New Internationalist

Toxic souvenirs

Issue 406

Depleted uranium weapons have left behind a trail of human misery and vituperative debate. What’s not known about them is just as disturbing as what is, discovers Dinyar Godrej.

SUNG Nam Hung / imagestate
War debris litters the Iraqi landscape. SUNG Nam Hung / imagestate

Contamination hangs around depleted uranium (DU). The radioactive, toxic substance itself pulses with it – for billions of years. But everything else surrounding it seems contaminated, too – by half-truths, deceptions and downright ignorance. Shake the waters of the DU story and a miasmal murk rises that threatens to obscure everything. Between the official line that depleted uranium is not especially harmful and the conspiracist view that it is a genocidal weapon there is a crossfire that seems to ward off access to the truth.

To begin at the beginning, from the moment the first unit of nuclear power was generated and the first nuclear warhead was assembled there began to grow a scrapheap of uranium waste. This stuff was about 60 per cent as radioactive as natural uranium and a headache to store. It had a nasty habit of eating through containers. Today that scrapheap is a mountain – over a million tonnes and growing.

The word ‘depleted’ means ‘emptied’, ‘exhausted’. In terms of its usefulness to the nuclear power industry or the thermonuclear big bang arms industry, DU probably is clapped out. But in other ways this heavy metal remains potent.

It certainly isn’t depleted of lethal possibility, as the arms industry discovered nearly 50 years ago. The US began developing DU munitions around 1959 and Britain in the early 1960s.1 Here was a waste product (thus cheap) that was almost twice as dense as lead. In a manner of speaking it could become the ‘silver bullet’ of armour-penetrating ammunition.

Jump a couple of decades to 1978 and we find the US Army introducing DU ammunition into its stockpiles. It’s part of a Cold War tussle for military supremacy. The US fears the Soviets have built a tank that might be impenetrable by conventional weapons. Enter DU. (Later the US would put DU plates into the front of tanks to improve their armour.)

Once the arms exist, it’s only a matter of time before they get used. In the first Gulf War of 1991, US and British forces discharge an estimated 280 tonnes of DU ammo. Such is the flattening power of the DU arms used in Operation Desert Storm that there is talk of ‘zero casualty’ warfare. ‘Zero casualty’, that is, if you happen to be on the ‘winning’ side. War photographers capture the fried carcasses of Iraqi troops left like savage totems in the desert.

Marieke Van
Damacio Lopez campaigning in Belgium. Marieke Van

Common sense dictates that such a large quantity of hazardous waste, which would normally be stored under secure conditions, doesn’t miraculously become non-hazardous when it has been fired into Iraqi and Kuwaiti territory. Doubts emerge from some unexpected quarters. In a March 1991 memo, just after the Gulf War, Lieutenant-Colonel Gregory K Lyle writes: ‘The hostilities surrounding Operation Desert Storm may soon raise a question concerning what can, must, or should be done with the millions of expended rounds of depleted uranium ordnance… As Explosive Ordnance Disposal, ground combat units, and the civil populations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq come increasingly into contact with DU ordnance, we must prepare to deal with the potential problems. Toxic war souvenirs, political furore, and post-conflict clean-up are only some of the issues that must be addressed.’2

The arc of this rather confused memo is interesting. It acknowledges the problem of the toxic, radioactive waste and worries about any possible clean-up on this unprecedented scale. It praises the Department of Defense’s guidelines for handling the ammunition, but bemoans its lack of clarity on where to bin this junk once it has been expended. Kyle ends with a vague hope that ‘our troops and allies’ will somehow be protected. He is silent on any possibility of protection for the other side or for civilians.

About the same time another memo circulates from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a body whose mission it is to ‘help ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons in our country’s stockpile’ – as if those things were not contradictions in terms. Lieutenant-Colonel M V Ziehm states: ‘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. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence… through Service/Department of Defense proponency.’2

In essence Ziehm is asking for a propaganda effort on behalf of DU munitions, so that pesky questions of ‘political acceptability’ deriving from environmental concerns don’t scupper their use.

Whether Ziehm was aware of them or not, ‘environmental’ and other concerns had been raised some years before in New Mexico in a struggle which was to give impetus to the worldwide anti-DU movement.

Black clouds

In 1985, Damacio Lopez, a professional golfer of Mexican, Hispanic and Indian ancestry, had returned to his hometown of Socorro (population 8,000) to recuperate after a car crash. He’d left over 20 years before to escape poverty. While resting in his parents’ house he was jolted by a series of explosions so severe that the walls of the house developed cracks. After each explosion a black cloud would come rolling across. He found out that the bangs originated from a firing range at the top of Socorro Mountain – less than three kilometres away and from where the town’s drinking water was sourced. The land belonged to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. When Lopez approached the Institute’s Board of Regents, they were wary, saying the tests were of nothing more than conventional weapons.

Then one morning Lopez woke up to find a pile of cardboard boxes deposited outside his front door. ‘They were full of contracts and other documents exchanged between the college and the companies manufacturing DU munition shells,’ he recalls, ‘regarding the use of the firing range and even the money involved.’

Lopez confronted the startled President of the Institute with this information and with a request that the firing cease. The President’s shock soon turned to anger as he berated Lopez: ‘What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you understand English? It’s depleted uranium. There’s no radioactivity so it doesn’t make any hazard. You should learn English.’3

Lopez attributes to this answer his dedication to fight against DU. He founded the International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST). He gathered evidence in his hometown, including a freakishly abnormal number of reported cases of hydrocephalus and a large increase in cancer deaths.

The answers official bodies have given to valid questions about DU by concerned members of the public have often been similar to the one Lopez received. Either they are patronizingly reassuring – ‘just trust us, there’s nothing to worry about’ – or they attempt to blind with science. Neither inspires trust.

Consider the secrets and lies of every confirmed use of DU munitions in warfare. When US troops were deploying to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in the build-up to the first Gulf War, army regulations stated that soldiers exposed to or wounded by DU munitions should undergo medical tests. This the US Army failed to do. In fact the Army neglected even to tell personnel who had gone into battle anything about DU’s possible health hazards. It was in 1993 that congressional investigators began uncovering the facts and broke the bad news to soldiers who had spent time with contaminated equipment. The Army then declared it would test all exposed personnel, but the Army Surgeon General’s Office decided that there were only 35 such soldiers. Over the course of four further federal investigations they gave the impression that only a handful of soldiers were involved. In January 1998, seven full years after the war and after several exposés by activists and the media, the Department of Defense went oops. It stated that ‘the failure to properly disseminate [DU warnings] to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures.’ Their credibility was well and truly in tatters. DU researcher Dan Fahey uncovered a US Army report released six months before the war that detailed the risks of DU use, including cancer and kidney damage, to both ‘natives and combat veterans’ and which called for ‘public relations efforts’ to stave off the ‘potential for adverse international reaction’.1

DU ammunition rained down again during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. NATO and the US Department of Defense at first denied its use, then refused to reveal the locations. It was only after the intervention of then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that this information was extracted. In 2001 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) teams began examining six of the battlegrounds, all of which had already undergone clean-ups (including the removal of tons of earth) by the Yugoslav federal authorities. And yet ‘widespread DU contamination’ was found in soil samples from five of the six. Airborne DU particles were still lingering in two of the sites, giving the lie to the claim that due to DU’s density, particles fall quickly to the ground. Corroded penetrators were recovered, suggesting the possibility of groundwater contamination. Notwithstanding all this, UNEP confidently pronounced: ‘No alarming levels of DU contamination were detected.’4

The pattern of denial has led to suspicions of DU use both in Afghanistan and recently in Lebanon. Where it has certainly been used again, and likely in much greater volume, is Iraq in 2003. But with the continued disastrous occupation of the country, there is little appetite among the ‘victors’ for laying bare yet more wartime atrocity. In November 2006, Henrik Slotte, chief of the UNEP post-conflict branch, had a team of research scientists ready to carry out a detailed health assessment of potentially affected Iraqis. However, progress was aborted by US refusal to reveal co-ordinates of weapon use during the war. Slotte threw up his hands: ‘Without the co-ordinates… it is impossible to start working on depleted uranium in the field – it’s like looking for a needle in the haystack.’5

The extent of the health effects are far from completely clear. But there is much reason for fear. Today an estimated total of 8,000 US veterans of the 1991 Gulf War are dead and a further 200,000 on disability benefit. For British troops the numbers are 600 dead and 9,000 battling with the numerous ailments of ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.6 The US Government has spent over $300 million dollars on the Syndrome without any effective treatment emerging. The spread of troops suffering from what became known as ‘Balkans Syndrome’ has scattered across Europe. And some soldiers returning from Iraq after the most recent conflict have also come down with baffling multiple illnesses. Studies of these syndromes report problems with the circulatory, blood, urinary, neuro-muscular and reproductive systems. Cancers, both in the soldiers themselves and in children born to them since, have risen, as have congenital disorders. From the civilian population of Iraq come reports of elevated rates of cancers and birth malformations rising nearly tenfold in some places. Lymphomas, leukaemia and bladder cancers are abnormally high, results which had been predicted by theoretical work on DU exposure. Some of the birth disorders are so extreme and unusual that doctors have never seen them before.7

Patriots and propagandists

Of course, other toxins and factors probably also play a role in these diseases, but DU remains a common thread. And in the absence of full-scale medical studies DU cannot be ruled in completely either, though scientific evidence is stacking up to establish the links. That such a situation of uncertainty is convenient for US and British authorities is obvious. However, it has led to propaganda bedlam.

DU supporters dismiss the link to ill-health, drawing on notions of patriotism and the spectre of loony pacifism to amplify their message. On the other side, some activists are in deep conspiracist mode, using images of Iraqi children with congenital deformities in a completely irresponsible way, and making wild and untrue claims. Some people with scientific backgrounds have also joined in the fray, predicting numbers of future cancer casualties which have been, to all intents and purposes, pulled out of a hat; claiming that DU has polluted the atmosphere with radioactive dust equivalent to 400,000 Nagasaki bombs; asserting they have proof that DU weapons were used in contested regions and then withholding the ‘evidence’ to back up their claims. When I asked some campaigners who had been lobbying governments to ban these weapons what they thought of such hysterics, they were forthright in condemning such individuals as ‘media horny’ self-publicists.

Somewhere in this mêlée, the appeal for a rational approach has also been making headway, calling for a thorough investigation of DU’s effects on human health and the environment by non-partisan bodies and for a precautionary ban on these weapons.

PAUL LOWE / PANOS
The horror in Sarajevo: UN peacekeepers help an injured woman from the scene of an explosion. PAUL LOWE / PANOS

On an international level, many of the agencies that may be looked upon to pronounce on radiation issues are compromised. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has as its mandate the promotion of ‘peaceful nuclear technologies’ and therefore a vested interest in demonstrating the ‘safety’ of nuclear power. In 1986, its then Director Hans Blix blithely remarked: ‘The atomic industry can take catastrophes like Chernobyl every year.’

Critics argue that the World Health Organization (WHO) is also compromised by a 1959 ‘deal’ with the IAEA whereby both agencies agreed that when faced by activity in which the other organization may have a substantial interest they would ‘consult with the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual consent’.

Many countries and international bodies rely on a group which is completely undemocratic and self-serving for recommendations on radiological protection. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), a group founded by former physicists of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, extrapolates data from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima blasts to offer radiation dose levels, even though the acute radiation of these events is completely different from the long-term internal radiation experienced by people who have inhaled or ingested DU particles.8

Mountain of questions

Who, then, will provide the clean pair of hands to tackle the safety problem?

The supplementary question must be whether the problem can be tackled at all – or whether it isn’t preferable to jettison these munitions now and forever.

Here are just some of the odds stacked against the use of DU munitions. They are radioactive and highly toxic. Once discharged, the DU is going to hang about forever – or for a half life of 4.5 billion years, if one must be precise. The full effects on human health can only be guessed at for the moment, though from all accounts they are pretty devastating. Just one microscopic particle of DU lodged in the lungs could start the reaction in one cell which could lead to a fatal cancer. DU has been known in experiments to damage DNA – so its legacy of disease could pass through generations. Have we got the time or the callousness to sit it out?

Questions abound. Why have dissenting voices been silenced in WHO documents which pronounced DU’s safety? The reason given was that ‘the WHO may look a bit odd’ and ‘not in control of its shop’.5

Why was a Pentagon scientist who found that DU alters DNA and was a causative factor in tumour growth denied subsequent funding year upon year in the area?

Is it fair to expose civilians and members of armed forces to a substance which is difficult to trace reliably? Tests for DU in urine are a fine art and don’t always reveal exposure; they also cost over $1,000 a pop. How are the citizens of Iraq ever going to find out with any certainty whether they have been exposed or not, and who will pay for their treatment if they fall ill?

Who will pay for the clean-up of contaminated areas – if they can be successfully cleaned up at all – when the bill for tidying up one leaky munitions factory (the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Minnesota) was $828 million and involved the removal of the very ground upon which it stood?

Media attention on DU has been pretty quiet of late, but campaigning on the issue is ongoing. The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons has been ceaselessly lobbying at every level (from local government to the United Nations) to get the issues understood and the weapons banned. They have provided a sober, considered alternative to the propaganda. As I write, they are preparing to lobby the UN again.

If nothing is done, these weapons will become increasingly normalized and will continue to proliferate. There is the fear that with the proposed renaissance of nuclear power more waste DU will be turned into ammunition. There are also fears that the scrapyards of the Majority World could start filling up with contaminated waste following conflicts.

DU may seem like an issue with a slow fuse, but action on it needs to ignite.

  1. Dan Fahey, ‘The Emergence and Decline of the Debate over Depleted Uranium Munitions’, 20 June 2004; www.wise-uranium.org/pdf/duemdec.pdf
  2. Facsimiles of both memos are reproduced in Willem Van den Panhuysen, Dossier: Belgiėverbiedt wapens met verarmd uranium, Belgische Coalitie Stop Uraniumwapens, June 2007.
  3. Akira Tashiro, ‘Discounted casualties – the human cost of depleted uranium’, 14 May 2000; http://tinyurl.com/2a6r5f
  4. ‘UNEP report on DU in the Balkans’, CADU News, Spring 2002; www.cadu.org.uk/info/environment/10_1.htm
  5. Angus Stickler, The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 2 November 2006.
  6. Robert Green, ‘Depleted Uranium and Human Health: another view’, NZ International Review, March/April 2006.
  7. www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/8.html
  8. Rosalie Bertell, ‘Avoidable Tragedy Post-Chernobyl’, Journal of Humanitarian Medicine, Vol 2, No 3, 2002.

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