The Aishah Ali Interview
With Geoscientist Leuren Moret
Ever since she knew about the devastating effects of radiation and depleted uranium pollution on the world as a result of nuclear weapons, geoscientist Leuren Moret has been on a crusade to stop wars and weapons testing.
The War Crimes Conference and Exhibition held at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur recently was eye-opening and conscience-raising in its condemnation of the atrocities of war. During the three-day event, attendees gained insight into the horrors of past conflicts and the impending threat to our future if wars continue. Among the many impassioned pledges was a move to establish a War Crimes Tribunal in Malaysia this year and try US President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard for their roles in initiating the illegal Iraq war.
The Kuala Lumpur Initiative to Criminalise War is a global movement introduced several years ago by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia. The February War Crimes Conference is the most recent of the annual events organised by the Perdana Global Peace Forum. The event fielded distinguished speakers who shared their expertise and showcased a number of war victims from Iraq and Palestine who gave a human face to the grim discourse with their heartrending testimonies.
Among the eloquent speakers was geoscientist and international radiation specialist Leuren Moret, who gave a startling revelation about the effects of radiation and how our global environment has been contaminated from atomic bomb testing since 1945 to the present, and how this pollution has sharply increased since the US introduced depleted uranium (DU) weapons to the battlefields for the first time with the 1991 Gulf War.
This, she says, has caused a world epidemic of cancer, diabetes, neuro-muscular diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, diseases of the heart and brain and infertility.
A US nuclear weapons lab whistle blower, Moret has spoken in 46 countries as she feels it is her obligation to share the devastating results of her research, which she began after working at two nuclear weapons laboratories in California from the 1970s to 1991.
What she has to say will not only shock, but also answer the question we have always asked: why are so many people suffering from cancer and unexplained diseases of the heart, brain and nervous system these days?
Aishah Ali: Your talk was scary. Can I ask you to elaborate on the effects of radiation and DU on our health? First of all what is your role at this conference?
Leuren Moret: My role is to introduce the radiation issue as a world war crime. It is extremely important for Malaysians to know because particles from radiation and DU are everywhere in the air. We drink the same water, we breathe the same air and we eat food from soils that may have been contaminated. That's why the pollution of the environment and the atmosphere is so important for the future of humanity and it is directly affecting public health here in Malaysia. 1 have been reading about increased infertility in Malaysia, which is part of the global trend.
AA: Why us? We are so far away from the war zones.
LM: These tiny radioactive particles are all over the world in two weeks. When a nuclear bomb explodes or when a DU weapon burns, it produces radioactive poison gas. Uranium when it burns is hotter than the sun and it forms extremely tiny particles. These particles stay in the air until rain or snow removes them and they contaminate our soil and water. Areas where there is high rainfall such as Hawaii, or the coastal areas in Southeast Asia, have much higher levels of radiation rained out into the local environment. Of course, this damages all living things, not just humans.
AA: How do they get into our body and damage our health?
LM: You know why people smoke opium? When you inhale the smoke, it gets into your bloodstream very fast. If it's eaten, it goes through your digestive system. But if you inhale or inject it into your blood veins, it goes all over your body. What happens is, the tiny particles in the lungs go into your bloodstream and your bloodstream goes everywhere in your body — to your bones, brain, even contaminating your hair. It has devastating effects. The first is the heavy-metal chemical effect. You know how lead and mercury are very toxic? Uranium is also a toxic chemical. The metal reaction will give your body horrible rashes and allergies. Another is the radioactive effect where nuclear particles disturb the cells. Our cells communicate with one another but what happens is the radiation damages the signals and cells start to malfunction. The third and most serious effect of DU is the nanoparticle or "particulate" effect. Because the suspended DU particles which travel around the world are so tiny, they disturb the signalling and information flow in the cell processes and functions of the body. You get what is called chronic diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome where people get tired all the time, that's from radiation damage; or obesity which is caused by damage to the information flow in the cell; or neuro-muscular diseases like multiple-sclerosis where people are unable to walk because their nervous systems are damaged. DU is a systemic poison which causes a web of diseases that cascade into many illnesses
AA: What exactly is DU?
LM: DU is radioactive trash from the atomic weapons project and the nuclear power industry. It is a radioactive metal and occurs in three isotopes (forms of a chemical element differing in their atomic weight) — Uranium 238, Uranium 235 and Uranium 234. They all behave the same chemically because they have the same number of electrons in the outer shell, but they are slightly different in mass. The isotope that scientists want is Uranium 235 because it will explode in nuclear bombs like the Hiroshima bomb. Today they mine the uranium and take 0.5 per cent out of U235 from the ore to make into nuclear reactor fuel. The rest is trash. It's called depleted uranium or DU because they have removed the half per cent of U235. It's a bomb tester's term. It does not mean it is depleted in radiation. It is depleted in U235 because the vital half a per cent has been extracted.
AA: But it is still dangerous?
LM: Of course! This is in huge junk piles stored in drums in solid metal at the Department of Energy sites in the US. The US is using thousands of tons of DU in dirty bombs, dirty missiles and dirty bullets all over the Middle East and Central Asia. We're importing it from Canada, Belgium and South Africa. It is very profitable and so investment firms invest in corporations manufacturing DU weapons because they may get as much as a 35 per cent return annually on the investment. We have to take the profit out of war in order to end this global, permanent war economy, which is destroying the earth. Fortunately the Belgian Parliament has just passed a law abolishing all DU weapons manufacturing, testing, storage and sales. It is the first country in the world to do this. This is extremely significant because Belgium was exporting DU weapons to the US; it is the headquarters of NATO and the seat of the European Parliament.
AA: When I visited Iraq before the war, I saw babies in hospitals dying of leukaemia. Would that have been from DU exposure?
LM: Yes, the DNA is damaged but the babies were also exposed while in their mothers' wombs. So they were born with birth defects, underweight and not healthy There are also babies born without eyes. It is an extremely rare birth defect called anophthalmia and it ranges widely from case to case in 20,000-40,000 live births. But recently a doctor in Jordan reported 12 such cases in Iraqi babies and children. These babies are born alive but their eyes are not developed. Eyes in the foetus are formed in the first month, so in such cases, particles of DU in the mother's body interfere with the development of the baby.
AA: So this means the risks are more when you live in the war zones?
LM: Jordan's next door to Iraq and so is Israel. So it is like living on the battlefield. That is why DU weapons are illegal firstly, they are radioactive weapons, which make them illegal. Secondly, they arc illegal because they travel off the battlefield and poison the whole world with an invisible, silent, tasteless, radioactive gas, like Chernobyl (Russia) did. Thirdly they continue to act long after the battle is over, 4.5 billion years is the half-life of' DU. The fourth factor which makes them illegal under international law is that they kill and maim inhumanely not only enemy soldiers, but our own soldiers, civilians and all living things. This makes them completely illegal Weapons of Mass Destruction.
AA: You also mentioned some astounding figures on rising cases of diabetes and cancer.
LM : Yes, the World Health Organisation announced in April 2003 that cancer will increase globally by 50 per cent by 2020, and diabetes will increase from 30 million cases globally to 230 million cases over the next 20 years. There is a global epidemic of lung cancer now and a huge increase in diabetes cases, which can only be explained by a global environmental event such as global pollution of the atmosphere with DU.
AA: Wouldn't the soldiers sent to the Gulf War suffer even more?
LM: Yes, we have a 55 per cent disability rate for those who served in the Gulf region. They didn't have to be in the battlefield, they were just in the region and yet half of them have DU poisoning. They have DU in their bodies, in their semen and they contaminate their wives and partners and cause babies to be born with birth defects. There was a photo essay in Life magazine recently on children and babies of the first Gulf War veterans. It's titled "The Tiny Victims of Desert Storm ". It shows horribly disfigured (post-Gulf War I) babies playing with their normal siblings, who were born before their fathers went to war. These babies don't have legs, some don't have arms or they have hands coming out of their shoulders. The same has happened in many Iraqi, Afghan, Yugoslav babies. It will soon begin happening in Israel to new babies exposed to the DU particles drifting into Israel after the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon with thousands of American DU bombs. Already there are large increases reported by Israeli doctors in northern Israel, where the rainfall is highest in Israel. It's very simple. You cannot use nuclear weapons without nuking yourself. In fact, Israeli soldiers were advised that if they wanted to have children, to leave their sperm in sperm banks before they went to Lebanon in the July attacks.
AA: What about people living close to nuclear power plants or nuclear bomb-testing sites?
LM: Many studies have shown that children's health has suffered as has that of living species like fish. I was part of a group studying the level of radiation in the teeth of children living around nuclear power plants in the US, England and Japan. We collected baby teeth and measured the radiation. Then we went to the children's cancer hospital and got the baby teeth from children living in the same area who were suffering from cancer. They had twice as much radiation in the baby teeth. And as the radiation levels go up and down each year, the cancer rates go up and down exactly following the radiation level in the baby teeth. So, people who live around nuclear power plants do not have healthy children. Adults also suffer rare cancers, chronic fatigue, thyroid problems and are giving birth to unhealthy and brain-damaged babies. I call nuclear technologies "the death of birth".
AA: What happens to living species close to bomb testing sites?
LM: There are severe effects on all living things near a nuclear bomb testing site, but low-level radiation exposure on the other side of the world also has very severe effects. For example, the DU causes a drop in the fishing catch in the ocean. A study showed a drop to 50 per cent of the fishing catch over the North Atlantic during bomb testing. As soon as the US, Russia and England signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, fishing catch recovered from one million tons to four million tons in four years. But in the Pacific the fishing catch has declined by 65 per cent since 1970 and never recovered because some countries — India, Pakistan, China and France continued bomb-testing.
AA: So you've been around the world talking about this? Why did you decide on such a crusade?
LM: (Laughs) I thought I was going to be a mother, cook, sew and have a totally normal life. But once you work in a nuclear weapons laboratory it's like joining the Mafia. You can let go of them but they cannot let go of you. I just learned the hard way that radiation is forever. I didn't know anything about radiation before. I'm a geologist and a geoscientist uses radiation to determine the age of the rocks. I measure the radioactive isotopes or minerals in rocks to determine the age of the rock and formation of the mountain range. "Then I went to work at two nuclear weapons laboratories. At the Lawrence Berkeley Lab I studied how magmas are created, and what happens when volcanoes erupt and how the ash and dust go all over the world. That helped me to understand how nuclear weapons and the fallout, rainout or snowout can go all the way around the world because it becomes a component of atmospheric dust. Millions of tons of atmospheric dust each year are transported all around the world with a lot of "hitchhikers" like fungi, bacteria, viruses and of course, radioactive isotopes. That was interesting to me because I have been working so many years with atmospheric dust!
AA: Did you leave the job?
LM: I wanted to travel and look for adventure. Then I came back in 1984 and had my daughter, Zephyr. To support her, I worked at the Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory in California. I was working on the Yucca Mountains project, an ongoing project for the last I5 years to find a suitable repository to store nuclear waste from the nuclear weapons, nuclear power plant and the DU programmes. Even though they spent over US$3 billion of taxpayers' money, the government wasn't able to build a repository. Instead I observed extensive science and contractor fraud on the most important public works project in the history of the US. In fact, the radioactive pollution and the secrecy of the nuclear weapons programmes in the end will destroy all of the nuclear superpowers. That's because there is another greater superpower, and that is the superpower of public opinion.
AA: So you became a whistle blower?
LM: Yes, in I991. I became completely disillusioned with science in the United States because I discovered in those two years at Livermore that most scientists are "prostitutes" for the military or corporations. I remember standing in my laboratory in 1991, looking out of the window, and I said I didn't want to be a science prostitute anymore. I packed everything into my car, drove out the gate and said 'I'M OUT OF JAIL. OH, THIS FEELS WONDERFUL!'
AA: Did they try to stop you?
LM: No, but little did I know that when you step over that line, that invisible line, and you go against the nuclear power programme, you get tangled in the politics of radiation. I was completely devastated by the retaliation by the University of California and the Livermore lab. They bankrupted me, they broke into my house, my car, they kidnapped my daughter when she was I3 and I didn't see her until she was I8. They try to run whistleblowers off the road and they have killed some. They did everything to intimidate and frighten me. All I can say is that when the going gets tough the tough get going. I learned to be much stronger and I'm lucky to be alive. The best thing of all is that I lost all of my fear. Now they are afraid of' me.
AA: You are an inspiration!
LM: What really changed my life was my first trip to Japan in 2000. I was invited to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Conference and in those two Peace Museums I saw the truth about the horrors of nuclear weapons. (In 1945 the uranium bomb named "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima. A few clays later "Fat Man", a plutonium bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki.)
In the Hiroshima museum there are pictures of the people with their skin dripping from them and the shadows of the people on the stone walls and on the steps where people were sitting when they were vapourised by the effects of the bomb. It was astounding to see that. I was okay until I was standing under the model of "Little Boy", the bomb they dropped in Hiroshima.
Because I was a nuclear weapons laboratory whistle blower, I had all the cameras in my face and did so many television and newspaper interviews. Then in the Hiroshima Peace Museum I looked up and saw "Little Boy". I felt so terrible because I knew that scientists like me had made that possible. I started to cry and I could not stop. That was the moment when I decided that I had to spend the rest of my life educating the public about the terrible health impact of nuclear technologies. I could not do anything more important as a mother, a scientist and a Pacifist. And then a miracle happened, after seven years of constant research and speaking out all over the world.
Tun Dr Mahathir invited me to the War Crimes Conference in Kuala Lumpur because he believes that radiation is the most important issue today. Of course, he and his wife are both medical doctors, so they could understand how devastating radiation can be to biological systems. He is the first world leader to take up the radiation issue.
Wouldn't it be nice if Malaysia was the country that saved the world? I think we should work very hard to support Tun Dr Mahathir's Kuala Lumpur Initiative to Criminalise War. We really have no other choice.