Seanad debates

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

7:00 am

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The matter I want to raise concerns depleted uranium and its use in weapons systems. I raise it in a very positive context. Earlier in this session a very useful Bill was introduced by Senator Boyle to ban uranium weapons. This was in the aftermath of Belgium becoming the first country in the world to introduce such a ban. We are in a useful position because we do not actually have any of the resource referred to. Therefore, we can take an ethical position that would not cause any disruption to employment. We can give a moral lead.

I raise this issue in the context of the commitment of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche. I refer to his very forceful and powerful intervention in the previous debate. He said the use of the weapons in question was cynical and that Ireland was committed to doing what it could. In the context of the successful moves made by Ireland and other countries to have cluster munitions banned, the banning of depleted uranium weapons is the next stage in the battle against the use of really vicious weapons.

There was recently a briefing session in the AV room given by Mr. Doug Weir, co-ordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. He was brought here by AfrI. He gave a very stark, clear, logical and precise outline of the dangers posed by uranium. Depleted uranium is nuclear waste and comes from the nuclear industry, in which uranium is used in power generation and experiments. It is very unstable and can produce a self-sustaining series of nuclear reactions if neutrons are fired at it. This releases huge amounts of energy and is the reason uranium-235, in particular, is used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Depleted uranium is the waste from which a lot of other material has been drained. It is a chemically toxic, strongly radioactive compound. When it was first manufactured in the 1940s by the United States and the USSR which were involved in their nuclear weapons programmes, they found they had a by-product which had no use. Subsequently, in the 1970s, it emerged that the Soviet army was using armoured plating on tanks that was not capable of being pierced by conventional weapons. The Pentagon discovered that it was possible to penetrate this strengthened armour by using projectile weapons containing depleted uranium. The difficulty in this regard relates to the radioactive nature of uranium and the fact that when it explodes against a hard surface, it creates a fine dust.

The weapons to which I refer were first used extensively in the first Gulf War. The dust to which they give rise tends to be blown all over the place, especially in desert conditions, and gives rise to very serious health problems for those exposed. For example, this dust can get into one's lungs and, from there, uranium compounds are deposited in one's lymph nodes, bones, brain and testes. Hard targets that are hit and penetrated by depleted uranium weapons are usually surrounded by this dust which can travel several kilometres when it is suspended freely in air. Partially exploded depleted uranium weapons can be left buried in the ground.

The effects the dust to which I refer can have on people's health are quite grim. Unfortunately, there is not time to list them in detail but I do have in my possession a list of academic papers on the subject. I will state, however, that normal functioning of the kidneys, brain, liver, heart and numerous other systems can be affected by exposure to uranium such as that to which I refer.

The uranium in question gives rise to alpha radiation which, when inhaled or ingested, is the most damaging form of ionising radiation known to man. Alpha radiation is very disruptive within the human body and leaves a trail of ionised free radicals that disrupt finely tuned cellular processes in its wake. This leads to genomic instability which is a precursor to cancer.

In every location where this material has been used, birth defects, cancers, etc. have resulted. The results of a study carried out in respect of 15,000 US veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, which were published in 2001, found that there was a doubling of the number of birth defects in the children of fathers who had been exposed. The increase in respect of children born to mothers who had been exposed was threefold. The United Kingdom, whose personnel were also exposed to uranium, established the Pensions Appeals Tribunal Service which attributed birth defect claims from February 1991 Gulf War combat veterans to poisoning resulting from exposure to depleted uranium. An evidence trail has, therefore, been established.

In 2001, doctors in Serb-run hospitals reported numbers of patients suffering from malignant diseases and an increase of 200% in the incidence of such diseases. Again, while I have in my possession numerous scientific papers which underpin what I am saying, I do not have time to read them all into the record and, in any event, doing so could prove quite tedious.

It is astonishing that the World Health Organisation, WHO, an agency of the UN, and other groups appear to have distanced themselves from the evidence to which I refer by stating that nothing concrete had been found. The International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, came to the same conclusion and queried the impact of depleted uranium weapons. These agencies are mere functionaries of the UN and I am pleased to inform the Minister of State that the General Assembly of the UN refused to accept what they stated. The General Assembly insisted that further reports be compiled and passed a resolution highlighting the health hazards to which depleted uranium weapons can give rise. The International Committee of the Red Cross stated that the effects these weapons could have did not have to be proved and that the mere possibility that they could cause serious damage to people's health should lead to caution being exercised in respect of their development or use.

The Prohibition of Depleted Uranium Weapons Bill 2009 has had its Second Stage reading. I hope this legislation will soon pass into law. I urge the Minister of State to ensure progress is made in this regard. To date, only the United Kingdom and the United States have used depleted uranium weapons. They are manufactured in the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, China, South Korea and South Africa. The countries which are believed to have depleted uranium weapons in their arsenals are the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Russia, Belarus, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, China, India and Taiwan.

The situation in respect of depleted uranium weapons is highly dangerous and their legal status is not completely clear. There is a moral argument against their use. The use of those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required is outlawed. The prohibition to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and the principles of precaution and proportionality must also be taken into account.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is running out of time.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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If the Leas-Chathaoirleach would be kind enough to indulge me, I am about to reach a conclusion. The position with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina is disastrous. NATO continues to refuse to provide co-ordinates in respect of unexploded depleted uranium weapons. Some of these weapons are buried over 1 m beneath the surface of agricultural land on which vegetables are still grown. The relevant ministry in Serbia put in place a decontamination programme, provided investment and committed to the location and disposal of these weapons. That programme has proved successful.

I reiterate the requests that have been made to the Government by the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, ICBUW. These requests include the drafting of an internationally binding uranium weapons convention that would ban the use, sale, production, testing and transport of uranium weapons, the destruction of existing stockpiles, the provision of money and expertise by the international community for decontamination, and support, medical care and environmental monitoring for communities affected by the use of these weapons.

My final point relates to the disastrous, disgraceful, illegal, immoral, unjustifiable and barbarous attacks that were launched against the civilian population of Iraq. The latter is the country which has been worst affected by the use of depleted uranium weapons. When one sees a map detailing the various sites where such weapons are to be found, it is as if one is looking at a country that has caught the measles as a result of the number of red dots in evidence. Iraq is a desert country in which the effects of the dust are magnified. We are aware of the extent of the injuries suffered, the long-term illnesses acquired, the birth defects, the leukaemia, the cancers, etc. This is a catastrophe about which the world is saying nothing. Owing to the fact that the political situation in Iraq is so chaotic, those countries which brutally assaulted it and exposed its civilian population to radiation are not taking action. It is very unlikely that the Government in Iraq could act in the same effective way as its counterpart in Serbia to address this matter.

For the reasons I have outlined, it is very important that Ireland should continue its courageous campaign to rid the world of these filthy weapons. It must be remembered that a similar campaign in respect of cluster munitions proved successful.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs who, unfortunately, cannot be present. The Government carefully follows the debate on possible health and environmental hazards from depleted uranium. We share the concerns raised at international fora, including in the European Parliament and at the UN, and agree that further studies are required to assess the potential risks involved. Ireland voted in favour of resolutions 62/30 and 63/26 at the UN in 2007 and 2008. These resolutions requested the Secretary General to seek the views of member states and relevant international organisations on the effects of the use of armaments and munitions containing depleted uranium. The Secretary General has issued one report and will submit an updated report later this year prior to further consideration of the issue by the General Assembly in late 2010.

Ireland submitted its national report on this issue to the UN in 2009. This report confirms that Ireland has never possessed any weapons, armaments or ammunition containing depleted uranium. It also states that Ireland shares the concerns raised at the General Assembly about the potential risks related to such use of depleted uranium. The report confirms that while there is no practical method of testing people who may have been exposed to depleted uranium, thorough medical examinations are carried out on all Defence Forces personnel returning from deployment overseas. These include tests intended to detect signs of the disease processes most likely to arise in cases of contamination by depleted uranium. To date, no evidence of an unusual incidence of disease has been found.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is not true.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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While a number of studies have been conducted by relevant international organisations, no definitive conclusion has been drawn on potential adverse effects of the use of armaments and ammunition containing depleted uranium on human health and the environment. Ireland will continue to closely monitor developments in the analysis of the risks associated with the use of armaments and ammunition containing depleted uranium and welcomes the engagement of civil society, non-governmental organisations and the scientific community on the issue.

Regarding exposure to depleted uranium, there have been studies of the health of military personnel who saw action in the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 and during the Balkan conflicts between 1994 and 1999. While it is not highly radioactive, depleted uranium is, nonetheless, a toxic metal and legitimate health concerns have arisen about its use on the battlefield. The studies carried out by international organisations have generally concluded that depleted uranium does not pose a significant radiological risk, while recommending various measures to reduce the potential health and environmental risks.

The World Health OrganiSation has noted that direct contact with depleted uranium metal, even prolonged, is unlikely to produce radiation-induced conditions or other effects. It has not identified long-term health consequences and has made a number of recommendations which Ireland fully supports. These include the monitoring and detection, following conflict, of levels of depleted uranium contamination in food and drinking water in affected areas where it is considered there is a reasonable possibility of significant quantities of depleted uranium entering groundwater or the food chain. Where justified and possible, clean-up operations in impact zones should be undertaken where qualified experts deem contamination levels to be unacceptable. Preventive measures should be taken where small children could be exposed to depleted uranium.

The UN Secretary General reported in 2008 on the views of member states and relevant international organisations and there will be a further report later this year. The report generally recognises the work done by the IAEA, the WHO and the United Nations Environment Programme in assessing the scale of the problem. It also points to the need for further studies and research to determine the impact of depleted uranium, as has the European Parliament.

The Department closely follows the valuable work of civil society on this issue. Officials from the Department met representatives of the International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons, ICBUW, in Dublin in June 2009 and again in both Dublin and New York in May 2010 and had very useful discussions. The Department communicated our view that to achieve an international ban, as they aspire to do, it would be necessary to conclusively establish the negative impact of depleted uranium on human health and the environment. Studies and work by reputable international organisations, including the WHO and the IAEA, will therefore be critical in quantifying the risks and conveying them internationally. The Government will continue to closely monitor the international debate on the issue.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am glad the Minister of State carefully distanced himself from support of the content of the reply and made it clear that he was simply a puppet acting on behalf of the Minister. I would be surprised if the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, supports this attitude. I do not know what gobdaw produced this rubbish. The Minister of State said: "To date, no evidence of an unusual incidence of disease has been found."

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Does the Senator have a question?

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Would the Minister of State regard a 200% increase in cancers and birth defects as evidence? The US and UK armies and various military pension funds have all found this association and an international panel of scientists have absolutely-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator has raised these questions.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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No, I have not.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Does the Senator have a question?

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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In this country we are rightly concerned about low levels of radon which is one of the by-products of depleted uranium. What is the Minister of State's response to Senator Boyle's Bill? The Green Party is in government and most Fianna Fáil Members supported the legislation. The Minister provided clear support and would be horrified by the statement that depleted uranium does not pose a significant radiological risk. This is mealy-mouthed stuff. There is a huge body of evidence and the IAEA is committed to the production of nuclear energy, of which depleted uranium is a by-product. Therefore, it is scarcely a non-conflicted party. I hope the Department will continue its discussions with the international coalition to have depleted uranium weapons banned because the facts are on their side. I am astonished that anyone, however low the position he or she occupies in the Department, could come out with this rubbish.

Those are my questions. I am sure the Minister of State who is a good friend of the House and a stalwart Laois man will communicate them to the Minister and seek a strong response.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator at least for his final comment. On the question of whether I supported the proposed legislation to ban the use of depleted uranium, I reflected not only my own views but also those of the Minister. I reiterate that Ireland has never possessed any weapons-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Neither has Belgium and that did not stop it banning them.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am not persuaded, therefore, that legislation to ban their use at this stage would add value. It is also important to note that we are awaiting scientific knowledge and support and if that evidence is received, that clearly will leave us in a different position. It cannot be taken that Ireland is sitting on the fence. That is far from the position. We have also been involved in talks in London and New York, including as recently as this month. As soon as the scientific evidence is received, Ireland will act.