You are here

Radiant Iraq: Assassination by Conventional Nukes

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#387-388
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development
28/03/1993
Article

(March 28, 1993) Recently a draft report was released by the US General Accounting Office on US troop exposure to radiation during the Gulf War. According to the report, several dozen US troops were exposed to small amounts of radiation but were ill equipped to avoid or react to the contamination. The exposure resulted from depleted uranium (DU) used by the allied forces to toughen armor piercing artillery. The US military claimed it would ordinarily would pose no health risk because it is covered by other shielding material. Nevertheless, some tank crews were exposed when they were near vehicles that accidentally caught fire and ignited the DU coated ammunition. The report concluded that the Army did not provide proper warnings or training for the hazard. US Congressman Ron Wyden, who ordered the report, emphasized the need for a review of the uranium exposures, stating that the Army " has not effectively educated its personnel in the hazards of depleted uranium contamination and in proper safety measures." The radioactive debris left behind in the desert seems to have been of little concern to either the report's researchers or Wyden.

Henk van der Keur

Clumsy stuff, this depleted uranium. What to do with this low-radioactive nuclear waste which remains radioactive for years? In the United States they have the solution: recycling it in conventional arms.

The US-led coalition which defeated Iraq in the Gulf War left at least 40 tons of depleted uranium in Kuwait and southern Iraq. In May 1991 radiation experts had already reported that the radio-active debris from high-tech munitions will be in the long-term responsible for the death of half a million residents in Iraq and Kuwait. These data are mentioned in a secret report from the British Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and were revealed by the Independent on Sunday in November 1991. The publication caused not a single report of importance in the media, which had earlier speculated wildly on the nuclear bomb of Saddam Hussein. All the news from Iraq was focussed on the expeditions of the UN inspection-teams to the sites of the hidden weapons of mass destruction.

Depleted Uranium (DU) is the slag left over from the uranium enrichment process after the fissionable uranium-235 isotope has been extracted for the production of nuclear weapons or fuel elements for nuclear power stations. Since natural uranium consists of more than 99% non-fissionable uranium-238, large amounts of this byproduct are developed during the enrichment -process. For decades this long lived and low-level radioactive waste has been a topic of a scientific debate n the stockpile is becoming larger and there is no satisfactory solution to the problem of how to dispose of it.

There have been debates on whether to send depleted uranium fuel into space or bury it at the bottom of the sea; the current plan is to put it in deep storage in hollowed-out salt layers. But 15 years ago, even while the debate was still going on, the US military had already concluded agreements with the nuclear industry, whereby industry would take over the expensively stored military waste for nothing. This business agreement means great economic profits for both partners. Nuclear waste is now merchandise and no longer a problem for the nuclear industry. The munitions makers no longer have to worry about the wastes they are creating and the problems and costs involved in storage, allowing them to experiment with new uses. DU is, for example, harder than tungsten, a very hard metal the US must import at additional cost. A report by the Canadian-US organization Uranium Traffic from 1984 mentions that the US army used at least 6500 tons of DU in munitions and tank armor. It is highly likely that the amount has multiplied since that time. Last year the US Congress decided to double the amount of uranium in the tank amour of the new generation of Abram tanks.

DU is also exported on a large scale as raw material for arms. Between December '80 and February '81, the US Navy shipped fifty tons to Saudi-Arabia. Another secret license approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed Nuclear Metals Inc. to export 500 tons to the Royal Ordnance munitions factories in England. Probably these licenses are only the tip of the iceberg.

The hardness and the mass of the low-level radioactive uranium make the metal two and a half times as heavy as steel, the beloved material for munitions designers. So it is also used in tank armor for protection.

According to the Pentagon, tank crews are exposed to a radiation dose equivalent to a daily chest X-ray n a dose which is far above the limits the NRC sets for residents. In the US press many articles were published about soldiers having symptoms of radiation diseases.

During the Gulf War, US and British forces for the first time used DU projectiles on a large scale. The Iraqi forces, thanks to western arms deliveries, possessed a huge arsenal of modern arms, but they didn't have the amour penetrating projectiles. Ironically, only projectiles of DU could be responsible for the 'friendly fire' that hit the ten Abram tanks and the fifteen Bradley vehicles. The uranium which was found in the grapeshot proved undoubtedly that the military vehicles were hit by ammunition from their own side.

The destructive power of the uranium bullets is not restricted to the actual penetrating power caused by their weight. The armor-piercing capacity of the projectile after hitting the target is strengthened by ignition of the fragments. The melting fragments easily penetrated the layers of amour protecting the Iraqi crews, burning them alive. The Iraqi Soviet-made tanks had nothing to resist the anti-tank high-tech weapons of the allied armies.

DU munitions have led to serious pollution of the soil, the ground- and surfacewater in the areas where they have been tested. Uptake of contaminated water by the body causes a diversity of diseases, because the low-level radioactive heavy metal accumulates in the bones and kidneys. Chronic poisoning leads, among other things, to irreversible damage to the kidneys and the growth of tumors. Like lead, uranium becomes permanently deposited in bone tissue, and might be expected (though no study has looked for this effect) to cause similar developmental problems in chronically exposed children. Like calcium, uranium readily crosses the placenta, as was demonstrated in human experiments conducted under the auspices of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in which various uranium compounds were injected to pregnant women. Children are especially vulnerable, because their cells are dividing rapidly as they grow. The poison is able to pass the placenta, by which the chance of congenital defect rises very fast.

Uranium particles can also enter the body via the lungs. DU projectiles which come to ignition are pulverized into large quantities of microscopic particles that are scattered by the wind over large areas. These micro-particles send out ionizing radiation (alpha radiation). Upon inhalation, the radioactive particles lodge in the lungs, damaging the surrounding tissue. The radiation stimulates in the long-term the growth of tumors and growth of lung cancer. US nuclear scientist Leonard Dietz calculates that a single 2.5 µm uranium dioxide particle of depleted uranium will cause a surprisingly high radiation dose of 17 rads/yr. to lung tissue surrounding the particle and within the range of the alpha particles n a hundred times more than the maximum allowable dose limit. And, although alpha radiation has a relatively low penetrating power, the skin is not (as was earlier thought) an entirely impervious barrier for this type of radiation either.

Three months before the Gulf War, in October 1990, Dietz wrote an urgent letter to Les Aspin, chairman of the Committee on Armed Services of the US House of Representatives. (He will be the new US Secretary of Defense, HvdK). Dietz explained in his letter to be very careful about the use of DU munitions in test areas, referring to his publications from 1980. From 1955 to 1983, he was employed at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL) in Schenectady, New York. His professional responsibility was research and development of high sensitivity equipment and techniques. In 1979, while analyzing environmental air filters exposed on the KAPL site perimeter, the research team under his direction discovered and measured airborne emissions of depleted uranium from the NL Industries plant which is located on the western boundary of Albany, New York. NL Industries was manufacturing depleted uranium inserts for 30 mm cannon shells used by the Air Force. The KAPL site is west of Albany, a straight-line distance of approximately 10 miles from the NL plant. Dietz and his team detected airborne DU contamination as far west of Albany as the Kesselring site at West Milton, NY, where prototype reactor facilities are located for training Navy personnel, approximately 26 miles away.

Four months after the war, May 13, 1991, Dietz received a letter from Aspin in which he declared that he asked the Defense Department to review the issues Dietz raised in his letter. The Pentagon then sent on the report "Depleted Uranium Munitions" by Joe Osterman, director of the Pentagon Office of Environment and Life Sciences. In a business-like way Osterman affirms in this report the disastrous impacts of depleted uranium on public health, particularly the risks of nephro-toxicity ( poisoning of the kidneys). However, he mentions nothing about the chronic effects in the case of DU particle inhalation. Dietz wouldn't put up with the conclusion of the report and wrote a letter to Osterman in which he informed him of his research: "In your report, you describe several potential health risks resulting from the ingestion of depleted uranium. You also mention the potential risk for inhalation of depleted uranium in combat situations but you do not discuss long-term effect that might result. Have you investigated the probability that lung cancer could develop in someone who has thousands of µm-sized depleted uranium particles trapped permanently in his or her lungs?"

John Kolmer, an assistant to Osterman, answered Dietz in vague terms that the chance of lung cancer exists, but he repeated the view of his chief: the major danger caused by depleted uranium is nephrotoxicity. Kolmer closed his letter as follows: " The potential risk to human health from exposure to depleted uranium is, of course, dose and time related, both of which must be measured, approximated, or assumed. Let me assure you that we feel that your concern, which parallels our own, is real and we thank you for sharing that with us."

The NL Industries munitions factory was closed in 1980 by order of the authorities of New York State because the plant regularly exceeded the radioactive emission limit of 150 microcuries a month. Leonard Dietz asked in a letter to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "If New York State authorities were concerned about the release each month of radiation equivalent to the particles from one or two uranium projectiles, why isn't the US government concerned about the effects of tens of thousands of projectiles being fired in a few days of war?"

The military, claiming that DU poses little threat, is taking no initiative to monitor the health effects of the use of DU, let alone to estimate the long-term impact of their production and use. The Congress was concerned about the exposure of soldiers and clean-up teams to oil fires in the Gulf and ordered the military to set up a registry of persons exposed to the smoke, but has taken no such initiative on DU exposure. For years, US radiation researchers, peace and environmental organizations have insisted in vain on large-scale registration for medical monitoring of civilian residents in the vicinity of the test sites and soldiers who have touched DU.

The soothing declarations of the Army that any concentrations of DU in Iraqi vehicles left in the desert would be small contradict the findings of the reporters from the Atomic Energy Authority. Major Joe Padilla, a Defense Department spokesperson, said, for example, that "the DU would have oxidized and blown away". But the UKAEA report said: "The DU will be spread around the battle-field and target vehicles in varying sizes and quantities, from dust particles to full size penetrators and shot. It would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods and would obviously be of concern to the local population if they collect this heavy metal and keep it. There will be specific areas in which many rounds will have been fired, where localized contamination of vehicles and soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both clean up teams and the local population."

The German physician Siegwart-Horst Günther stays regularly in Iraq and collects money via his German-based foundation, Humanitarian Aid for the Children in Iraq, to buy medicines, which he brings himself to hospitals in southern Iraq. Besides this, he does some field research on DU munitions. In the German newspaper Neues Deutschlands (July 16, 1992) he declares that he saw twelve children playing with fragments of the projectiles and that he presumed that the military debris is responsible for the strong increase of leukemia and other variants of cancer among children. He wasn't able to diagnose the causes of a number of diseases n all of them lethal. Months earlier, Günther asked the German authorities for permission to bring a number of children to Germany for medical research. The request was rejected. After that rejection, the physician decided to take a projectile with him from the Iraqi desert for evidence. He showed a piece of a projectile at a press conference in Berlin. Somewhat later his 'evidence' n taken from a projectile which before and during the Gulf War had been transported via the Netherlands and Germany by the thousands n was seized by the police. Günther was charged with illegal possession of arms and 'Freisetzung ionisierender Strahlung' (liberation of ionizing radiation) and fined....

It is evident that the control of the media is the most successful chapter from the script Desert Storm. News-facts which didn't fit into the ideology behind the mobilization against 'the Hitler of Baghdad' didn't have a chance. The commercials for the 'precise bombardments' had to convince everybody that modern war is accompanied with a minimum of civilian victims. The atrocious chapter in which Iraq figures as a test area for a new generation of arms was hidden from the eyes of the television watchers and the minds of the readers of the newspapers. Oil and military bases in the Gulf were certainly not the only interests of the US and the allied forces. The economic recession and the end of the Cold War compelled the creation of a new market for the military industry. The 'winners of the Cold War' found a very suitable market in the expansionist Ba'athelite in Iraq. Before and during the Gulf War, the rich countries received a lot of profits from their enormous arms deliveries to Iraq, to use it as a test site afterwards for their 'conventional nukes'. While Bush orated about his New World order, he started a new arms race. The civilians of Iraq are still suffering the consequences of the Gulf War n not only in the form of interNational sanctions and business-embargoes, but also in the form of depleted uranium wandering about the country.

Contact: Henk van der Keur, LAKA Foundation, Pesthuislaan 118, 1054 RM Amsterdam, The Netherlands; tel: +31-20-6168294.