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The name “depleted uranium” (DU) refers to uranium-238, a radioactive waste that loses just half its radioactivity in 4.5 billion years. The United States has about 740,000 tons of DU left from nuclear weapons and reactor fuel rod production. DU is chemically toxic, is 65 percent more dense than lead, and is pyrophoric — it ignites when it smashes a hard target. It’s given away free to military contractors who make it into armor-piercing ammunition.
In 1991, the US blasted at least 400 tons of DU munitions into Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the 40-day, 1,000-bombing-sorties-per-day assault. William Arkin reported in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that 940,000 Air Force 30mm DU shells (23,500 a day) and 4,000 Army 120mm DU anti-tank shells were fired. The US military has its own classified estimate, but 4,000 tank shells alone contain over 25 tons of this radioactive waste. The Air Force fired such an astonishing number of DU shells because its A-10 warplane shoots 65 rounds-per-second.
The Pentagon says it fired about 10,800 DU rounds — close to three tons — into Bosnia in 1994/’95. More than 31,000 rounds, another 10 tons, were shot into Kosovo by the US and NATO in 1999, according to the United Nations. DU has also contaminated large parts of Okinawa, Panama, Puerto Rico/Vieques, South Korea, and other US bombing ranges. Kosovo is littered with 40mm DU shells where the US used them against all sorts of targets, not just the tank armor it was designed to penetrate.
After the US/NATO bombardment of Kosovo, DU weapons were found to be spiked with plutonium and other highly radioactive elements, a revelation that created uproar in Europe. Somewhere between 150,000 tons and “the entire US stock of depleted uranium” is contaminated with plutonium, americium, neptunium and technetium. UN investigators in Kosovo found DU-targeted sites poisoned with all these isotopes.
Pentagon and NATO officials have said that their DU rounds contain “mere traces of plutonium, not enough to cause harm.” NATO Sec. Gen. Lord Robertson said at the time, “Traces of highly radioactive elements such as plutonium … were not relevant to soldiers’ health because of their minute quantities.” Yet plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium-238. Less than a millionth of an ounce of plutonium-239 will cause lung cancer. Adding insult to injury, the americium-243 in the DU decays to plutonium-239 — which is more toxic than the americium.
Hazard Warnings for
Soldiers and Civilians
NATO officials warned United Nations de-mining teams in Kosovo to “exercise caution” and not to “climb upon or into destroyed armored vehicles.” The British National Radiation Protection Board warned British troops in July 1999, “If the areas are contaminated by insoluble uranium oxides (DU dust), then any hazard would arise from disturbing the contamination and inhaling the dust.” Still, the Pentagon’s Lt. Col. Victor Warzinski told the Christian Science Monitor, “Residual depleted uranium from battlefield engagements in Kosovo does not pose a significant risk to human health.”
The UN Environment Program (for post-conflict Balkans) disagrees. After studying the ecological impact of DU in the Balkan war, it said the “highest priority” should be given to forbidding public access, collecting and removing pieces and decontaminating areas where possible. UNEP said ground water should be monitored, because, DU particles were “still in the air two years after the conflict’s end.”
DU has been blamed for cancers, birth defects and other illnesses among both soldiers and civilians following the wars. In his introduction to Gut and Vitale’s Depleted Uranium, Peter Low explains: “The people responsible for the spreading of 400 tons of DU there [Southern Iraq] in 1991 were conducting a very peculiar sort of experiment — one in which the ‘guinea-pigs’ were the soldiers and civilians present … and in which the ‘experimenters’ did not want to know the results. … Uranium has been shown to cause mutations, cell transformation, and DNA strand breaks in both in vitro and in vivo studies.”
Researchers at the Baghdad Health Ministry are near completion of a report, being produced jointly with the World Health Organization, on the number of birth abnormalities in Iraq since 2003. Doctors at the Basra maternity hospital in southern Iraq interviewed by the BBC for a March 21 news report confirmed “that they have seen a 60% rise in birth defects since 2003. Dr. Muhsin Sabbak from the hospital is convinced that the rise in defects, such as spina bifida, is because of munitions from the Iraq war.
Without any public debate, an experimental low-intensity nuclear war was foisted upon the world by the United States in 1991, ‘94/‘95, ‘99 and again in 2003 when another 170 tons of DU were shot into Iraq. The human cost of testing radioactive weapons in all over the world may prove to be as much cancer and debilitation in the US as in targeted countries. Arjun Makhijani has reported that the technetium-99, americium-241 and plutonium in the shells, “may cause a significant contribution to the total dose to workers during processing of the DU into metal.”
— John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin.