NZ's Afghan veterans tested for radioactivity

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 08:44 25/06/2012

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Soldiers returning from Afghanistan are having urine tests to check if they have absorbed radioactivity from American depleted uranium munitions.

The Defence Force has confirmed the tests "as a precautionary measure", but there has yet to be a positive result.

The issue will come before Parliament on Wednesday during the first reading of the Depleted Uranium (Prohibition) Bill, backed by Labour MP Phil Twyford.

A lobby group calling for a ban on the weapons says it understands the Defence Force is unwilling to pay for a more comprehensive test for absorbed uranium.

"There is a real resistance to paying for the proper tests," Rob Green of the Peace Foundation says.

A parliamentary briefing paper with the bill says depleted uranium munitions are made from the waste from the process of enriching natural uranium for use in nuclear reactors.

It is used for armour-piercing munitions because it is heavy and burns rapidly. Widely used in Afghanistan, it gives off a very fine dust.

The paper says about a third of 800,000 US and British Gulf War veterans now claim disability benefits for a mystery illness, and there has also been a sharp increase in certain cancers and child deformities in Iraq.

There is suspicion that the same is occurring in Afghanistan, but while depleted uranium was a suspected cause, nothing had been confirmed.

New Zealand does not have the weapons, but the parliamentary paper says Defence personnel returning from Afghanistan have had to provide urine samples for testing. It also says UK specialist Dr Chris Busby has called for the Defence Force to use a more sensitive testing system because of the fineness of uranium dust.

National has written to advocates of a ban on depleted uranium, saying there was no conclusive evidence it posed a significant threat to health or the environment, while supporting continued monitoring.

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