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Depleted Uranium

by S. Brian Willson
1999; Updated September 25, 2003

"If depleted uranium enters the body, it has a potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with depleted uranium are both chemical and radiological."

--Army Environmental Policy Institute, 1995

Depleted Uranium (DU/U-238), about half as radioactive as natural uranium (U-235) and twice as heavy as lead, possesses a half-life of four and one-half billion years. It is known to have been used first during Desert Storm in Iraq by U.S. Army tanks and Air Force jets during the 43-day aerial bombings in January-February 1991. In that undeclared war, as many as five hundred thousand Iraqi military and civilians were exposed to DU along with at least 200,000 of the nearly 700,000 U.S. military personnel who were deployed in the war region. None had been warned in advance of DU's dangers. There is a possibility that DU was also used earlier during the U.S. "Operation Just Cause" invasion of Panama launched just after midnight on December 20, 1989, where it is believed that the U.S. experimented with several secret weapons technologies.

The Pentagon reported that the U.S. exploded nearly 11,000 DU rounds (3 tons) in Bosnia in 1994-95. During the renewed December 16-19, 1998 bombings of Iraq (which in effect did not stop until summer 2003) that occurred during the U.S. House of Representative's impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, over 400 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, costing nearly a million dollars each, were exploded in Iraq, all of them believed to have been tipped with DU. And beginning on March 24, 1999, the U.S.-led NATO forces under the command of U.S. General Wesley Clark, without the required U.S. Declaration of War, commenced 79 days of more than 40,000 sorties of missile and aerial bombing assaults against Kosovo and Serbia, ending June 10. The Pentagon admits that it used so much DU there that it has no idea how many locations may be contaminated by the radioactive dust left behind, and has refused to cooperate with United Nations teams investigating the extent and locations of its use.

A September 21, 2003, issue of the Sunday Telegraph/UK, estimated up to 2,000 tons of DU may have been used by the U.S. and U.K. in their March-May 2003 naked aggression and "shock and awe" assault against Iraq. However, it is significant that the U.K.'s army recently announced its decision to commence phasing out use of depleted uranium rounds in its tank guns. Even though the weapons were used successfully in Iraq and Bosnia, U.K. veterans have been complaining of chronic sickness after service in Kosovo and Iraq.

A "waste" product of the process used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear reactor power plants and nuclear weapons production, the Pentagon loves the toxic and radioactive material because it is cheap, plentiful, and extremely effective in penetrating heavy tanks and other armored vehicles. Approximately 700,000 tons of this discarded radioactive material have accumulated within the United States over the 60 years of the nuclear age.1 When a DU-coated projectile impacts a solid surface, the pyrophoric properties of this heavy metal cause it to ignite. As the projectile quickly burns through the armor the intense heat results in an aerosolized release of radioactive alpha particles. During the explosion, uranium combines immediately with oxygen, producing clouds of uranium oxide dust known to be chemically poisonous and believed to be highly carcinogenic. Thus a DU weapon's explosion exposes the living environment to both nuclear and chemical poisoning. Ingestion of uranium oxide particles in the body subjects humans to internal, versus external, radiation, requiring appropriately new medical research to determine the impacts on the DNA and on performance of various bodily functions.

Even more frightening is discovery of the Pentagon's use of a dangerous "nuclear waste cocktail" that includes transuranic elements such as plutonium, neptunium, and americum. This suggests pure uranium (U), as well as depleted uranium (DU), is included in the spent nuclear fuel mix. There are apparently only three U.S. locations possessing such "nuclear cocktails"--nuclear plants in Paducah, Kentucky, Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.2

The fierce U.S. attacks on Afghanistan begun in October 2001 continue quietly into late 2003 with U.S. special forces troops conducting ground operations while supported by bombing. Though both the United Kingdom and U.S. governments denied using DU in Afghanistan, Dr. Asaf Durakovic of the independent Canadian Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) sent two scientific study teams to Afghanistan in mid and late 2002. Their results shocked them. Urine samples revealed concentrations of toxic, radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400 times greater than that found in Gulf War I veterans tested in 1999. However, their findings indicated use not of the "dirty" DU and U cocktail used earlier in Iraq and Bosnia, but high concentrations of NON-depleted uranium (radiologically dangerous milled uranium ore that would technically allow denial of use of DU weapons). This suggests use of large uranium warheads – radiological bombs – a closely guarded military secret. The use of small (less than 5 kg) DU anti-tank penetrators seems to have deflected public concern from the use of larger weapons, e.g., the GBU-24 and 28, the so-called Guided Bomb Unit bunker buster, smart bombs that may contain 500-1500 kg of uranium.3

Thus, along with recently approved U.S. funds for research creating a new generation of "tactical" nuclear weapons, there seems to be a new generation of radiological weapons with pure milled uranium ore in their warheads already in use not being publicly discussed.

During the first Gulf Massacre U.S. and British air forces dropped 350 tons (700,000 pounds) of DU intended for Iraqi armored targets, including at least 5,000 rounds of 120mm and at least 940,000 projectiles of 30mm. (Some reports suggest as many as 800 tons of DU were used in Gulf War I). In early December 1998, only two weeks before the renewed December 16-19 bombings, an international conference convened in Baghdad, Iraq studied the health and environmental consequences of the depleted uranium used against Iraq in 1991.4

Early results of the epidemiological and clinical studies in Iraq reveal significant increased numbers of birth defects, neurocognitive disorders, kidney damage, and various cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, gastrointestinal, lung, bone, brain, and liver. Upon impact, up to 70% of this "novel" nuclear weapon, i.e., DU, contained on a given shell or round, aerosolizes into tiny radioactive particles (uranium oxide) that can be breathed or ingested. These minute radioactive particles can spread many miles from point of impact, and can easily be re-suspended from sand by wind or other motion. When lodged in the body, the U-238 particles decay, emitting damaging radiation indefinitely, and can poison chemically, as well, through their effects as a heavy metal. Though the Pentagon is going to great lengths to obscure the radiological and chemical dangers of these "little nukes," the Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) admits occurrence of chromosome/DNA shape changes in the cell nucleus from DU ingestion. The AEPI reported in June 1995: "If depleted uranium enters the body, it has a potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with depleted uranium are both chemical and radiological."

As of February 2003, nearly 225,000 U.S. veterans have been awarded service-connected disability for health effects collectively termed Gulf War Syndrome with many more claims not yet officially acknowledged. This means that 40 percent of our veterans are sick, a shocking figure! Increasingly researchers and health practitioners believe that exposure to DU is a major contributor to the Syndrome. It is now believed that as many as 11,000 Desert Storm I U.S. veterans have already died, most attributed to the Syndrome for lack of any other explanation. Professor Malcolm Hopper of the University of Sunderland in the U.K., who has extensively studied health effects of British and U.S. soldiers who served in the Gulf War, has indicated that as many as 21,000 U.S. Gulf War veterans have died, due not just to DU exposure but to the astounding amounts of organophosphate (OP) poisoning from various toxins (or supposedly anti-toxins) given to the troops as "preventive" medicine. 5

When looking at "official" U.S. casualties during Gulf War I ("Desert Shield", beginning August 7, 1990, and "Desert Storm", beginning January 17, 1991), we note that 147 died in military actions, and 235 died in non-battle accidents, for a total of 382 in-theater deaths.6 Of the 147 deaths from "hostile" fire, 35 were from "friendly" fire. Additionally there were 476 wounded in-theater, of which 72 were from "friendly fire."7 Taking the nearly 225,000 troops who have received acknowledgement of their service-connected sickness due to Gulf War Syndrome, and adding to that figure 11,000 already dead, with the in-theater casualties listed above, there were nearly 237,000 casualties, or a 34 percent rate of all who served. This, of course, does not include sick veterans who the VA has not yet acknowledged. Shockingly, then, if considering Gulf War Syndrome a casualty from "friendly fire," then over 99 percent of U.S. casualties were the direct result of our own weapons and "medicine." How ironic that our own soldiers become victims of the very devices intended to preserve them while killing the "enemy."

Depleted uranium weapons have been used or tested in several dozen countries. Within the United States, there are upwards of 50 facilities in 25 of the 48 contiguous states, including 12 in Washington, Nevada, and California, where now or in the past DU weapons have been researched, tested, assembled, processed, stored, or disposed.8

It is known that DU is stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In 1998 a six-member citizen inspection team was denied access to the base when they attempted to inspect for "suspected weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction."9 Despite the Pentagon's continued insistence that DU is safe, the Army has begun outfitting its men in full protective gear during DU testing at the Department of Energy's Nevada test site. And in 20 years of DU testing at the Jefferson Proving Grounds in Indiana, roughly 150,000 pounds of uranium were discharged over 500 acres. When the Pentagon assessed the cost of the necessary radioactive cleanup to make the area safe for future use, they were shocked to learn of the four- to five-billion-dollar price tag. To date they have not cleaned the cordoned-off the site.

Discussion of depleted uranium should include methods used to launch the projectiles that are coated with the hardened radioactive material. For example, the A-10 Thunderbolt Warthog, nicknamed the "tankkiller," heavily armored for protection from groundfire, is a relatively slow moving, low flying aircraft, that carries and deploys an extraordinary variety of bombs, missiles, and a carefully positioned 30mm Avenger Cannon (seven-barrel Gatling gun made by General Electric in Burlington, Vermont) in its nose that can fire as many as 3900 depleted uranium bullets per minute. The A-10 was heavily used in Kosovo and Serbia DU bombings, and is believed to be located at a number of U.S. military installations around the world.

In May 2000, Koreans discovered U.S.Air Force A-10s were practice bombing at a 50-year-old bombing/strafing range (Koon Ni) near the village of Maehyang Ri, 55 miles southwest of Seoul. On May 8, due to an in-flight emergency, one of the A-10s quickly dropped six bombs outside of the prescribed bombing area, damaging houses in the village and injuring seven residents. Local Korean villagers have been vehemently opposed to the use of their historic farmland for U.S. bombing and strafing practice ever since the Korean government first provided the 5900-acre Koon Ni site free of charge to the U.S. military in 1951. The Korean government does not even collect from the U.S. the utility fees entailed for operating the range, now leased by the Pentagon to the world's largest arm's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

When Korean people inquired into the purpose of the A-10s, and asked for explanations for the errant bombing, they discovered that A-10s were heavily used in Kosovo and Serbia to deliver DU-coated weapons. The people of Maehyang Ri demanded an answer from the Korean government and U.S. military in Korea as to whether DU weapons were being stored in Korea or used in any way during practice bombings. Though at first officials denied presence of DU, incessant pressure by doubting Korean people finally elicited an admission from officials of both the Korean government and U.S. forces that, indeed, DU was present in Korea. It had been moved there in February 1997 from bases in Okinawa, after the Japanese complained of its presence there. And though Korean and U.S. officials denied that they used DU in practices at the Koon Ni range, they did admit that on two occasions in 1997, DU weapons were inadvertently expended in Korea. However, they reassured the people that as long as the DU weapons were managed properly there was no health and safety threat posed to the public.10

As with the controversial 60-year-old U.S. Navy practice bombing and strafing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, finally closed in May 2003, where there have been accusations of presence of DU weapons and historic local opposition to the practice bombings, the concerns of local residents have consistently been ignored by both local sovereign and U.S. government officials. After a long period of denial of the presence and use of DU at that site, the Navy admitted in April 1999, after furor arose from the dropping of two errant bombs outside their target area, killing David Sanes, a Vieques civilian guard, both the presence and unlawful use of the radioactive depleted uranium.

The UN Human Rights Commission has ruled that because the chemical and radioactive toxicity of these weapons continues to kill non-combatants (and ex-military) long after use, DU is considered a "weapon of mass or indiscriminate destruction." Continued reliance on nuclear weapons, which unfortunately remain a cornerstone of U.S. and NATO strategies, is a clear violation of Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1969 (and 1995). Under international law, use of the DU-equipped A-10 Warthog then becomes a crime against humanity, while use of DU itself is a war crime. Together they are an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction. Two leading authorities on the effects of DU have declared that DU weapons should be banned because their use is a "crime against humanity." (BBC News, 12/17/99). Aerosolized depleted uranium will kill Iraqis, Yugoslavians, Viequens, and exposed U.S. military personnel for decades to come. Other international laws that prohibit weapons which cause unnecessary or aggravated devastation or suffering, cause indiscriminate harm to non-combatants and ex-combatants alike, and cause widespread long-term and severe damage to the environment, are the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949, the Nuremberg Charter of 1945, the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, and the Inhumane Weapons Conventions of 1980 and 1995.11

When will we come to our senses? What will it take?

 


 

 

Endnotes

1Caldicott, H. (2002). The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex. New York: The New Press, p. 146.

2Carr-Brown, J. (January 21, 2001). "Depleted Uranium Shells Held 'Cocktail of Nuclear Waste.'" London Sunday Times citing Meissonnier, M., Loore, F., and Trilling R. (2001). Depleted Uranium: The Invisible War. Paris: Robert Laffont; Parsons, R.J. (April 2002). "Heavy Metals in the Balkans and Afghanistan – Is Iraq Next?" Peacework (American Friends Service Committee, Cambridge, MA).

3Williams, Dai. (November 11, 2002). "Hazards of Uranium Weapons for Afghanistan and Iraq." United Kingdom: The Eos Life-Work Resource Centre; Durakovic, A. (2002). Uranium Medical Research Centre's Findings From Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom. Toronto, Canada: Uranium Medical Research Center.

4Lopez, D. (December 2-3, 1998). Report of Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted uranium Used by U.S. and British Forces in the 1991 Gulf War. Hotel Al-Rashid, Baghdad, Iraq. [Hard copy available from durc13@hotmail.com]

5Hooper, M. (January 29, 2000). "New Findings in OPs and Gulf War Syndrome." United Kingdom: Pesticide Action Network; Nichols, D. (October 21, 2002). "U.S. V.A. Data Confirms Massive Delayed Gulf War I Casualties." U.N. Observor and International Report.

6"Persian Gulf War Statistics--Summary." (September 15, 2002). Washington Headquarters Services, Directorate for Information Operations and Reports, U.S. Department of Defense.

7Kolb, R.K. (January 2001). "Persian Gulf War Casualties: An Accounting." VFW Magazine.

8Tashiro, A. (2001). Discounted Casualties: The Human Cost of Depleted Uranium. Japan: The Chugoku Shimbun, pp. 74-77. [Available in the U.S. via P.O. Box 9967, Atlanta, GA 31106; leeps@mindspring.com].

9Citizens' Weapons Inspections Teams. (Winter/Spring 1998-1999). "Citizens' Weapons Inspectors Scrutinize U.S. Base. Davis-Monthan AFB." Earth Island Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1.

10This author was present at bombing site in May 2000 and at subsequent Seoul press briefing where Korean government and U.S. 8th Army commander admitted presence of DU.

11Depleted Uranium Education Project. (1997). Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium. How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians With DU Weapons. New York: International Action Center, pp. 191-203.
 

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