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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

Depleted Uranium in War

by Tim Judson, Syracuse Peace Council

In a stunningly familiar show of camaraderie, the nuclear power and conventional weapons industries and the Departments of Defense and Energy (DoD & DoE) united efforts in the struggles for cheap waste disposal and humanitarian destruction in the Balkans. After a fitful short-term project in the Persian Gulf eight years ago, the coalition prepared to really take on the task this time. The A-10 "Warthog" antitank/waste-transport vehicle would both decimate Serbian armored vehicles and move hundreds of tons of waste to its new permanent home. This new program will bring untold misery to generations of grateful Balkan peoples.

With over 1.5 billion pounds of depleted uranium; (DU, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process for creating nuclear fuel) and marginalized communities being increasingly uncooperative; the nuclear industry offered the entire stockpile of DU to the weapons industry in the late 1970s if they could find something to do with it. Companies like Nuclear Metals (now Starmet) devised ways of converting the unusable uranium hexafluoride back into metal alloy form, for use in weapons. Because DU is 1.7 times more dense than lead, it is valuable for mechanical use (in counterweights, for instance) but the DoD is especially fond of its superkiller qualities: because of its greater density, bullets made with DU are known to slice through conventional armor "like a hot knife through butter," according to Pentagon officials.

DU lived up to all of its promises the first time it was tested on a large scale. During the Gulf Massacre, the US used over 14,000 M1A1 tank rounds and 940,000 30mm rounds from A-10 jets. The A-10 "Warthogs," responsible for over a third of the Iraqi tanks destroyed, spread over 550,000 pounds of DU in the region. Altogether, the Pentagon deposited over 650,000 pounds of DU waste for the nuclear industry. However, while the M1A1 tanks deliver the waste in large bundles of 8-10 pounds per round, the A-10 is by far the heavier hitter for the nuclear industry and made a name for itself as a highly successful waste transport vehicle.

From the promotion of nuclear power to NATO intervention in the Balkans, DU waste has been pitched as one of the unfortunate consequences of the ultimately worthwhile "Peaceful Atom."

Despite the controversy surrounding the issue, the mainstream media has been numbingly silent—the New York Times has not mentioned DU since March 15. One of the only sources published in the US since the war began is an already much-quoted April 1 article by Kathleen Sullivan in the San Francisco Examiner, in which she quotes DoD spokespeople and policy-makers from a pro-DoD think tank. In a March 31 press conference, DoD spokesperson Kenneth Bacon refused to answer any questions about whether DU rounds were being used, saying such details were "verboten from this podium." Rest assured the Pentagon is on top of its cost-benefit analysis, though: Sullivan cites the pro-DoD Center for Defense Information's dismissal of health and environmental impacts of DU, and their statement that everything in life is a trade-off anyway.

The Pentagon's secrecy and cavalier attitude toward the use of DU weapons should let the rest of the world in on the inside joke of "bombing out of humanitarian concern." NATO announced early on that the A-10 would be a central part of the second phase of the campaign, taking out Serbian tanks and armored vehicles—the specialty mission DU rounds were designed for in the first place. And reports from Russian sources on April 16, 1999 said that "experts have detected enhanced radiation levels in the atmosphere and on the ground" in areas of Kosovo.

Health Effects and Toxicity

From the promotion of nuclear power to NATO intervention in the Balkans, DU waste has been pitched as one of the unfortunate consequences of the ultimately worthwhile "Peaceful Atom." The name of the substance is itself misleading. Naturally occurring uranium contains three isotopes mixed together (in the following percentages): U238 (99.3%), U235 (0.7%), and U234 (<0.1%). Uranium enrichment for nuclear fuel increases the concentration of U235, the fissionable isotope that makes bombs and reactors go boom. The by-product of enrichment is a mixture with lower U235 content (0.2%) and higher U238 content (99.8%) the U235 is what is "depleted."

However, U238 is still known to be highly dangerous, even though it is less radioactive than U235. Its radioactive half-life is 4.5 billion years, which means that we will be dealing with radiation from DU for the rest of life on the planet. Health effects from DU range from birth defects and infant mortality to cancer and leukemia, from organ failures to immunodeficiencies and AIDS-like symptoms. Uranium is toxic both because it is a heavy metal which resides in tissues for up to decades, and because it emits alpha particles, the most dangerous form of radiation for long-term exposure.

Increasing levels of sickness and death from DU are well-known from a number of sources. Native peoples who live where uranium is mined and DU is dumped show highly elevated levels of many kinds of sickness. Exposure is constant, from airborne particles and radon gas (emitted as a by-product of U-238 decay) to contamination of groundwater and soil. For years, mining corporations actually sold DU to Native peoples as material for adobe houses, as well as to housing developers as landfill. The constant bath of radiation from these combined sources has sacrificed whole communities, bioregions, and generations of people to an epidemic of disease and illness.

The military use of DU only escalates the issue. Not only has the spread of waste taken the literal form of all-out war, but, the costs are indiscriminate. US/allied troops and Iraqis alike were exposed without being informed of health risks of which the Pentagon was well aware.

DU weapons are especially dangerous because, according to the Pentagon's own documents, when the bullet strikes a hard surface up to 70% of the uranium burns and vaporizes into a fine mist of particles which can be spread for miles downwind, and are more than small enough to be inhaled into the lungs. Uranium is most dangerous when ingested because it will reside in tissues, possibly causing failures of sensitive organs such as kidneys—and certainly bathing the surrounding tissues with radiation for years.

Despite the similarity of many of the symptoms of GWS to radiation health effects and the clear evidence of exposure to soldiers, the DoD has refused to investigate the matter.

Although the Pentagon knew of the dangers of DU from weapons research and development, it allowed thousands of soldiers to enter destroyed Iraqi vehicles. We can add to the list of affected people those veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome (GWS). Despite the similarity of many of the symptoms of GWS to radiation health effects and the clear evidence of exposure to soldiers, the DoD has refused to investigate the matter. Like people living in reactor communities who are told constantly that their plants are run safely and cleanly but who nonetheless experience higher levels of disease and otherwise rare health problems, these veterans are being denied the ability to even name an obvious cause of their suffering. The emotional contamination of people's lives with unacknowledged grief and pain has staggering personal and social costs as well.

Deterioration of Genetic Health, Racism, and Genocide

It is hard to see NATO's use of DU weapons in Kosovo and Serbia as anything but imperialist aggression. The story of the nuclear age is one of the latest chapters in the history of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. The burdens of all things nuclear have been forced upon poor, marginalized communities. US testing of atomic weapons in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the US Southwest, and the South Pacific were only possible because of how thoroughly dehumanized those populations were in the public eye. Now that public consciousness of racism in the US has increased and the government has been unable to site waste dumps in Sierra Blanca, Texas, and Yucca Mountain (Western Shoshone Territory), it is using the military to do the dirty work again.

DU has heightened the effect of sanctions on Iraq, introducing an insidious level of toxicity into a country whose health, sanitation and basic infrastructure have already been devastated. Physicians report highly elevated instances of leukemia, birth defects, infant mortality, and other symptoms of radiation health effects. Last week, they presented their case in the form of a study to the Arab League.

Visitors to Iraq have witnessed the country's hospital wards full of children suffering from those effects. They have also seen children playing in the streets with DU bullet casings, which can still be found strewn about the rubble and the environment—a sign of both the extent of contamination as well as the extent to which it is seeping into the lives of people living in the region. Even though Iraq has no resources to begin any kind of environmental assessment or cleanup and the UN and US have barely acknowledged the problem, it may be impossible to do at this point since so much of the DU was burned away and released as mist. The soil, water and air of Southern Iraq and Kuwait may by now be saturated with DU dust.

Adding to the reality of genocide in Iraq is the deterioration of genetic health over generations of people living in the region. The random changes introduced into genes and chromosomes from exposure to radiation may take generations to emerge and show their full effects on the population. And with the contamination of the environment, the level of exposure can only be expected to proliferate.

Inflicting such a heritage on a people by region or ethnicity is genocidal, at best by "negligence" and at worst with full recognition and intent. But why in Yugoslavia; on the pretense of stopping genocide? It is perhaps a sign of global despair, but also perhaps a sign of hope, that multinational capitalism and global domination have broken the chains that cliches of skin color have placed on their exercise of power and the practices of racism. No longer is racism merely a matter of arbitrary biological and ethnic differences, the US and "Greater Europe" now have the actual ability to introduce genetic disparity through contamination and biologically cripple whole regions of people.

Sources: Metal of Dishonor - Depleted Uranium, International Action Center, 1996.
"Uranium bullets on NATO holsters," San Franciso Examiner, 4/1/99.
"Uranium Weapon Fears in Kosovo - A-10: Can fire depleted uranium shells," BBC web page, 4/11/99.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting ArabicNews.com.

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