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Synthesis/Regeneration 15   (Winter 1998)

Depleted Uranium as Low Intensity Nuclear War

by Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens

The US escaped the 1991 Gulf war with few direct casualties. While 250,000 Iraqis were killed outright by the US bombardment and another 750,000 have died as a result of the UN's international embargo spearheaded by the US, "only" 376 US soldiers died in the Gulf. Almost all of them were killed by so-called "friendly fire," shot accidentally by their fellow soldiers. (1) The 14 US M1A1 Abrams tanks destroyed in the Gulf war were knocked out by "friendly fire" as well.

...shells encased in "depleted uranium" (DU)...makes them super-hard and able to penetrate all existing armor-plating.

All 14 were hit by a new kind of ammunition: shells encased in "depleted uranium" (DU), which makes them super-hard and able to penetrate all existing armor-plating. DU was used exclusively by US and British forces in the Gulf not only as armor-penetrating ammunition by M1A1 Abrams tanks and A-10 attack planes, but as tank armor. DU, which is 1.6 times denser than lead, proved so effective that not a single US tank was destroyed by Iraqi fire. On the other hand, over the course of the two month war, 3,700 Iraqi tanks were obliterated-1,400 of them by shells encased in depleted uranium. Thousands of artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers, and other equipment were destroyed by DU rounds. More than 1 million shells encased in depleted uranium were fired. By war's end, roughly 300 tons of uranium from spent rounds lay scattered in various sizes and states of decay across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait. (2)

The Pentagon says DU is relatively harmless, emitting "only" 60% the radiation of nondepleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is a highly toxic and radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed in nuclear reactors and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Natural uranium, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is comprised of three isotopes: 99.27% U238, 0.72% U235, and .0057% U234. DU is uranium with the U235 isotope-the fissionable material-reduced from 0.7% to 0.2%-thus, "depleted." (3) The Pentagon says DU is relatively harmless, emitting "only" 60% the radiation of nondepleted uranium. But Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould, and Benjamin Goldman have shown that even low-level radiation emitted during the "normal" functioning of nuclear power plants creates havoc with people's immune system as well as the surrounding environment. (4) And, according to independent scientists, "a DU antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as 50 chest X-rays." (5) A tank driver receives a radiation dose of 0.13 rem/hr to his or her head from overhead DU armor (6) which may seem like a very low dose. However, after 32 continuous days, or 64 12-hour days, the amount of radiation a tank driver receives to his head will exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's annual standard for public whole-body exposure to man-made sources of radiation. (7) Unfortunately, US tank crews were not monitored for radiation exposure during the Gulf War. (8)

When properly encased, DU gives off very little radiation, the Pentagon says. But DU becomes much more radioactive when it burns. And when it is fired, it combusts on impact. "As much as 70% of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys." (9)

Leaving more than 600,000 pounds of depleted uranium scattered throughout the region, by war's end the US had turned the Gulf area into a deadly radioactive grid, affecting not only US soldiers but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who live and work in the Gulf. A single molecular particle of depleted uranium will subject an individual to radiation at a level 800 times what is permitted by federal regulations for external exposure. (10) As DU-artillery shells heat up, the uranium becomes aerosolized, releasing high amounts of radioactivity, not the low amounts the military claims for "normal" depleted uranium. Clouds of deadly uranium dioxide swept over large areas of Iraq and Kuwait, devastating agriculture, soil, and water. (11)

Radioactivity inflicts severe damage on the total environment while weakening immune systems, destroying the kidneys, lungs, bones, and liver, and rendering the human body susceptible to all sorts of diseases that a healthy individual might have been able to ward off. Iraqi children continue to find uranium-coated shells; they have been coming down with all sorts of deadly illnesses associated with radiation poisoning. Is it any wonder that many symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are so similar to radiation sickness? Welcome to the wave of the future: "low intensity" nuclear war, inaugurated in the Gulf War by the United States.

As the only country to have ever dropped atomic bombs on a populated area, the US government has long attempted to circumvent international treaties and develop ever-newer weapons of mass destruction. In 1953, Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued a plan to dump radioactive cobalt across Korea to create a permanent radioactive barrier between the North and South. That plan was considered but never implemented (as far as we know). President Jimmy Carter tried to obtain funding for a "neutron bomb" that would annihilate people and all living beings but leave buildings and capital intact. That project was beaten back by public outcry and mass protests. The US government has threatened to use nuclear weapons on dozens of occasions, including against Vietnam in 1969-squelched at the last minute by President Richard Nixon due to the huge anti-war protests taking place at the time in the US. (12) In fact, so adamantly has the world's population-including the vast majority in the US-opposed atomic weapons of every sort that it took the enormous propaganda effort of the Gulf War for the US government, for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to get away with using radioactive weapons against people.

DU becomes much more radioactive when it burns.

A secret report by the British government estimated that the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf could alone account for 500,000 deaths in the region. (13) That report was based on estimates that 25 tons of depleted uranium munitions had been used; in actuality, the Department of Defense now estimates that the US fired more than 12 times that amount. The Pentagon threw all its new toys of mass destruction into the slaughter, trying out new weapons, offering ever-new justification (as the Cold War was winding down) for its enormous "defense" budget.

Billions of dollars allotted to … the Department of Energy for cleaning up nuclear waste sites is now being used to ship nuclear waste…to munitions manufacturers all over the world to be "recycled" into weapons.

The US Department of Defense has more than 1.1 billion pounds of nuclear waste in storage from 50 years of nuclear weapons production and nuclear power plants. The government, hemmed in by public opposition, health and environmental movements, is always trying to find new "acceptable" ways to dispose of it. It has apparently found one. Billions of dollars allotted to the Environmental Restoration branch of the Department of Energy for cleaning up nuclear waste sites is now being used to ship nuclear waste free of charge to munitions manufacturers all over the world to be "recycled" into weapons. Where is the cry at the United Nations to end the manufacture and use of such weapons before it's too late? Many countries have now begun manufacturing weapons cased in depleted uranium. In introducing the use of depleted uranium weapons the US government used its own soldiers as guinea pigs, permanently destroyed the ecology of the region, and left an ongoing legacy of childhood leukemia, birth defects and poisoned water for civilians living in the Gulf, while making low intensity nuclear weapons the necessary norm for all future conflicts.


1. Patrick Sloyan, "For Gulf War Troops, Fire Wasn't Friendly," New York Newsday, August 10, 1991.

2. Dan Fahey, "Collateral Damage: How U.S. Troops Were Exposed To Depleted Uranium During the Persian Gulf War," in Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons, International Action Center, 1997, p. 28. Fahey is a director of the National Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network of the Military Toxics Project (MTP), PO Box 845, Sabattus, ME 04280; (207) 375-8482; mtp@igc.apc.org.

3. One of the first extensive exposés of DU in a mainstream journal was written by Naïma Lefkir-Lafitte and Roland Laffite, "The Use of Radioactive Weapons Against the 'lraqi Enemy,'" in Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 1995. Also, see Eric Hoskins, "Making the Desert Glow," Op-Ed in New York Times, Jan. 21, 1993.

4. Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low Level Radiation, High Level Cover-Up, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1990; Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, Nuclear Radiation & the Destruction of the Immune System, Red Balloon Collective, 1993; and, Sternglass, Low Level Radiation -- The story of one scientist's attempt to call public attention to radiation damage to infants and the unborn, Ballantine Books, 1972.

5. Bill Messler, "The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet," The Nation, Oct. 21, 1996.

6. U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI), Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army: Technical Report, June 1995, p.102.

7. Ibid., p.

8. Fahey, op cit.

9. Ibid.

10. Dr. J.W. Gofman, a biomedical researcher for the San Francisco-based Committee for Nuclear Responsibility.

11. Lafitte & Laffite, op cit: "On impact, a high portion of the metallic mass is transformed into an aerosol whose fine particles, easily carried by the wind, are easily absorbed."

12. Daniel Ellsberg, "A Call to Mutiny," in Protest and Survive.

13. British Atomic Energy Administration, printed in the London Independent, Nov 1991. Cited by 102.Hoskins, op cit, & Messler, op cit.

Mitchel Cohen lives in Bensonhurst and is a member of the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of New York. Cohen ran for City Council on the Independence Party line (Line D) in Brooklyn's 47th CD in November, 1997.

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