By Nick Cohen
Saturday May 8, 1999
In 1991, I had my first and, alas, only taste of journalism as it is seen in the movies. I was called in the middle of the night to the home of a frightened source. After much fretting and several bottles of whisky, my appalling use of moral blackmail, which included appealing to his love for his children, succeeded and he agreed to hand over a secret document he had spotted at the offices of the Atomic Energy Authority.
My informant had been astounded by its contents. He waited until he was alone, made a copy and fled.
The depleted uranium shells used by the Allied armies in the Gulf War had left 'at least 40 tons' of radioactive dust on the battlefields of Kuwait and Iraq, the authority said. In theory, there was enough waste to 'cause 500,000 deaths'. A 'small dedicated team' should be sent to Gulf 'in total confidentiality' to establish the scale of the poisoning.
The Pentagon said that 860,000 DU rounds were fired in the Gulf War - the Americans liked the weapon because uranium strengthens shells and allows them to penetrate tank armour.
It was 'obviously not realistic' to expect mass deaths, the memo continued, because every one of half a million people would have to line up and ingest the dust, but, still, the authority was worried about radiation seeping into the water table.
The memo has been been bounced round the Internet ever since. It hangs in cyberspace, a prophesy of disaster no one quite knows how seriously to take. Could the low-level nuclear waste the West left behind explain Gulf War syndrome and the birth of deformed Iraqi children? The debate is riddled with uncertainty.
What is clear is that a US Army study in 1990 concluded that no dose of depleted uranium 'is so low' that the probability of it causing cancer 'is zero'. A single charred shell emitted radiation three times stronger than the safe limit for members of the American public. When a German scientist brought a spent uranium round back from Iraq, he was convicted by a Berlin court for 'releasing ionizing radiation on the public.'
American A-10 'Warthog' planes armed with DU rounds are in action in the Kosovo war and the Pentagon now dismisses concerns that the shells cause sickness and mutilations as paranoid fantasy.
But when our politicians foresee that the consequences of the fight against Milosevic will be with us for generations, there is a nasty and unresolved suspicion at the back of many minds that they might be predicting more than they realise.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
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