Depleted Uranium: Radioactive Wasting with the Agent Orange of the '90s
(First of a 3-part series)

By John M. LaForge, Nukewatch Staff

A certain nuclear war was waged by the United States against Iraq and Kuwait in l99l.

According to the British Atomic Energy Authority, 40 tons of "depleted uranium" (DU) munitions were exploded and burned in the Persian Gulf during the 40-day bombardment known now as the Gulf War. Based on its 40-ton estimate, the British AEA concluded that 500,000 eventual deaths could be part of the long term aftermath of the war. However, Z Magazine reports that the current estimate is that 300 tons of DU was dispersed.

DU is uranium-238, a dense radioactive material left over from the uranium enrichment process. Twice as dense as lead, it weighs l52 pounds per gallon, compared to eight pounds for water. The DU is alloyed with extremely hard titanium and used by the U.S. military to make armor-piercing ammunition and armor plating on tanks.

U-238 is nuclear waste now left in vast quantities. When uranium ore is processed, the fissionable U-235 is separated from the U-238. Only one pound of the bomb-or fuel-grade U-235 is extracted from one ton of uranium ore. What's left is 1,999 pounds of DU. There are about one billion pounds of this type of nuclear waste in tens of thousands of drums at U.S. plants where uranium has been "enriched" for war-heads and reactor fuel.

As of 1991, DU is defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as a "resource material" rather than nuclear waste. This reclassification--from waste to resource--allows the DOE and the NRC to abandon their oversight responsibilities regarding this radioactive material. At the Pentagon, DU munitions are considered "conventional" weapons.

"We're basically dumping our nuclear waste around battlefields of the world," said Dr. Eric Hoskins, a leader of the Harvard Study Team's survey of health in post-bombardment Iraq. James Ridgeway, writing in Village Voice magazine said this is "an ingenious solution to the nuclear industry's paralyzing problem of what to do with nuclear wastes."

When the DU munitions smash into tanks or other objects, they partially burn, producing uranium oxide dust, which is chemically toxic and radioactive. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in Jan. 1993 that the Army failed to warn U.S. soldiers of the hazards of uranium dust. Pentagon spin doctors said then that the DU's radioactivity is "low-level," and so provided no special training to soldiers who handled the material.

When these uranium weapons burn, or corrode, or are machined, the resulting uranium oxide dust can be ingested or inhaled, and small particles, those less than five millionths of a meter, can lodge in lung tissue, exposing the host to a growing dose of alpha radiation. This can cause lung cancer in people of all ages, and it is particularly hazardous to children.

The tons of DU left on Iraqi soil is passing into the water supply and into the food chain. Dr. Hoskins reported that Iraqi doctors told him of children developing unexplained diseases, and he suggested that they are linked to uranium contamination. "The air-borne particles enter the body easily," Hoskins wrote in the New York Times. "The uranium then deposits itself in bones, organs and cells. Children are especially vulnerable because their cells divide rapidly as they grow." Since cancers have a long latency period, veterans of the invasion of Iraq, people of the Persian Gulf region, and those near DU manufacturing and testing facilities in the U.S., are at risk for health problems that may not show up for many years.

The experience of veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War shows that records need to be kept regarding all troops and civilian populations exposed to DU. The thousands of veterans now reporting symptoms of a "Gulf War Syndrome" complain of ailments known to be associated with exposure to low-level radioactivity: chronic fatigue, sore muscles and joints, stomach and bowel disruptions, severe headaches, tumors, rashes, hair loss, and neurological disorders, among others. The Milwaukee Journal, in a 6 June 1994 follow-up to its Jan. 1993 scoop of the GAO report, noted that one possible cause of the "syndrome" is "radioactivity from U.S. armor-piercing shells tipped with uranium."

The lesson of nuclear warfare has been foisted upon the world again: the indiscriminate effects of nuclear weapons recoil to kill those who unleash them.

Sources: Village Voice, January 15, 1991; Milwaukee Journal: January 27, 1993; June 13, 1993; June 6, 10, & 24, 1994; Z Magazine, July-August 1994; and Uranium Battlefields Home & Abroad: Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Department of Defense, Bukowski, Lopez and McGehee, 165 pp., Published by Citizen Alert, Reno, NV, & Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, Carson City, NV; March 1993.

NOTE: Updated information on the crisis of DU weapons is available from the National Gulf War Resource Center, Inc., 1224 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 628-2700, ext. 162. For more information on the use of DU in the Gulf Bombing, see: The Nation magazine, Oct. 21, 1996 and May 26, 1997.