When you leave the cinema after seeing David Bradbury’s new documentary Blowin’ in the Wind it’s hard not to be enraged. While working on a documentary exploring the use of depleted uranium in US weaponry, David Bradbury discovered that a 20-year agreement was signed last year between the United States and Australia, the specific terms of which are secret, but which allows the US military to train and test its latest weapons in Australia.
Bradbury first explored the issue of depleted uranium while attending a conference at the University of Hamburg in October 2003. While there, he met whistle-blower scientists and nuclear experts, as well as doctors who had worked at Basra Hospital in Iraq. They provided him with evidence and their personal testimonies, including explicit photos and documentation detailing the occurrence of severe birth defects around the areas where depleted uranium had been used, beginning some six months after the end of the first Gulf War (1991).
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the enriched uranium processing that occurs in reactors. It is called ‘depleted’ because it no longer has a high concentration of the uranium isotopes that make ‘enriched’ uranium highly radioactive. Rather than being disposed of safely, however, depleted uranium is being ‘re-purposed’ by the United States military and uses it to cap shells because it is one of the densest metals known. Its armour piercing capabilities are unparalleled and it generates so much heat after impact that it incinerates. Shoot a depleted-uranium-capped shell into a tank and it not only penetrates but it also burns it up, along with everyone inside.
What happens next is where it gets very scary. The depleted uranium’s radioactive particles don’t just stay, impassive, at the point of impact “ depending on the circumstances, they can easily move into the lower and upper atmosphere. So, while an area of about 30 kilometres around the point of impact is most directly affected by fallout, effectively, a depleted-uranium-capped shell fired in Iraq, the Balkans, or Afghanistan can result in radioactive particles being carried anywhere in the world, via winds in the upper atmosphere.
The radioactive half-life of depleted uranium is around 4.5 billion years and what makes it so insidious is that the micro-particles are so small they are easily breathed into lungs. The body has no way to break down the radioactive intruder and exposure usually leads to lung cancer. Those affected also have children with a higher than normal incidence of severe birth defects and cancers.
We may believe that our relaxed and comfortable haven of Australia is unaffected, but thanks to our complacency there could be radioactive particles coming our way in the next downpour. The irony compounds, given it is our own yellow cake that is partly to blame. Australia supplies one third of the world’s uranium. Strange that we will not sell uranium to China, or allow the Chinese to develop a uranium mine in Australia until we have guarantees that none of it will end up in weapons, when we don’t have the same agreement with the US or other countries that are virtually giving away their nuclear waste?
The 20-year agreement we do have with the US, however, allows for weapons testing in Australia without Environmental Impact Surveys (EIS) before or afterwards. And US Navy ships recently involved in joint forces operations in Western Australia were carrying depleted uranium munitions.
The US is testing in Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton, Queensland. This is a pristine area twice the size of Sydney and suburbs, packed with biodiversity. It is a crossover zone between tropical, subtropical and temperate zones that is rare in Australia. Bradbury has discovered that under the secret treaty the US will undertake ‘smart bomb’ testing as part of its new ‘Son of Star Wars’ missile defence system.
Director David Bradbury
Joint forces operations between US and Australian troops commenced in June this year. Between now and 2007 there will be exercises of various sizes involving up to 30,000 US military personnel, ship-to-shore and aerial bombardment. They will involve warships including aircraft carriers, submarines, and destroyers (all nuclear powered) sailing around and through the Great Barrier Reef. And we won’t know what heavy metals or other carcinogens will be used in these exercises.
Given what the US has done when testing weapons in other parts of the world, we should be gravely concerned. For instance, in Vieques, Puerto Rico cancer rates amongst kids 11 years to 19 years is 256 per cent higher than on surrounding islands where there are no US bases. There are similar toxic nightmares in former US bases in Japan and the Philippines, which will take hundreds of years to clean up. This is what makes Canberra’s secret agreement so alarming. The US is exempt not only from EIS but from any Australia law.
David Bradbury is an Australian with an international reputation as a film maker. He has been nominated twice for Academy Awards for his documentaries Frontline and Chile: Hasta Cuando?. And his other documentaries include Public Enemy Number One, South of the Border and State of Shock.
Bradbury is a no-nonsense film maker. He doesn’t go in for flash graphics or recreations. While Blowin’ in the Wind was made on a tiny budget of just $12,000, it packs a great deal of punch into its 62 minutes.
Blowin’ in the Wind is being released by Dendy Films on 27 October.
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