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Depleted Uranium: Agent Orange of the 90's

24 November 1999

Military Toxics Project

Depleted Uranium: Agent Orange of the 90's - another Pentagon coverup

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. forces used depleted uranium as both armor piercing bullets and as tank armor for the first time. These weapons are both radioactive and toxic. Uranium Oxide particles formed during production, testing, and battlefield use pose a long term threat to human health and the environment.

Uranium weapons are effective antitank "penetrators" because they are extremely dense. A slug of uranium weighs twice as much as a piece of lead the same size. When alloyed with titanium, uranium is extremely hard. Uranium is also "pyrophoric", which means it burns upon impact.

The U.S. Military chose to develop uranium weapons not only because they are promised to be effective, but because the metal itself is very cheap. Depleted uranium is material that remains when enriched fissionable uranium- that is, capable of generating a nuclear explosion or nuclear power- is separated from natural uranium. The U.S. stockpile exceeds a billion pounds. Uranium weapons production is the nuclear bombmakers' idea of "recycling".

The Agent Orange Of the 90's

Depleted Uranium is not capable of an atomic chain reaction. It is not considered a high-level radioactive material. As a metal slab, like the armor plates in the U.S. Army's M1 Abrams tanks, it is a relatively harmless. Though constant exposure could cause problems. But especially in particulate form, it can be extremely hazardous.

When uranium weapons burn, when they corrode, and when they are machined, uranium oxide dust is created. When inhaled, small particles-those less than 5 millionths of a meter-can lodge in a human lung tissue, exposing the host to a growing dose of alpha radiation. This can cause lung cancer in people of all ages, and is particularly hazardous to children.

Uranium, like lead and other heavy metals, is a chemical poison. The ingestion of minute quantities of uranium in food or drinking water can cause irrepairable damage to the kidneys. Some experts consider this is a greater risk than radiation from depleted uranium.

Uranium weapons may be the "Agent Orange of the 90's" because large numbers of people, friend and foe are being exposed to uranium oxide dust. We won't know for 20-30 years the full significance of that exposure, but by then it will be to late. Here are a few examples of that exposure:

*The U.S. Military, which fired thousands of uranium shells during the Persian Gulf War, left at least 300 tons of spent uranium munitions in Kuwait and southern Iraq after the war. The U.S. Government believes, based upon weapons tests in the U.S. and general knowledge about wind patterns, that there is no health or environmental hazard, but it has not undertaken any study of battlefield areas.

*After the Persian Gulf War, contaminated U.S. armored vehicles were prepared for disposal in the United States. The U.S. soldiers-at least 25- who handled those vehicles were not warned of DU hazards or wore any protective gear.

*Army weapons testers at the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana fired DU rounds at soft targets-cloth or plywood- to avoid combustion. Still, only 22,000kg of the 91,000kg fired there between 1984 and 1992 were recovered in biannual clearance operations. The Army will have to strip away several feet of soil during decontamination. This will increase soil erosion and the migration of DU.

*The NRC permitted Nellis Air Force Base to receive and process up to 77,000 lbs. of DU rounds. These rounds were used in testing on the base's Range 63 using tanks as targets.

*In 1980, NL Industries Uranium Weapons factory in Clonie, New York was forced to close. Uranium particles were found as far as 26 miles downwind.

*In 1981, workers at Aerojet's TNS Uranium Weapons Plant in Jonesborough, Tennessee went on strike because of plant conditions that caused an epidemic of uranium poisoning.

*At Nuclear Metals Inc., which manufactures uranium weapons in Concord, Massachusetts, radioactive materials have contaminated surface water, ground water, and land. Independent testing done by Citizens Research and Environmental Watch(CREW), a local grassroots organization, found DU 18 times the background level and up to 9/10ths of a mile away. Concord has the second highest level of thyroid cancer in the state, 2 1/2 times the state average.

Time Line

Beginning in the 1940s Uranium was mined and enriched to separate out U-235 for the BOMB. Less than 1% of natural uranium is U-235. This left US with our biggest by volume, over a billion pounds, radioactive waste problem, U-238 depleted uranium. One of the earliest uses of DU was as "tamping" material in bombs such as the Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki. Now this radioactive material is being made into bullets and armor tank plating, used for the first time in the Persian Gulf War.

For detailed time line re problems and use of Depleted Uranium, go to


*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

For further information on DU weapons, please see PMA's other alerts on this topic.

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