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America’s Use of Radiological Weapons Part I
By Mark H. Gaffney – August 20, 2007
In 1991 the US military introduced a new weapon that the people of the world–––with hindsight–––will probably come to view as symbolic of America’s failed leadership after the Cold War. The introduced weapon was a new kind of munition: shells and bullets made from depleted uranium (DU). It turned out to be extremely effective in the first Gulf War against the forces of Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, the DU weapons also proved nearly as dangerous to our own troops and to Iraqi civilians. The military alliance cobbled together by George Bush Sr. won a decisive victory in that war. But since its conclusion at least 13,000 American veterans have died from DU-related causes, far more than the 148 who died in combat; and of the nearly 700,000 who served in the war at least 250,000 are now (in 2007) permanently disabled; a percentage far higher than in any previous war. Despite this, Pentagon generals continue to insist that DU munitions pose no danger, and remain committed to their use. Even as I write, the Department of Defense (DoD) moves ahead with research that could lead to the deployment of DU weapons in space.
Yet, a UN Sub-Committee has declared DU weapons illegal, and last November the European Union (EU) issued its fourth call for a DU moratorium. More and more frequently, one hears the charge that America’s use of these weapons in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia was a war crime. In 2004, for example, a citizen’s tribunal in Japan convicted George W. Bush in absentia for crimes against humanity. Is America headed for a showdown with the world over depleted uranium?
Although hyperbole has muddied the issue, the bare facts are shocking and need no amplification. Depleted Uranium (DU) is primarily U-238, the isotope of uranium that remains after the fissionable isotope, U-235, has been extracted from natural uranium ore. When enriched to 3% the preferred isotope, U-235, is used to fuel nuclear reactors. When further enriched to 90% or more it becomes “weapons grade” and is suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Enrichment thus “depletes” the natural uranium of its isotopic fraction of U-235. Depleted uranium (99.8% pure U-238) is the by-product of this separation process and was long viewed as a waste. Over the years hundreds of thousands of tons of the stuff accumulated on US military reservations. In fact, because of its low-level radioactivity and 4.5 billion-year half-life, DU presents a long-term storage headache.
In the 1970s the US military got serious about utilizing this waste after the Soviets introduced a superior kind of armor. Quite suddenly, the Pentagon found itself in need of a new penetrating weapon. DU offered attractive possibilities because it is extremely dense–––uranium is 1.7 times as heavy as lead. For this reason, tank shells made of U-238 have formidable kinetic energy: they will slice through the heaviest steel armor like the proverbial hot knife through butter. Quite simply, nothing can withstand them. Although uranium is very soft, when alloyed with titanium it becomes tough enough to retain its shape when fired out of a tank barrel. Today, several companies make DU shells for the US military. These include Starmet Corporation, based in Concord, Massachusetts, and Aerojet, with plants in California and Tennessee. In the 1990s Alliant Techsystems (formerly Honeywell), based in Minneapolis, also produced millions of DU rounds for the US Air Force. In 2006 Alliant also received new orders worth $77 million to produce 120mm tank shells.
In addition to being an extremely effective penetrator, U-238 is pyrophoric, meaning that it ignites at high velocity. When a ten-pound uranium shell slices through a target vehicle it sheds a part of its mass, causing a firestorm of burning and non-burning uranium fragments. These, in turn, cause catastrophic secondary fires and explosions. In war footage of Desert Storm the flaming DU shells can be seen arcing like tracers across the night sky. The slender rounds are solid DU–––no explosive charge is needed. Each has a plastic outer casing known as a sabot, which centers the round in the bore and which falls away after the shell exits the gun tube. The war footage is graphic. It shows that targeted Iraqi vehicles stood no chance. Pity the poor Iraqi soldiers who came under DU attack. Very few lived to tell about it. Within seconds, most were charred beyond recognition in an incendiary fireball. US military jargon even coined a new term, “crispy critters,” to describe the grisly Iraqi corpses of war.
When DU burns it oxidizes, reaching extreme temperatures (i.e., 3,000-5,000 C). On impact, between 40-70% of the depleted uranium is transformed into an aerosol of extremely fine U-238 particles which contaminate the battlefield long after the war. Geiger counter measurements confirm that even years later, burned-out Iraqi tanks were still hot: 1,000-2,000 times as radioactive as background, with the surrounding desert contaminated to a lesser degree. Continuous exposure to this level of irradiation would be like having a chest X-ray every few minutes. U-238 produces high energy gamma and beta radiation (which are electrons). But most of the emission is in the form of alpha particles, which are charged helium nuclei (i.e., He++). The alpha particles cannot penetrate human skin and for this reason the Pentagon claims that DU is harmless. The claim is false, however. As we will see, the dangers have been understated. Artillery and tank crews who handled DU shells were exposed to continuous alpha, beta and gamma radiation over weeks and months. But they probably had less exposure than soldiers who inhaled DU-laden smoke and dust, whether in combat or during clean-up operations after the war. Most US troops were unaware–––no one bothered to inform them–––that the use of DU rounds had spread low-level radioactive waste across the battlefield. After the fighting, tens of thousands of American soldiers frolicked among the burned-out Iraqi tanks, gathering souvenirs and posing for photographs like curious tourists. Others scavenged spare parts from US vehicles contaminated by “friendly fire,” oblivious that they were endangering themselves with every breath.
The fire at Doha
The contaminated zones were not limited to Iraq. Large parts of Kuwait were also affected, including the infamous “highway of death” where the US destroyed Saddam’s army as it retreated north out of Kuwait City. Several areas in Saudi Arabia were contaminated before the war during training exercises. There was even a major accidental release after the fighting ended, which I’m going to recount in detail because it illustrates the problems. In July 1991 a fire broke out in a motor-pool at the US base at Doha, north of Kuwait City. The fire started during refueling, and was caused by static electricity. It spread first to parked vehicles and then to a nearby ammunition dump. Witnesses later said that explosions rocked the compound for six hours, scattering unexploded ordnance and debris over much of the 500-acre base. The raging fires destroyed or damaged dozens of buildings and more than 100 vehicles, including several M-1 Abrams tanks fully loaded with DU shells.
The fire consumed an estimated $14 million in munitions, including 660 120mm DU rounds, about half of which were completely oxidized. A thick fume of black and white smoke reportedly billowed hundreds of feet above the base and drifted east-southeast toward Kuwait City. No warning was ever issued about the toxic danger posed by the DU-laden smoke and ash. After the fire, soldiers worked on the clean up without even face masks or the standard protective clothing required by military regulations.
The scene must have been surreal. Witnesses later reported seeing hundreds of GIs sweeping up the compound with brooms. A team with the equipment used to test for alpha radiation was dispatched to the base, but for reasons that are still unclear no monitoring was ever done. During a December 26, 1999 broadcast of the CBS weekly news show 60 Minutes, Morley Safer reported that CBS had obtained copies of military communications and incident log books which proved that the military was aware of the hazards, yet, failed to follow its own safety protocols. The base remained open despite DU contamination. Many thousands of US soldiers who transited through Doha in the months and years after the fire suffered exposure, as Kuwait’s seasonal wind storms remobilized the DU ash and dust. In fact, the contaminated base remains in operation to this day.
Clean-up? Or Cover-up?
But even if the military had issued respirators at Doha, it’s doubtful they would have protected our soldiers, given the lessons learned during a limited clean-up operation after the war; whose purpose was to dispose of about three-dozen DU-contaminated tanks and vehicles destroyed during “friendly fire” incidents. This limited operation was led by a reservist, Maj. Doug Rokke, a physicist in private life, who says his orders were signed by the field commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
There were no field manuals. Rokke’s team had to develop the procedures on their own, through trial-and-error. Their first chore was the ticklish one of manually removing the unexploded DU ordnance still on-board the contaminated Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting vehicles. To accomplish this Rokke’s men had to enter and work inside the contaminated vehicles. There was no way to avoid stirring up the DU ash and dust that covered every surface. The men wore standard military-issue face masks, but according to Rokke they were useless. The problem was that the dust came right through the filters. The men lived with the constant metallic taste and smell of uranium oxide. The masks were of the cheapest design, and did not even meet the HEPA standard current in US industry. (HEPA, or High Efficiency Particulate Air filters, remove 99% of dust particles down to .3 microns in size.) Particles of 5 microns or less are breathable. But not even HEPA filters would have afforded full protection because the aerosols produced on impact by DU rounds are loaded with 0.1 micron-sized DU particles, as well as smaller nanoparticles ranging down to .01 microns. No known filter can prevent inhalation of particles of this size. Within 72 hours everyone on Rokke’s team developed skin rashes and began to complain of respiratory problems.
Although sick, his men persisted. But it took them more than three months just to package 24 contaminated/destroyed vehicles for shipment back to the states. This included 15 Abrams tanks and 9 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The team left behind a number of more badly contaminated vehicles: buried in a large hole in the desert. The Army spent $4 million to expand a facility in South Carolina for the purpose of decontaminating the returned equipment, but what the Army ended up with was an expensive holding facility: all for a mere 24 vehicles. The US military had no plans at the time, and has no plans today, to clean up the thousands of Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles destroyed in the 1991 war. Later, the Kuwaiti government hired a private contractor, the Halliburton Corporation, to move most of the burned-out hulks in the vicinity of Kuwait City to a dump in the western desert, according to a plan prepared by Rokke and his colleagues. The site became known as the “Bone yard.” Nothing was done for Iraq, however. Untold numbers of contaminated tanks and vehicles still litter the southern part of the country, to this day.
In 1994 Maj. Rokke was named director of the Army’s Depleted Uranium Project, and was tasked to develop a training program to prepare US soldiers to handle DU weapons. Rokke was also assigned to develop environmental clean up procedures. After extensive research, including field trials at the Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) nuclear test site in Nevada, Rokke put together a comprehensive three-tier 40-hour educational program that employed videos and was based on the best available science, including work done by the DoD’s own scientists. Rokke and his team also prepared the reports and documents that became standard Army regulations about how to handle DU. The Pentagon even saw fit to award Rokke two medals for this work. One citation commended him for "meritorious service while assigned as the depleted uranium project leader...Your outstanding achievements have prepared our soldiers for hazards and will have a vast payoff in the health, safety, and protection of all soldiers."
But the Pentagon never used Rokke’s training program and videos, not even during the run-up to the second Gulf War. Instead, in 1996 Maj. Doug Rokke was fired. Why? Simple: His training program and validating research acknowledged a plain truth that the general staff found politically unacceptable: that once DU is released as an aerosol into the environment it is virtually impossible to clean up. The Pentagon feared and probably still fears that such an admission will fuel opposition to its continued use of DU weapons. As Rokke put it: "They'd wanted 'proponency' [sic] for DU weapons, and I was giving them the opposite."
A notorious 1991 memorandum by Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn of the Los Alamos Lab had cautioned the Department of Defense (DoD) that “if no one [i.e., at the Pentagon] makes the case for the effectiveness for 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 after-action reports are being written.” Rokke interpreted the memo as an instruction to be less than candid about DU’s health and environmental impact. When he refused, he was terminated.
Rokke and his men paid a heavy price for the service they rendered to the nation trying to clean up the DU mess created during Desert Storm. According to Rokke, almost every member of his 100-man team is now either sick or dead from various diseases, including lymphoma and other cancers. It’s a charge the Pentagon has denied, but which the affected veterans and their families can easily confirm. Rokke also claims the Veteran’s Administration (VA) refused medical care to his men, even while they were dying; and he further accuses the military of willfully destroying medical records and personnel files to avoid liability. Rokke’s own health was seriously impaired. When the VA finally tested him he learned that he has 5,000 times the permissible level of uranium in his body. Rokke, currently retired/disabled, has endured 18 kidney operations, as well as eye and gastrointestinal surgery, and he continues to have medical problems directly related to his exposure to DU.
The 1999 RAND Study
Even as tens of thousands of veterans became sick after the Gulf War, the Department of Defense stubbornly denied that DU was responsible. Many vets were told they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Pentagon took the position that because DU is only 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, it is harmless. After 1999, military spokespersons also frequently cited a study completed that year by the RAND Corporation, which found no evidence of harmful DU exposure during Desert Storm. The RAND team conducted no research of its own. It merely reviewed the peer-reviewed scientific literature on uranium toxicity. As RAND conceded, there were few published DU studies, as most of the early research was driven by the need to establish standards for the uranium milling/mining industry; for which reason most of the literature deals with exposure to natural or enriched uranium. While all uranium is hazardous inside the human body, dust particles of natural unprocessed uranium tend to be less invasive because they are relatively large in size; hence, are not inhaled as easily. Moreover, the tiny cilia in the bronchial passages are efficient at removing particles of this size during breathing. When swallowed in food or water, natural uranium also tends to pass through the GI tract attached to organic matter without much absorption.
Critics countered that the Pentagon itself funded and even partly staffed the RAND study, for which reason it cannot be regarded as an independent assessment. Critics also pointed out that the RAND report is far from comprehensive. A peace activist named Gretel Munroe identified 70 pertinent scientific papers that RAND failed to consider.
Some of these were DU studies conducted under contract to various branches of the US military, including a comprehensive DU investigation completed just six months before Desert Storm by none other than the Army itself. This latter study accurately foresaw that the use of DU penetrators in combat would release large amounts of depleted uranium oxides. It noted that DU is a “low-level alpha radiation emitter which is linked to cancer when exposures are internal.” The Army study warned that aerosol exposures to both soldiers and civilians “could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects.” It also correctly predicted that exposed soldiers would suffer cancers and kidney problems. The Army’s prescient report acknowledged that “some form of remedial action in a post-combat environment” would be needed after the war, in other words, a clean up. It even warned that the long-term health risks could make the continued use of DU weapons socially and politically unacceptable. How did the Pentagon react to its own study? Simple. By ignoring it; and RAND did likewise. Both also ignored a 1993 study by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO), which concluded that “the health hazards [from DU] occur primarily due to internal exposures. Soluble forms present chemical hazards to the kidneys, while insoluble forms present hazards to the lungs from ionizing radiation, with particle size being an important factor.” Importantly, these studies also acknowledged that exposure to DU particulates is very different from exposure to natural uranium dust, for which reason RAND’s reliance on studies of natural uranium was inappropriate, and its conclusions dubious.
According to the Pentagon, DU is so inert you can eat the stuff without harm. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Cohen made a statement to this effect in 1996. And while it’s probably true that U-238, if ingested, will pass through the gut like natural uranium, without much absorption, nonetheless, Cohen’s statement ignored the fact that when high-velocity DU shells impact hard objects the DU is transformed into a much more invasive substance. Once aerosolized, DU is loose in the environment and it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into water and food; in which case, DU particles, due to their small size, are easily absorbable through the intestinal lining. They are even more easily inhaled, and will even pass through the skin, making exposure unavoidable in contaminated areas. Submicron-sized DU particles behave like a gas. They are too small to be removed by the cilia in the bronchioles and have no trouble reaching the tiny alveolar sacs in the lungs. In fact, particles of this size can pass directly into the blood and will cross every blood-barrier in the body. Naomi Harley, one of the authors of the RAND study, demonstrated her ignorance of the serious implications of this size factor in her July 1999 testimony before the Presidential Special Oversight Board, where she stated that DU will not cross the blood-brain barrier. Nonsense. Aerosolized DU particles move with ease into the brain, which, no doubt, explains the many neurological problems reported by Gulf War veterans. DU particles also cross the placenta into the unborn child, which is extremely serious because the fetus is especially vulnerable to both radiological and chemical toxicity. No doubt, this explains the increased level of birth abnormalities reported in the children of Gulf War vets, and the even higher incidence in Iraq, where mothers no longer ask, “Is it a boy, or a girl?, but rather: “Is my baby normal?”
Aerosolized DU is also different from unprocessed natural uranium in another important respect. Under the conditions of extreme temperature and high velocity impact, DU particles are rendered ceramic-like, which makes them insoluble. The body has trouble excreting them, for which reason they tend to persist. This explains why 8-10 years after the war veterans of Desert Storm were still excreting DU in their urine, semen, and even in their sweat. This retention of DU poses serious health risks for a number of reasons: firstly, because radiation, even low-level radiation, is cumulative. In fact, the term “low-level radiation” is a misnomer. It is misleading because it wrongly suggests that low-level radiation is not dangerous. Recent studies show just the opposite: that a low-level alpha source inside the body is even more dangerous per unit of exposure than higher levels of radiation. While it is true that an alpha particle, due to its vastly greater size and mass, does not travel nearly as far as an X-ray, the new research indicates that a single alpha particle can cause 1,000 times as much damage.
Low-level alpha emission in the lung causes scar tissue and greatly increases the risk of lung cancer. Some of the insoluble DU is also scavenged from the lung into the thoracic lymph nodes, where it damages the immune system and also causes lymphoma and leukemia. Many DU nano-particles are also absorbed into the blood and transported via cholesterol and lipids throughout the body. Some DU is excreted by the kidneys, but not all. Much of it accumulates in organs, tissues and bones, and even in human semen. In fact, DU’s affinity for the sexual organs is an especially serious problem because DU is known to cause chromosomal damage, thus burdening future generations with birth abnormalities. The problem is a double whammy: DU is a mutagen due to its radiological properties, and also due to its chemical properties because it is a heavy metal. It turns out that uranium has a chemical affinity for phosphate. Diane Stearns, a biochemist at Northern Arizona University, recently showed that when living cells are exposed to uranium the uranium binds to the phosphate structure in the DNA and causes mutations from chemical effects, quite apart from the radioactive properties.
Finally, new research indicates that DU’s radiological and chemical effects are not additive, but act in synergy. The combination of the two is much worse than the sum of both. A 2002 paper by Dr. Alexandra C. Miller, a chemist at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI), described an in vivo study that found DU to be much more damaging to DNA than would be expected solely on the basis of U-238’s radiolytic properties. Miller attributed this to a synergistic multiplier effect.
In a 2003 interview she told the Guardian: “you can get more than an eight-fold greater effect than you’d expect.” Miller’s findings are potentially explosive because they flatly contradict the official position of the Department of Defense (her boss) that DU presents no serious dangers. This probably explains why the Pentagon subsequently muzzled one of their top scientists. In 2006 the DoD refused to allow the BBC to interview Dr. Miller. The BBC reported that the Pentagon also turned down Miller’s repeated requests for funding to continue her DU research (in 2004, 2005 and 2006). Obviously, if you don’t look, you won’t discover unpleasant facts.
Gulf War Sickness:
a progressive wasting condition
All of the above helps to explain why Gulf War sickness is not a single malady, but a progressive wasting condition. One physician defined it as “a complex incapacitating multi-organ system disorder.”[32[ The many symptoms and associated conditions read like a litany of horrors: fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain, bleeding gums and lesions, headaches and neurological problems, memory loss, kidney dysfunction, bloody stools, flu-like symptoms, pneumonia, gynecological infections in female soldiers, unsteady gait, rashes and, ultimately, cancer and premature death. Nor is this a comprehensive list. Put simply: DU trashes the body.
Although nearly 700,000 American soldiers served in the first Gulf War, we still don’t know how many were exposed to DU because the Pentagon refused to screen and test our veterans. Although Army regulations require the testing/treatment for GIs wounded by, or exposed to, radioactive materials, including DU, not even one of the hundreds of thousand of soldiers with known or suspected exposure to DU was tested or treated after the war. The Pentagon obviously shrank from a full accounting because it feared the fiscal liability of caring for so many sick vets. The Veteran’s Administration (VA) even dragged its feet caring for the most obviously affected, i.e., the unfortunate troops exposed to large amounts of DU in so-called “friendly fire” incidents. Seven years after the war the Pentagon was still grossly under-reporting the actual number of US soldiers who had come under DU attack by our own side. Why fudge the numbers? Well, probably because the many self-inflicted casualties were an embarrassment.
But fiscal liability and public embarrassment were not the only, nor even the primary, reasons why the Pentagon sought to conceal the facts about DU weapons. The main reason is that the generals fully intended to use them again. Certainly the Pentagon was not keen on giving them up. Let us remember: During the 1990s Iraq was a free-fire zone. No doubt, the US military continued using DU weapons through this period, in which case the actual expenditure was much greater than the officially acknowledged 340 tons. During the 1994-95 Bosnian War the US used DU weapons again, some 10 tons, and another 3 tons in Kosovo in 1999. The US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the “Warthog,” accounted for most of the DU expended in these wars, as in Desert Storm. The attack plane’s main weapon is an advanced Gatling gun, the GAU-8 Avenger, mounted in the nose of the plane. The gun is so enormous that the plane literally had to be designed around it. This accounts for its ungainly appearance, and the nickname. But the Warthog was never designed for good looks. Its rotating cannon is all business, and lays down a devastating barrage of thousands of 30mm DU rounds per minute.
Horror in Basra
Beginning in 1993, Iraqi doctors reported a disturbing increase in the incidence of malignancies around Basra, in southern Iraq. Basra is Iraq’s second largest city and is located near the battlefields where most of the DU was expended in the first Gulf War. An epidemiological study conducted by Dr. Alim Yacoub, a British-educated trained doctor and dean of the medical school at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and his colleague, Dr. Jenan Hassan from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Basra, found that between 1990-2001 all types of malignancies quadrupled. During this same period the number of birth defects increased six-fold. Moreover, the incidence of childhood leukemia jumped from just 2 cases in 1990 to 41 in 2001, a shocking twenty-fold increase. Even more disturbing was a further spike to 53 cases of leukemia in 2002, a 22% increase in a single year; which suggested that an acceleration was underway.
The observed onset in 1993 jibes with the known latency period of leukemia, which can be as short as 2-3 years. The cancer epidemic was exacerbated by the UN embargo, which prevented urgently needed medicines from reaching the victims. Although the Iraqi doctors did not have access to western medical journals, Dr. Thomas Fasy of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine presented their research at a 2003 health conference in New York City. Dr. Fasy had traveled to Basra some months before. Although the Iraqi physicians lacked the necessary scientific equipment to establish a firm link to inhaled or ingested DU, Dr. Hari Sharma, a Canadian radio-chemist, later confirmed the link. When Dr. Sharma examined tissue samples of 38 dead Iraqis from Basra using a supersensitive instrument known as a mass spectrometer, he found DU in the lungs, thoracic lymph nodes and kidneys. Some of the cadavers also had DU in their livers. In a 2003 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle Dr. Yacoub complained that international sanctions prevented the Iraqi doctors from from importing the necessary medical technology. According to Yacoub, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refused to approve the equipment on the excuse that Saddam Hussein might divert it for military use. Once again, the children of Iraq were the principal victims of the US-led embargo.
Most disturbing of all were reports from Basra of extreme birth deformities, as well as a new phenomenon: multiple cancers. By now (in 2007), photos of the Iraqi birth defects have been widely posted around the internet, and the pictures must be seen to be believed. As for the multiple cancers, they were first reported in 2003 at a medical conference in Japan by Dr. Jawad Al-Ali, an oncologist at Basra’s largest hospital. Dr. Al-Ali told the conference: “Two strange phenomena have come about in Basra which I have never seen before. The first is double and triple cancers in one patient: for example, leukemia and cancer of the stomach. The second is the clustering of cancers in families. We have 58 families here with more than one person affected with cancer.” The reports from Basra were alarming, but the Pentagon dismissed them as Iraqi propaganda. The Kuwaiti government did likewise, and even banned Dr. Al-Ali from crossing the border. Other skeptics cast doubt in a different way. They pointed out that southern Iraq suffered contamination by numerous toxic agents during the 1991 war. DU, after all, was only one among many possible causes. In the absence of compelling evidence linking DU to the leukemias and birth defects it was more likely that some other agent was responsible. The cynics even suggested that Saddam Hussein had poisoned his own people by his past use of chemical weapons.
The skeptics had a point. It’s certainly true that the first Gulf War unleashed numerous toxic substances. The 1991 battlefield was probably the most polluted in history. In addition to DU, soldiers contended with experimental and/or impure vaccines. Soldiers and Iraqis alike breathed acrid black smoke from burning oil wells and were exposed to a wide array of chemical emissions due to the bombing of Iraqi infrastructure. Destroyed factories and industries can spew large amounts of toxic substances. Moreover, after the war US units destroyed at least 100 Iraqi munitions dumps, including an enormous complex at Khamisiyah which according to eyewitnesses included stores of chemical and biological agents (some supplied by the US and other western nations). It was even reported that the US command ordered the bombing of Iraqi nuclear research reactors. This evidently occurred during the “Shock and Awe” phase of the war. The Pentagon has since released few details, but assuming the reports are correct the order to blow up these sites was incredibly stupid, arguably even insane, as it no doubt had the effect of dispersing dangerous chemicals and possibly radioactive materials across the Iraqi landscape. All of these factors surely increased the level of toxic exposure; and for some years this caveat allowed the US military to deflect some of the criticism regarding its use of DU weapons.
Transuranic elements and fission by-products
The Pentagon’s case was not helped in 1999 when the Department of Energy (DoE) was forced to admit that America’s DU weapons were not pure U-238, but were laced with small amounts of U-236, plutonium, neptunium, americium, and nearly 200 other unstable transuranic elements and fission by-products, including strontium-90 and Cesium-137. It seems that for many years Union Carbide, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed Martin, the companies that produced the enriched uranium for Uncle Sam, made a practice of recycling spent reactor fuel back into the enrichment process. They did so for purely economic reasons. When the price of U-235 rose enough, it became profitable to recover more of the preferred U-235 fraction in this way. As a result, the DU waste stream became a witches brew of unstable isotopes and daughter products, none of them naturally-occurring. All are created in reactors and every one is thousands of times more radioactive than U-238.
The Pentagon took pains to emphasize that the presence of plutonium and the other transuranics presented no additional health risk, since the amounts were tiny. Only trace amounts were involved. What the Pentagon failed to mention is that there is no safe level of exposure. For instance, consider plutonium: the most toxic substance known to man. The element was discovered by the chemist Glenn Seaborg, who named it after “Pluto,” the Greek god of death (or hell). And for good reason: unlike uranium, plutonium is not found in Nature. It is produced only in the irradiated bowels of nuclear reactors by neutron bombardment of U-238; and it is 200,000 more radioactive than uranium. In fact, it is so nasty that the tiniest speck in the lung is a death sentence. A pound of plutonium, if uniformly distributed, could wipe out the entire human race. Plutonium is the preferred fissile material for nuclear weapons because so little of it is needed. A mere ten pounds, a lump the size of a grapefruit, is enough to make a hydrogen bomb.
But the dangers are not limited to nuclear weapons. For many years both the US and Russian governments, as well as the former Soviet regime, utilized one of the isotopes of plutonium, Pu-238, in their space programs. Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than the more common isotope, plutonium-239, and is used in small reactors to generate electrical power for space probes. Though controversial, the practice has continued in recent years. NASA, for example, powered the 1997 Cassini Saturn probe with a U-238-fueled reactor. This use faced considerable scientific opposition at the time because the lengthy mission required 72 pounds of U-238 fuel, by far the largest amount NASA had ever sent into space. The launch involved a Titan-4 military rocket, an old and unreliable design with a less than reassuring history of 10% failed launches. Fortunately, the Cassini lift-off was successful; but the risks were not limited to the launch phase. After first circling Venus, Cassini returned and made a second dangerous pass around earth to gain the necessary momentum to “slingshot” the probe in the direction of Saturn. Again, we were lucky and there was no disastrous spillage of plutonium. The mission went according to plan; however, other space shots have amply demonstrated the principle that if something can go wrong, it will. Since 1964 several plutonium-powered satellites have crashed to earth, spreading a total of a few pounds of plutonium-238 around the planet. The amount seems trivial, but it was enough, according to Dr. John Gofman, to cause a small but measurable increase in the world-wide rate of lung cancer. This sobering fact gives some idea of plutonium’s extreme toxicity.
Gofman is a leading authority on radiation. While still a graduate student at UC Berkeley he codiscovered U-233, one of the isotopes of uranium. During World War II Gofman assisted the Manhattan Project at the behest of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was the first to extract significant amounts of plutonium, then needed for the Bomb program. Many years later, as Biomedical Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Gofman ran afoul of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) when his research on low-level radiation became an inconvenience to the nuclear establishment. In 1969, building on the work of British radiation expert Alice Stewart, as well as the American scientist E.B. Lewis, Gofman, estimated that the cancer risk to the general population from America’s nuclear programs was much greater than most physicists believed at the time. Gofman charged that the AEC had underestimated the number of cancers by a factor of at least twenty times, which meant an excess of 32,000 cancers. Even though he had provided crucial assistance to the Manhattan Project and was regarded as a nuclear loyalist–––Gofman supported weapons development–––he was sacked because the government disapproved of his conclusions about low-level radiation. Gofman lost his research staff and funding and had to go back to teaching.
The case is no exception. Other top scientists have endured similar treatment. The list is long, and includes Linus Pauling, the famous chemist whose 1957-58 petition, signed by thousands of scientists world-wide, helped to bring about a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1962 Pauling won a second Nobel Prize for his peace work; but, thereafter, was shunned by the US government, which repeatedly refused Pauling’s requests for federal grant money. This went on for many years. Not even J. Robert Oppenheimer was above attack. Indeed, the former director of the Manhattan Project suffered an even worse fate when he opposed Edward Teller’s H-Bomb program in the 1950s. Oppenheimer became the target of a McCarthy-era witch-hunt, which ended his career, tarnished his reputation, and brought about his early death. It is of interest that Andrei Sakharov, the leading Soviet nuclear scientist, was similarly humiliated by Nikita Khrushchev for speaking out against the arms race. Even after Sakharov won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, he was placed under house arrest when he spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The lesson is clear: East or West, the War Machine brooks no deviation from its central aims. When great scientists speak out or cease to be useful, they are punished and discarded.
But time proved Gofman correct about low-level radiation. Over the years the accepted standards have become more stringent, not less. On three separate occasions the International Commission for Radiation Protection (ICRP), which draws up the rules for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has tightened up the standards. The ICRP did this in 1965, in 1986 (the year of the Chernobyl disaster), and again in 1990, when it cut the maximum safe dose by a factor of five. Incidentally, the US did not accept the latest revision and today, as a result, has a standard five times less stringent than in the rest of the world. But even the international trend toward an increasingly strict “permissible dose” misses the point. In 2005 Gofman was finally vindicated in full when the National Academy of Sciences, after a five-year comprehensive investigation, released a 700-page report that endorsed what he and a few other brave scientists have been saying for many years, namely, that all radiation exposure is cumulative and adds to the risk of cancer. The notion of a safe dose is an oxymoron.
1 Beyond Treason, a film by William Lewis, American Gulf War Vets. www.beyondtreason.com/
2 The DoD program is known as “Rods from God,” and would involve the deployment in earth orbit of 20-foot long DU penetrator rods, which could be fired at targets on earth, reaching 7,000 mph before impact. Helen Caldicott and Craig Eisendrath, War in Heaven, The New Press, New York, 2007, p. 82.
3 Nao Shimoyachi, “Citizens find Bush guilty of Afghan war crimes,” Japan Times, March 14, 2004. posted at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/member/member.html?nn20040314a5.htm
4 John Byrne, “US signs $38 million deal for depleted uranium tank shells,” The Raw Story, March 2, 3006. posted at http://rawstory.com/news/2006/U.S._signs_38_million_deal_for_0302.html
5 Scott Peterson, “The Monitor finds high levels of radiation left by US armor-piercing shells,” Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2003.
6 Interview with physicist Michio Kaku, in Poison Dust, a 2005 film by Sara Flounders and Sue Harris, available from the Peoples Rights Fund Poison Dust Project, 212-633-6646, or at www.poisondust.com
7 email from Doug Rokke, July 14, 2007.
8 According to Maj. Doug Rokke, former director of the Army’s Depleted Uranium Project, at the time of the fire the 3rd U.S. Army Materiel Command’s (AMC) DU assessment recovery team was well aware of the hazards. So were the commanding officers on the scene who, unfortunately, failed to implement the safety procedures specified in US Army Technical Bulletin 9-1300-2378. Email from Doug Rokke, July 14, 2007.
9 The pertinent document is U.S. Army Technical Bulletin 9-1300-278, Guidelines for Safe Response to Handling, Storage and Transportation Accidents Involving Army Tank Munitions or Armor Which Contain Depleted Uranium, July 21, 1996.
10 email from Doug Rokke, July 14, 2007.
11 “Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the US Army,” US Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI), June, 1995, p. 87.
12 Roke’s team also prepared several reports and documents, including: US Army Regulation 700-48, US Army PAM 700-48, and the DU CTT: Task number: 031-503-1017 “RESPOND TO DEPLETED URANIUM/LOW LEVEL RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS (DULLRAM) HAZARDS”, STP 21-1-SMCT: Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks, Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington, D.C.
13 David Rose, “Weapons of Self-Destruction,” Vanity Fair, November, 2004.
14 David Edwards, “Army made video warning about dangers of depleted uranium but never showed it to troops, February 6, 2007. posted at www.rawstory.com/news/2007/CNN_Agent_Orange_tame_compared_to_0206.html
15 David Rose, “Weapons of Self-Destruction,” Vanity Fair, November, 2004.
16 Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn, “The Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetrators,” Los Alamos National Laboratory memorandum, March 1, 1991.
17 In April 2003 Assistant Secretary of Defense William Winkenwerder claimed that only two members of Rokke’s team had died. See his letter “Depleted uranium poses no risks to troops,” Miami Herald, April 14, 2003.
18 Harley, N., Foulkes, E., Hilborne, L., Hudson, A., Anthony, C.R., “A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses: Vol. 7 Depleted Uranium,” National Defense Research Institute (RAND), 1999. Also see Berlin, M., and B. Rudell, "Uranium," in L. Friberg, G. F. Nordberg, V. B. Vouk, eds., Handbook on the Toxicology of Metals, 2nd ed., New York: Elsevier, 1986, pp. 617-637.
19 Spencer, H. S., D. Osis, I. M. Fisenne, P. Perry, N. H. Harley, "Measured Intake and Excretion Patterns of Naturally Occurring 238U and Calcium in Humans," Radiation Res, 24, 1990, pp. 90-95. The RAND team conceded, however, that in studies of rats GI absorption was greater in juvenile rats, compared with adults, which suggests that children are more vulnerable than adults. Foulkes, E. C., and D. Bergman, "Inorganic Mercury Absorption and Mature and Immature Rat Jejunum: Transcellular and Intercellular Pathways in Vivo and in Everted Sacs," Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 120, 1993, pp. 89-95.
20 Gretel Munroe, “Health Effects of Depleted Uranium,” Grassroots Actions for Peace, Military Toxics Project, October 2004.
21 “US Army Kinetic Energy Penetrator Long Term Strategy Study,” AMCCOM, 1990: D(1); also see J.A. Glissmeyer et al., Characterization Of Airborne Uranium From Test Firings Of XM774 Ammunition. This study may be viewed on line at www.mindfully.org/Nucs/Airborne-Uranium-Glissmeyer1nov79.htm; also see J.A. Glissmeyer, J. Mishima, and J.A. Bamberger, “Prototype Firing Range Air Cleaning System,” 19th DOE Nuclear Airborne Waste Management and Air Cleaning Confer., Baltimore, Maryland 12-16 August, 1984, pp. 846-872.
22 “Army not Adequately Prepared to Deal with Depleted Uranium Contamination,” US General Accounting Office , GAO/NSIAD-93-90, January 1993.
23 Hearing of the Presidential Special Oversight Board, George Washington University, July 13, 1999, posted at www.oversight.ncr.gov/xcript_hearing_13jul99.html#rand
24 Pelmar, et al, “Distribution of uranium in rats implanted with depleted uranium fragments,” Toxicological Sciences, Vol. 49, pp.2-
39, 1999; McDiarmid, et al, “Health effects of depleted uranium on exposed Gulf War veterans,” Environmental Research, Vol. 82 (2) February, 2000, pp. 168-80.
25 Elizabeth Neuffer, “Iraqis Trace Surge in Cancer to US Bombings,” Boston Globe, January 26, 2003.
26 Larry Johnson, “Iraqi cancers, birth defects blamed on US depleted uranium,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 12, 2002.
27 This is the work of Dr, Eric Wright, professor of Experimental Haematology at the University of Dundee. For an overview of his work go to www.dundee.ac.uk/pathology/ew.htm
28 “When Cells are exposed to uranium they acquire mutations,” Medical News Today, April 9, 2006. Strearn’s research was published in the journals Mutagenesis and Molecular Carcinogenesis.
29 Alexandra C. Miller, et al, “Depleted uranium-catalyzed oxidative DNA damage: absence of significant alpha particle decay,” Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, Vol. 91 (2002), pp. 246-252.
30 Ian Sample and Nic Fleming, “When the dust settles,” The Guardian, April 17, 2003.
31 BBC Press Release: US and UK military continued to use depleted uranium weapons despite cancer warnings, October 10, 2006.
32 Asaf Durakovic, “Undiagnosed Illnesses and Radioactive Warfare,” Croatian Medical Journal, 2003, Vol. 44, pp. 526.
33 Dr Thomas Fasy presented the results of the Basra study on June 14, 2003 at the NPRI conference on “The Health Effects of DU” at the New York Academy of Medicine. Dr. Fasy is an Associate Professor of Pathology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and had traveled to Basra some months before where he met with the Iraqi doctors. The title of his talk was “The Recent Epidemic of Malignancies and Congenital Malformations in Southern Iraq: the biological plausibility of DU as a carcinogen and teratogen.”
34 Dr. Hari Sharma, “Investigations of Environmental Impacts from the Deployment of Depleted Uranium-Based Munitions, December 2003. The paper is available through the Military Toxics Project at www.miltoxproj.org
35 Robert Collier, “Iraq Links Cancers to Uranium Weapons,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 13, 2003.
36 Some shocking photos are posted at www.xs4all.nl/~stgvisie/VISIE/extremedeformities.html
37 Doug Westerman, “Depleted Uranium - Far Worse Than 9/11,” Global Research, May 3, 2006.
38 Beyond Treason, a film by William Lewis, available from Gulf War Vets. www.beyondtreason.com/
39 Rick Atkinson and Ann Devroy, “US Claims Iraqi Nuclear Reactors Hit Hard,” Washington Post, January 21, 1991.
40 DoE press release: Past Recycled Uranium Programs Under Review as Energy Department Investigation Continues (provides updated information on Cold War era operations), September 29, 1999. NATO was forced to make a similar admission in 2001 after the UNEP team independently assayed DU fragments from Kosovo. NATO press release, January 18, 2001
41 Karl Grossman, “US Plans to Wage War in Space,” presentation in Toronto, Canada, October, 2000.
42 For an excellent discussion see Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing Our Own, The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation, New York, Delta, 1982, pp. 94-101.
44 Press release: July 7, 2005: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). Cancer Risks for Women and Children Due to Radiation Exposure Far HIgher Than for Men. New National Academy of Sciences Report Raises Major Issues for Radiation Protection, Independent Institute Claims. The title of the report: The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation.
Also see America’s Use of Radiological Weapons Part II
Last updated 23/08/2007
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