which is one tenth of the current Australian intervention dose. And one hundredth of the old NH&MRC standard when I was a first year Med student (1976).

Doug Rokke

Members of MAPW recently participated at meetings all over Australia addressed by the latest in a long line of radiation whistle-blowers, Dr Doug Rokke.

Dr Rokke is a health physicist, a former US military scientist who believes, and argues compellingly, that his (and many others') ill health is a direct result of exposure to depleted uranium in cleanup work in Iraq. DU is uranium left over post-enrichment, mostly U-238, no good for fission, but heavier and stronger than lead. Depleted uranium contains about 0.2% uranium-235, in comparison to natural uranium, which contains about. 0.7% uranium-235. D.U. is tough stuff - amongst it favoured roles have been ships ballast and - believe it or not - tooth fillings.

Depleted Uranium

DU has the "weaponising" advantage of being pyrophoric: it sharpens and ignites at high velocity, penetrating tank-armour and exploding. More than 70% of a DU penetrator can be aerosolised upon impact with a target resulting in rapid oxidation and burning of the uranium. There is potential for human contamination by particles of uranium oxide, as well as alterations of the biosphere such as reducing functional diversity of soil microorganisms.

Embedded fragments in wounds will solubilise and redistribute in brain, lymph nodes, gonads, liver, kidney, and spleen, with the highest concentrations in skeletal tissue. Sub-micron diameter aerosolized uranium particles may be inhaled and scavenged from the lung to the lymphatic system and thence in principle to any part of the body. Alpha-emitters cause very high doses to local cells in the 40-micron range of their disintegration tracks. Cells will be hit again and again since the particle will continue to emit radiation: a lifetime of alpha-particle bombardment of surrounding cellular microenvironments ensues.

DU is also, and less controversially, a heavy metal, with the attendant chemical toxicity. A review article in Military Medicine summarized DU's human health hazard-spectrum thus: ""DU internal contamination presents a potential neurotoxic, endocrine, reproductive, nephrotoxic, and mutagenic hazard." (Vol.167, Aug. 2002)

Not content with contaminating the globe for eons with the residue of nuclear weapons programmes, nuclear power plants and growing nuclear waste mountains, our major allies have found a novel way of combining radioactive waste 'recycling' with extra-national waste disposal in a 'programme' which requires no consent from the foreigners on the receiving end.

Australia's part

But the finger is pointing our way as well: Australia has been supplying uranium (as yellowcake) to both the US and the UK for half a century now, so it seems reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the uranium-235 and -238 now spread around Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo originated in places like Rum Jungle, Mary Kathleen, Ranger and Roxby Downs.

Australians recently went to war in the name of thwarting development of weapons of mass destruction, at the same time as we facilitated the dispersal of radioactive waste all over 'the enemy's' countryside. The cities, suburbs, towns and villages of Iraq copped over 500 (possibly 2,000) tonnes of depleted uranium in the recent blitzkrieg, sorry, "shock and awe campaign". But the military will not readily relinquish such efficacious armaments.

Depleted uranium weapons are appropriately labeled as "dirty bombs", or "radiological weapons". Their residues will linger for generations, emitting alpha particles (et al) all the while, potentially damaging the DNA of the local populations. We will never find out how much of our very own uranium waste has migrated from US and UK nuclear programmes, into their unlabelled slag heaps, then back into the military machine and thence onto the battlefield and into the lymph nodes and bone and alveoli of Iraqis and Afghanis and Kosovars.

Dispersing dirty bombs over civilian habitats is terrorism.

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