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US Dirty Bombs: Radioactive Shells Spiked with Plutonium
9 July 2002
"Plutonium is a fuel that is toxic beyond human experience. It is demonstrably carcinogenic to animals in microgram quantities [one millionth of a gram]. The lung cancer risk is unknown to orders of magnitude. Present plutonium standards are certainly irrelevant." - Dr. Donald P. Geesaman, health physicist, formerly of Lawrence Livermore Lab
The Bush White House fooled most of the world's press with its unverified claims of intercepting a "dirty bomb" attack against the U.S. On its front page, USA Today barked: "US: 'Dirty Bomb' Plot Foiled." Newspapers everywhere explained breathlessly what radioactive materials could do if dispersed in populated areas. As Alex Cockburn reports in The Nation, when the story faced some mild scrutiny, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz backed away from the propaganda saying, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk."
Meanwhile, the real-time, worldwide use by the United States of radiological dirty bombs has moved well beyond the plotting and shooting stage, and has begun to produce dire consequences. Toxic, radioactive uranium-238 - so-called depleted uranium - used in munitions, missiles and tank armor may be responsible for deadly health consequences among U.S. and allied troops and populations in bombed areas, and has probably caused permanent radioactive contamination of large parts of Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and perhaps Afghanistan. Depleted uranium "penetrators" as they are called burn on impact and up to 70 percent of the DU is released (aerosolized) as toxic and radioactive dust that can be inhaled and ingested and later trapped in the lungs or kidneys.
In January 2001, the world press finally discovered depleted uranium (DU) weapons(1), the super hard munitions made with waste U-238 - an alpha emitter with a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years. Nine years of radiation-induced death, disease, and birth abnormalities in Iraq did not move major news organizations to investigate, but the deaths from leukemia of 15 Western Europeans - after their participation in military missions in Bosnia and Kosovo - prompted the major media, the European Parliament and 11 European governments to launch investigations into the health and environmental consequences of what Dr. Rosalie Bertell calls "shooting radioactive waste at your enemy."
DU is left after uranium ore has gone through the gaseous diffusion process that removes most of the fissionable isotope U-235. The refuse also of nuclear weapons and reactor fuel production, some 700,000 tons(2) are now left in the U.S. as "resource material" - a legal definition that saves the Energy Department the cost of managing DU as radioactive waste.
Prized for its high density, DU is used in munitions for piercing armor plate. Shot from planes like the USAF A-10 Warthog, the DU shells are called "tank killers." But by building radioactive waste into armaments, the U.S. is, in effect using poisoned weapons as gene busters in war. At least five types of U.S. munitions contain DU, which is also used in casings for bombs, shielding on tanks, counter-weights for commercial jet aircraft, and "ground penetrators" on missiles. DU shells are made by Starmet Corporation in Concord, Mass., Aerojet Corp. in Sacramento, Calif. and others. Alliant Techsystems in Minneapolis (formerly Honeywell Corp.) assembled over 15 million DU shells for the Air Force in the 1990s.
Between 300 and 800 tons of DU munitions were blasted into Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait by U.S. forces in 1991.(3) The Pentagon says the U.S. fired about 10,800 DU rounds - close to three tons - into Bosnia in 1994 and 1995. More than 31,000 rounds, about 10 tons, were shot into Kosovo in 1999 according to NATO.(4)
A total of 24 soldiers from Europe have died of cancer since their 1994 and '95 service in Bosnia.(5) In response, Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Guterres wrote to NATO's Robertson demanding an explanation of where and why DU munitions were used in Europe.
The Pentagon and the nuclear industry reacted typically to European politicians who in 2001 demanded health physics information from the Pentagon; after a laughable week-long, study NATO assured them that DU used in the Balkans can be "ruled out" as a significant health hazard.(6) And when Italy, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Norway and called for a moratorium on the use of DU, NATO ministers rejected the suggestion.(7)
NATO denials contradicted
Prominent scientists also worked to calm the uproar. Dr. John Boice, of the International Epidemiology Institute, told the New York Times, "To get leukemia you need to get the radiation to the bone marrow. The radiation does not go to the marrow. And Uranium 238 will not get to the bone marrow. I don't think it causes leukemia at all."(8) U.S. physicist Steve Fetter told the Times that uranium did not penetrate to bone and bone marrow where leukemia originates.
This slick obfuscation refers to external DU exposure and ignores the hazard from DU ingestion or inhalation. Jean Francois Lacronique, director of France's National Radiation Protection Agency, flatly contradicted NATO, saying, "U-238 has been found stored in bone, and if it gets into bone, it can reach the bone marrow."(9)
Dr. Frank von Hipple, author of a December 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article on DU, told me, "Yes, it does get to the bone. We looked at that in our study." And the December 2000 Science for Democratic Action - from the Institute for Environmental and Energy Research (IEER) - reports that, "Some [DU] particles remain in the body where they can build up in lung [tissue], or enter the blood stream where it can accumulate in bone tissue." Internal exposure, the IEER article says, "increases the risk of leukemia and lung, bone and soft tissue cancers, particularly when inhaled or ingested."
At the height of the January 2001 media frenzy over cancers among peacekeeping troops deployed in Bosnia, a 17-year-old advisory bulletin from the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) was leaked to the press.
Still in effect today, it puts the lie to industry, Pentagon, UK and NATO denials of health risks associated with DU exposure. The 1984 memo warns FAA crash site investigators that, "if particles are inhaled or ingested, they can be chemically toxic and cause a significant and long-lasting irradiation of internal tissue."(10)
More recently, the prestigious British Royal Society's second DU study found that troops who inhale or ingest "high levels" of DU could suffer kidney failure within days, and that children in DU-bombed areas face a long-term risk of cancer and heavy metal poisoning.(11) The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warned in March 2002, that there is a danger of groundwater contamination from corroding DU ammunition at six sites in Serbia and Montenegro bombed in 1999. UNEP president Pekka Haavisto said he, "was surprised to find DU particles still in the air two years after the conflict's end."(12)
Canadian researchers have found "unequivocal evidence" of long-term DU contamination of Persian Gulf vets: they found that eight years after the bombing, Canadian veterans were still passing U-238 in urine.(13) Italy announced last August 5 that its soldiers - afflicted with cancer after service in the Balkans and potential exposure to some of the three tons of DU exploded there by U.S. jets - will be awarded medical compensation. British researcher Albrecht Schott has found that UK soldiers exposed to DU in wartime have suffered 10 times more genetic damage than the general population. Prof. Schott said of this study, "This level of genetic damage doesn't occur naturally."(14) And in the U.S., a Dept. of Veterans Affairs study recently found that children of veterans of the Persian Gulf bombardment are two to three times as likely as those of other vets to have birth defects. The U.S. vets also reported more miscarriages.(15)
In Iraq, government figures show an increase in cancer cases from 6,555 in 1989 to 10,931 in 1997 - mostly in areas bombed by the U.S.-led coalition in 1996 - and the number of reported cancer cases increased 12 fold between 1991 and 2001.(16)
Needing no further evidence of harm, the European Parliament, on Jan. 17, 2001, voted 394 to 60 in favor of a moratorium on the use of DU among its members. NATO commanders issued a one-page statement Feb. 13, 2001 dismissing concerns. But the Navy and Marines decided sometime before June to stop using DU. "We re not considering [DU] anymore because of the environmental problems associated with it.... We don't want to be in a position of having someone say, You can't bring your armor piercing rounds on the battlefield, " said Col. Clayton Nans, head of the Marines Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle program.(17)
As press coverage began to fade, and NATO felt it was bringing the DU "hysteria" under control, the weapon s contamination with highly radioactive plutonium was disclosed.
Plutonium contamination raises stakes
In Europe, a wildfire of publicity was lit anew by the United States official admission that its DU contains plutonium and other reactor-borne fission products far more radioactive and carcinogenic than uranium-238.
The discovery of uranium-236 contamination in spent munitions used against Kosovo revealed that the DU was not obtained before the nuclear reaction process. The Pentagon, NATO and the British Ministry of Defense have always downplayed the danger of DU saying it was "less radioactive than uranium ore." But at least half of the DU (250,000 metric tons) is now known to have been left over from the reprocessing of irradiated reactor fuel (done to extract weapons-grade plutonium), leaving it salted with fission products.(18)
"If it has been through a reactor, it does change our idea on depleted uranium," says Dr. Michael Repacholi of the World Health Organization, which has demanded to know how much plutonium is in DU ammunition. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is still working on an answer to that question.
As early as January 2000, the DOE admitted that its DU munitions are spiked with plutonium, neptunium and americium "transuranic" (heavier than uranium) fission wastes from inside nuclear reactors.(19) The health consequences here are fearsome: americium - with a half-life of 7,300 years - decays to plutonium-239, which is more radioactive than the original americium.
DU "contains a trace amount of plutonium," said the DOE s Assistant Secretary David Michaels, who wrote to the Military Toxics Project's Tara Thornton January 20, 2000. "Recycled uranium, which came straight from one of our production sites, e.g. Hanford [Reservation, in Richland, Washington], would routinely contain transuranics at a very low level...." Michaels wrote. "We have initiated a project to characterize the level of transuranics in the various depleted uranium inventories," he said.
Dr. Von Hippel says in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that plutonium-239 is 200,000 times more radioactive than U-238. Plutonium "is probably the most carcinogenic substance known," according to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER, writing in his 1992 book Plutonium.
The government's bland assurances regarding material carcinogenic to animals in microgram quantities appear scientifically preposterous, yet the AP reported Feb. 3, 2001: "U.S. officials have said the shells contained mere traces of plutonium, not enough to cause harm." On Jan. 19, after a one-week "investigation," NATO officials said, "traces of highly radioactive elements such as plutonium and americium were not relevant to soldiers health because of their minute quantities."(20) This public relations ploy failed to calm the furor raised across Europe, especially after the leak of a July 1, 1999, "hazard awareness" memo issued by the Pentagon. The memo warned military personnel entering Kosovo against touching spent ammunition, suggested the use or protective masks and skin covering while in contaminated areas, and recommended follow-up health assessments.(21) The warning was sent to defense ministries in Europe but it is not known to have been given to civilians or returning refugees.
Poison weapons illegal in any armed conflict
The U.S. Air Force's 1976 manual, "International Law: The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations" governs the actions of all USAF commanders and pilots, including the top guns shooting DU. "It is especially important," the Air Force manual says, "that treaties, having the force of law equal to laws enacted by the Congress on the United States, be scrupulously adhered to by the United States armed forces." The manual names treaties specifically recognized as binding, including the Hague Conventions of 1907, the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, and the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War, 1949.(22)
The Geneva Gas Protocol outlaws, " ... asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices." The Hague Conventions explicitly outlaw poison saying, "It is especially forbidden: To employ poison or poisoned weapons."
Poison is defined by the Air Force manual as, "biological or chemical substances causing death or disability with permanent effects when, in even small quantities, they are ingested, enter the lungs or bloodstream, or touch the skin."
Although the law could not be clearer, NATO spokesman Francois Le Blevennec told Knight Ridder that depleted uranium, "has never been declared illegal by any war convention." However, the Air Force law manual says, "any weapons may be put to an unlawful use." The Air Force declares unequivocally that, "A weapons may be illegal per se if either international custom or treaty has forbidden its use under all circumstances. An example is poison to kill or injure a person."
Because the U.S. government has known since at least 1984 about the poisonous effects of its DU warfare, the commanders of its bombing raids over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan may well hope the White House wins its fight for immunity in the International Criminal Court. If not, the Pentagons dirty bomb contamination may move from the gene pool and the water table into the court room.
1. "Alarm over NATO uranium deaths," BBC News, Jan 3, 2001; "UN raises alarm on toxic risk in Kosovo," Guardian Weekly, March 30 - April 5, 2000, p.5.
2. The New Nuclear Danger, by Helen Caldicott, The New Press, New York, 2002, p.146; The Nation, April 9, 2991, p.24; Dan Fahey uses the figure 505,000 tons in his chapter "Collateral Damage," in Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium, Ed. by DU Education Project, New York, 1997, p.26.
3. The Nation, May 26, 1997.
4.Knight-Ridder, Jan.2, 2001.
5. New York Times, Feb. 14 & Jan. 29, 2001.
6. New York Times, Jan. 17 & 19, 2001.
7. Wis. State Journal, Jan. 1; New York Times, Jan. 11, 2001.
8. New York Times, Jan. 13, 2001.
9. New York Times, Jan. 29, 2001.
10. "Avoiding or Minimizing Encounters With Aircraft Equipped With Depleted Uranium Balance Weights During Accident Investigations," FAA Advisory Circular 20-123, by M.C. Beard, Dec. 20, 1984.
11. "The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions, Part II," The Royal Society, March 2002, p. ix.
12. United Nations Environment Program, Press Advisory, March 27, 2002.
13. BBC, Aug. 27, 1999.
14. The Express, UK, Dec. 24, 2001.
15. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 6; Chicago Tribune, Oct. 10, 2001.
16. Arabic News, Feb. 18, 2002.
17. USA Today, June 25, 2001.
19. New York Times, Feb. 14, 2001.
20. New York Times, Jan. 18, 2001.
21. New York Times, Jan. 9, 2001.
22. Department of the Air Force, "International Law -- The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations," Judge Advocate General Activities, Air Force Pamphlet 110-31, 19 Nov. 1976.