A Kinder, Gentler Nuclear War

Pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear capabilities have yet to be confirmed, but solid proof is accumulating that depleted uranium has poisoned thousands of soldiers and civilians.

By Sandeep S. Atwal

"Really, these things are dirty bombs. Exactly the sort of device that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair keep talking about being in the hands of terrorists."
- Professor Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, School of Sciences, University of Sunderland, UK

The June 1947 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists featured, for the first time, a large clock on its cover. A permanent fixture thereafter, the clock was borne out of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the impending arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the unknown dangers of radiation. The "Doomsday Clock" represented, in the words of an accompanying editorial, "the state of mind of those whose closeness to the development of atomic energy does not permit them to forget that their lives and those of their children, the security of their country and the survival of civilization, all hang in the balance as long as the specter of atomic war has not been exorcized."

The hands of the clock were last moved on February 27, 2002. With little progress on nuclear disarmament, nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and concerns about the security of nuclear weapons materials, the minute hands of the clock were moved from nine to seven minutes to midnight. Now the spectre of nuclear weapons rises again over a recalcitrant North Korea and as part of the reason to force "regime change" in Iraq.

On Oct. 7, 2002 George W. Bush said, "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein has held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his 'nuclear mujahideen' -- his nuclear holy warriors. Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past." He raised the same point in these now-infamous sixteen words from his State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The claim was revealed to be based on forged evidence and was convincingly debunked by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, in his New York Times article "What I Didn't Find in Africa."

Despite this finger-pointing, the current threat from nuclear weapons and their inherent danger comes not from Iraq or North Korea but the United States and its allies. Scientists all over the world are amassing ample proof that the use of depleted uranium weapons has poisoned thousands of U.S. soldiers, caused birth defects in Iraq to multiply at an alarming rate and made areas of Afghanistan radioactive and uninhabitable. Former U.S. Army medical personnel are among the most unrelenting critics of the use of DU weapons.

The number of countries with depleted uranium continues to grow. At least 17 countries already have in their arsenals bullets made from depleted uranium (DU). Many - such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Taiwan - get them from the United States. England and France buy DU wholesale from the US. Russia now sells DU rounds on the open market.

In addition to the damage already done, the U.S. recently announced that it is seeking to introduce "low-yield" nuclear weapons into future conflicts. Unless the documentation of hundreds of doctors, scientists and researchers around the world is proven completely wrong, the U.S. has already brought the power and the fallout of nuclear weapons to the battlefield.

Radioactive Garbage

"Natural" uranium, as found in the earth's crust, is largely a mixture of two isotopes: uranium-238 (U-238), accounting for 99.3% and U-235 about 0.7%. A process to enrich U-238 creates uranium-235 for weapons and power plants. This procedure leaves behind a by-product called "depleted uranium," that is about 65% as radioactive as naturally occurring U-238. In addition to its radioactivity, depleted uranium is highly toxic, especially if ingested. Thousands of tons of the material was produced as a byproduct of producing thousands of nuclear weapons, creating a source of relatively inexpensive and effective armor-piercing projectiles. Depleted uranium is twice as dense as steel and pyrophoric in nature (it ignites on penetration). For these properties, DU was chosen over tungsten for use as both a defensive and offensive weapon.

However, when a DU weapon makes contact with a solid object and burns, the radioactive U-238 aerosolizes and is emitted into the environment in tiny particles. These U-238 particulates can be transported by wind or water and have been known to travel over 26 miles from their source. The toxic material enters the body through inhalation, ingestion, exploded fragments or other wound contamination.

In the U.S., depleted uranium weapons are handled by workers in HAZMAT suits and regular environmental testing is conducted in the areas where it is produced and test-firing is conducted. The Aberdeen Proving Ground (also known as the Superbox) where DU weapons are test-fired, consists of a 100 lb TNT blast equivalency containment vessel, real-time air quality monitoring and a highspeed door which closes immediately after the munitions pass through it to further minimize the amount of DU released to the open air. In Kosovo and Iraq, U.S. soldiers are exposed to the material with no protection, children play on radioactive tanks destroyed by DU weapons and depleted uranium shells litter the countryside.

U.S. and Allied forces fired approximately 350 tons of depleted uranium during the first Gulf War. During the second Gulf War, researchers estimate as many as 2,000 tons of depleted uranium was used. Ground forces, crews of military equipment who fired DU, Allied forces involved in "friendly fire" incidents, and soldiers who were around DU strike points were all exposed to the material.

Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor recently travelled to Iraq to measure radiation levels caused by DU weapons. The Monitor visited four sites in the city, including two randomly chosen Iraqi armored vehicles, burned American ammunition trucks and the downtown planning ministry, and found widespread radioactive contamination.

One pile of dust yielded a readout of 9,839 radioactive emissions in one minute, more than 300 times average background levels. Another pile of dust reached 11,585 emissions in a minute. Peterson also reported that six American vehicles struck with DU "friendly fire" in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia.

A DU tank round recovered in Saudi Arabia in 1991 was found by a US Army radiological team to be emitting 260 to 270 millirads of radiation per hour. The current U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year. The normal public dose limit in the US, and recognized around much of the world, is 100 millirems per year. Of 16 vehicles brought back to a facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

"Oh my God."

Peterson's investigation is a small contribution to the long-standing work of Dr. Doug Rokke. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. Army asked Major Rokke, a Vietnam veteran with over twenty years of service, to work with the U.S. Army Preventive Medicine Command and help prepare troops for nuclear, biological or chemical exposures. Dr. Rokke was in charge of cleaning up American tanks hit by DU during the first Gulf War, casualties of "friendly fire." In numerous lectures and speeches he has repeatedly described his first reaction upon arriving in Iraq in three words: "Oh my God." According to Rokke, about 70% of DU rounds vaporize into dust as fine as talcum powder. The dust from DU weapons exists in respirable sized particles, approximately 10 micrometers and less in diameter. It enters directly into lymph and blood through the lung-blood barrier and circulated throughout the whole body. These particles stay in the lungs for upwards of two years.

When his team climbed into vehicles that had been hit with DU weapons, the air was thick with DU dust. The team was given no protective gear during their mission. A 1995 physical exam by the US Department of Energy revealed that Rokke had 5,000 times the permissible level of uranium in his body. Twenty of Rokke's team of ninety-one researchers are now dead and Rokke is seriously ill, he suffers reactive airway disease, neurological damage and kidney problems and now travels around the world, delivering powerful lectures on the dangers of depleted uranium.

Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a former Colonel in the U.S. Army has reached similar conclusions as Rokke. Dr. Durakovic was a professor of nuclear medicine at Georgetown University and the former head of nuclear medicine at the US Army's veterans' affairs medical facility in Delaware. Dr. Durakovic was the first person to identify uranium poisoning in Gulf War veterans. Dr. Durakovic has also given several interviews to alert people to the dangers of depleted uranium.

He gave an interview to Democracy NOW! earlier this year when he described areas of Afghanistan as so irradiated, they would be uninhabitable for the "foreseeable future." Durakovic's research shows uranium levels of a much higher concentration than Gulf War veterans. He believes that it was non-depleted uranium that was used in Afghanistan. Tests taken from Jalalabad subjects showed concentrations 400% to 2000% above that for normal populations, amounts which have not been recorded in civilian studies before. One conclusion is that the allied forces are now possibly using milled uranium ore in their warheads to maximize the effectiveness and strength of their weapons.

Rokke and Durakovic, both with distinguished service records, are particularly concerned about the effects of depleted uranium on American soldiers. In September 2000, Dr. Durakovic told a conference of nuclear scientists in Paris that "tens of thousands" of British and American soldiers are dying from radiation and soil samples from Iraq show radiation levels more than 17 times the acceptable level.

Casualties of The Gulf War

As of May 2002, 206,861 veterans had filed claims for benefits based on service-connected injuries and illnesses caused by Gulf War combat-related duties. The Department of Veterans Affairs has processed 183,249 claims for medical care, compensation, and pension, determining that for 159,238 veterans, their injuries and illnesses are service connected, caused by Gulf War exposures and injuries. Consequently they have been awarded lifetime medical care, compensation, and pensions based on the extent of their medical problems.

Since the cessation of Gulf War hostilities in 1991, an additional 8,013 veterans have died from service connected injuries and exposures incurred during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As of May 2002, the Gulf War casualties include 8,306 veterans dead and 159,705 veterans injured or ill as a consequence of wartime service. The official May 2002 Department of Veteran Affairs report classifies 16,8011 individuals as "disabled veterans," an astounding casualty rate of 29.3% for combat-related duties between 1990 and 1991. The VA still has claims from 23,612 individuals pending and has denied benefits to 24,011 veterans.

The danger from radiation is not restricted to the battlefield. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant outside Paducah, Kentucky, is a uranium enrichment facility owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. The plant employs about 1,400 people and produces low-enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. Toxins that were emitted into the air, spilled into streams and ground water, and buried are moving through the food chain. An investigation by the Louisville-Courier-Journal showed that many of the more than 6,000 people who have worked at the plant are sick; most blame the radiation and toxic chemicals in the factory. They said they had inadequate protection from the ubiquitous dust and were not told of the danger. Similar claims are made by citizens living near the Oak Ridge facility and the dangers of uranium mining are well-documented.


Dr. Rokke's and Dr. Durakovic's claims are echoed by hundreds of individuals and organizations alike, from the Royal Society in Britain to former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Researcher Dai Williams has conducted an astonishing amount of research into depleted uranium weapons and several documentaries including Iraq: Paying the Price by John Pilger and Downwind by Pinhole Pictures, both explore the damage caused by these weapons. The Nuclear Policy Research Institute (founded by Helen Caldicott) has been established to educate the world about the "medical, environmental, political and moral consequences of perpetuating nuclear weapons, power and waste." The NPRI held its first scientific symposium on June 14, 2003 and all of the presentations and research from that symposium are available to the public.

Scientific consensus is that depleted uranium weapons must be banned, individuals who may have been exposed to depleted uranium must receive medical care and all depleted uranium fragments and contaminated equipment must be cleaned up and disposed of at secure sites. Although the U.K. government has committed itself to begin testing its soldiers for uranium poisoning, the U.S. refuses to conduct similar testing and has ruled out the clean up of areas where DU was used. Unless these recommendations from the scientific community are adopted, it seems certain that more soldiers will die and more countries where DU weapons are used will become radioactive and uninhabitable. The dangers of DU weapons must be addressed soon.


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