The ABCs of Disarmament, Military, and the Environment
by Judy Lowe and John M. Miller
It is not hard to understand the damage war does to
the environment: pictures of burning oil wells and the
thick black slicks of oil spills during the Gulf War remain
vivid. More recently the great movements of refugees in
Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere have placed an overwhelming
burden on land and water supplies. Last year 30,000 refugees
from Rwanda overran a village in Tanzania. As a result
the water supply ran out, the river was polluted, and
garbage and sewage piled up. While such extensive harm
to the environment is not usually a goal of war, it is
always a collateral effect.
Actual fighting is not necessary for the military to
damage the environment; war preparations are also destructive.
Producing, testing and disposing of weapons all pollute
the earth. Military training tears up the land and military
activities squander non-renewable resources. The radioactive
and toxic materials the military uses can cause cancer,
birth defects and other illnesses. The world's militaries
are poisoning the environment and thus the people they
were supposed to protect.
Nuclear weapon tests, even those held underground, have
released radioactivity. It was the presence of radioactive
Strontium-90 in children's teeth that led to worldwide
pressure to end atmospheric testing, and pressure continues
to end underground testing.
Some of the most contaminated areas on earth, and most
expensive to clean up, are the places where nuclear bombs
were made. Radioactive material and other poisons have
entered underground water supplies, rivers and the ground
The pollution at nuclear test sites, military nuclear
reactors and warhead assembly plants threatens the communities
and natural environment around them. At the Hanford nuclear
reservation in Washington state, where plutonium for nuclear
warheads was made, even the tumbleweed must be collected
to prevent the spread of radiation. At Kyshtym in the
former Soviet Union, so much waste was dumped into Lake
Karachay, it contains two and one-half times the amount
of radioactive isotopes released at Chernobyl (the worst
nuclear power plant accident in history). The lakebed
is now covered with a thick layer of concrete to contain
Safe ways to clean up and dispose of millions of tons
of radioactive waste produced by uranium mining, weapons
production, and now, the dismantling of nuclear warheads,
Simple military maintenance using cleaning agents containing
dangerous chemicals, as well as the burning of rocket
fuel, contributes to the hole in the ozone layer, which
protects us from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.
Experts estimate that the world s armies use as much
energy as the economy of Japan, about six percent of the
global total. Military vehicles and aircraft burn tremendous
amounts of fuel, and the manufacture of all weapons is
a big energy drain.
Land and water suffer from the widespread use of many
toxic substances by the military. Solvents, lubricants,
heavy metals, and pesticides are poisonous if ingested.
Improperly disposed of hazardous wastes continues to leak
into ground water and park land. The Pentagon says that
there are more than 20,000 contaminated sites spread throughout
the United States. Finding, safely removing and permanently
storing these wastes is difficult and expensive. Unexploded
bombs still litter the landscape of practice ranges and
war zones. Land mines are a special problem.
The military wants more and more land to train on. Unbearably
loud noises from supersonic jets can cause health and
other problems for residents and wildlife. In northern
Canada, the native Innu people have continually protested
low-level training flights by NATO members. They complain
that the noise scares the wildlife and disrupts their
traditional hunting practices.
Chemical weapons dumped at sea -- in the Baltic Sea,
off Alaska, Russia and elsewhere -- have contaminated
the world's oceans. Dozens of reactors from submarines,
and some nuclear bombs, sit at the bottom of the sea.
Disarmament itself brings its own environmental problems.
By their nature, weapons, full of dangerous substances,
are designed to kill. How best to dispose of them is the
subject of debate. Burning the chemical weapons might
sound fine, unless you live near the incinerator. Nuclear
materials from warheads remain radioactive for tens of
thousands of years. Technologies must be found to store
them and render them harmless.
While awareness of the environmental dangers of military
activity is growing, armies are long used to hiding behind
a veil of secrecy. Grassroots pressure has made some armies
become more environmentally sensitive, but others resist
efforts to bring them under the same environmental laws
and regulations that apply to civilians.
The international community has lagged in dealing with
these problems. The major military powers blocked the
1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development
in Rio, Brazil, from taking forceful action. In the end,
the conference paid only lip service to the environmental
problems originating from the military. The UN Environmental
Program has begun developing model environmental guidelines
for militaries during peacetime. The laws of war, such
as the Geneva Conventions and the Environmental Modification
Convention (drafted in the wake of the widespread use
of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War), target
only the most blatant alterations of the environment caused
Preventing the environmental damage that results from
war and war preparations means pursuing an active agenda
of disarmament, military budget cuts, and moves toward
peace. It involves a broadened definition of national
security that looks beyond military threats to those posed
by social injustice and environmental degradation.
(Judy Lowe is UN Representative for Peace Action.
John M. Miller is coordinator of the International Clearinghouse
on the Military and the Environment.)
Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 176,
1016 Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Tel 31.20.523.6222;
Greenpeace USA, 1436 U St. NW, Washington DC
20009, USA; Tel 1.202.462.1177; Fax 462.4507
Global Green USA, 665 Buena Vista Dr., Santa
Barbara, CA 93108, USA; Tel 1.805.565.3485; Fax 1.805.565.3846;
International Clearinghouse on Military and the
Environment, P.O. Box 150753, Brooklyn, NY 11215,
USA; Tel/Fax 1.718.788.6071; E-mail email@example.com(John M. Miller)
NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security
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