The Great Depleted Uranium Scandal

DU is what is left over after ordinary uranium has been enriched for use either in nuclear weapons or in reactors.

It is used in shells and projectiles to enhance their armor-piercing capacity.

When depleted uranium round strikes a solid object like a tank, it bursts into a burning spray of radioactive dust.

This dust can remain on site for years, and is claimed to have caused disease in both soldiers using the munitions and in the local populations affected.

The Iraqis claim US and British troops fired more than 940,000 depleted uranium projectiles during the 1991 conflict.

They were also used against Yugoslav tanks and other targets in Kosovo.

America and British coalition forces are using depleted uranium (DU) shells in the war against Iraq and deliberately flouting a United Nations resolution which classifies the munitions as illegal weapons of mass destruction

DU contaminates land, causes ill health and cancers among the soldiers using the weapons, the armies they target and civilians, leading to birth defects in children.

Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon’s depleted uranium project — a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University and onetime US army colonel who was tasked by the US department of defense with the post-first Gulf war depleted uranium desert clean-up — said use of DU was a ‘war crime’.

Rokke said: ‘There is a moral point to be made here. This war was about Iraq possessing illegal weapons of mass destruction — yet we are using weapons of mass destruction ourselves.’ He added: ‘Such double-standards are repellent.’

According to a August 2002 report by the UN sub commission, laws which are breached by the use of DU shells include: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Charter of the United Nations; the Genocide Convention; the Convention Against Torture; the four Geneva Conventions of 1949; the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980; and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which expressly forbid employing ‘poison or poisoned weapons’ and ‘arms, projectiles or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering’. All of these laws are designed to spare civilians from unwarranted suffering in armed conflicts.

DU has been blamed for the effects of Gulf war syndrome — typified by chronic muscle and joint pain, fatigue and memory loss — among 200,000 US soldiers after the 1991 conflict.

It is also cited as the most likely cause of the ‘increased number of birth deformities and cancer in Iraq’ following the first Gulf war.

‘Cancer appears to have increased between seven and 10 times and deformities between four and six times,’ according to the UN sub commission.

The Pentagon has admitted that 320 metric tons of DU were left on the battlefield after the first Gulf war, although Russian military experts say 1000 metric tons is a more accurate figure.

In 1991, the Allies fired 944,000 DU rounds or some 2700 tons of DU tipped bombs. A UK Atomic Energy Authority report said that some 500,000 people would die before the end of this century, due to radioactive debris left in the desert.

The use of DU has also led to birth defects in the children of Allied veterans and is believed to be the cause of the ‘worrying number of anophthalmos cases — babies born without eyes’ in Iraq. Only one in 50 million births should be anophthalmic, yet one Baghdad hospital had eight cases in just two years. Seven of the fathers had been exposed to American DU anti-tank rounds in 1991. There have also been cases of Iraqi babies born without the crowns of their skulls, a deformity also linked to DU shelling.

A study of Gulf war veterans showed that 67% had children with severe illnesses, missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.

Rokke said: ‘A nation’s military personnel cannot willfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions.

‘To do so is a crime against humanity.

‘We must do what is right for the citizens of the world — ban DU.’

He called on the US and UK to ‘recognize the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation’.

He added: ‘We can’t just use munitions which leave a toxic wasteland behind them and kill indiscriminately.

‘It is equivalent to a war crime.’

Rokke said that coalition troops were currently fighting in the Gulf without adequate respiratory protection against DU contamination.

Predictably, both the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defense officially deny that there is any significant danger from exposure to DU ammunition. And while it is conceivable that the US led attacks on Iraq’s nuclear power stations could be a contributory factor, most researchers point to DU as the most likely source of both deformities and cancers. The rising number of cases in Iraq, particularly in the South where the greatest concentration of DU was fired, is simply staggering. Iraqi physicians have never encountered anything like it, and have made the perfectly reasonable point that similar increases in cancer and deformities were experienced in Japan after the two US atomic bomb attacks. Cancer has increased between 7 and 10 fold; deformities between 4 and 6 fold.
Yet the US was well aware of the potential effects on civilians and military personnel of the chemical toxicity and radiological properties of DU ammunition long before the Gulf war began, as the following excerpts of a US Army document categorically state:

“Aerosol DU (Depleted Uranium) exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects. [...] Under combat conditions, the most exposed individuals are probably ground troops that re-enter a battlefield following the exchange of armor-piercing munitions. [...] We are simply highlighting the potential for levels of DU exposure to military personnel during combat that would be unacceptable during peacetime operations. [...DU is..]… a low level alpha radiation emitter which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal, [and] chemical toxicity causing kidney damage. [...] Short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been linked to cancer. [...] Our conclusion regarding the health and environmental acceptability of DU penetrators assume both controlled use and the presence of excellent health physics management practices. Combat conditions will lead to the uncontrolled release of DU. [...] The conditions of the battlefield, and the long term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU kinetic penetrators for military applications.”

- Excerpts from the July 1990 Science and Applications International Corporation report: ‘ Kinetic Energy Penetrator Environment and Health Considerations’, as included in Appendix D – US Army Armaments, Munitions and Chemical Command report: ‘Kinetic Energy Penetrator Long Term Strategy Study, July 1990′

The US was also well aware of the long-term dangers of DU contamination, and played it down, as the following memo and document make clear:

“There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal. I believe we should keep this sensitive issue in mind when action reports are written.”

- Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn, Los Alamos National Laboratory memorandum, March 1st 1991

“Soldiers may be incidentally exposed to DU from dust and smoke on the battlefield. The Army Surgeon General has determined that it is unlikely that these soldiers will receive a significant internal DU exposure. Medical follow-up is not warranted for soldiers who experience incidental exposure from dust or smoke. [...] Since DU weapons are openly available on the world arms market, DU weapons will be used in future conflicts. The number of DU patients on future battlefields probably will be significantly higher because other countries will use systems containing DU. [...] DU is a low-level radioactive waste, and, therefore, must be disposed of in a licensed repository. [...] No international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the United States to remediate the Persian Gulf war battlefields.”

- <>Report by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute: ‘Health and Consequences of Depleted Uranium use in the US army’, June 1995<>
Following the end of the Second World War, both Germans and Japanese military personnel were tried, and very often executed, for identical activities. They lost, it should be noted, but the outcome in Iraq is far from certain.

See our archives on Depleted Uranium: