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NATO use of DU weapons

18 Jun 1999
Le Monde diplomatique
June, 1999

Not such conventional weapons

During the Gulf war the Allied forces, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, used ammunition made from depleted uranium for the first time (shells, missiles, bombs and bullets). These munitions have now been used by Nato in Yugoslavia. Apart from their immediate effects, they have dramatic long-term effects on their victims - and also on their users - through radioactive contamination.

by CHRISTINE ABDELKRIM -DELANNE * * Journalist, France

On 30 March 1999 Nato announced the arrival in Yugoslavia of the US A-10 assault aircraft, the famous "tank-busters". There is something playful about the name tank-busters, reminiscent of a video game. What people forget to mention is that the fearsome efficiency of these new weapons derives from the nature of their ammunition, which is made from depleted uranium (DU). On 21 April 1999 Nato spokesman Giuseppe Marani confirmed to the Japanese daily paper Mainishi that they were being used in Yugoslavia.

Depleted uranium or U-238 is a waste product deriving from the enrichment process of natural uranium which makes it possible to obtain the fissile U-238 uranium used for both military purposes people forget to mention is that the fearsome efficiency of these new weapons derives from the nature of their ammunition, which is made from depleted uranium (DU). On 21 April 1999 Nato spokesman Giuseppe Marani confirmed to the Japanese daily paper Mainishi that they were being used in Yugoslavia.

Depleted uranium or U-238 is a waste product deriving from the enrichment process of natural uranium which makes it possible to obtain the fissile U-238 uranium used for both military purposes (nuclear weapons and submarines) and civil purposes (nuclear power stations, aviation). As a metal it is extremely heavy and dense. Fired at a speed of 1,200 metres per second (Mach 5) it pierces tank armour and can pierce a block of concrete three metres underground. It is therefore far more effective than the tungsten that has been used hitherto. What is more, it costs nothing (it really is a waste product from the nuclear industry), unlike tungsten which has to be imported. Its use in weapons manufacture also provides a partial solution to the intractable problem of what to do with nuclear waste - in 1991 the United States federal budget made provision for the acquisition of 130,000 tons of DU for "national defence reserves", a figure that was subsequently revised upwards.

Already in 1979 a memorandum from the US department of defence was arguing for the use of DU (1). Then and since, the radioactive and highly toxic nature of these weapons was deliberately ignored. However, in that year Leonard A. Dietz, a researcher at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL) at Schenectady, New York State, discovered DU traces in pollution control air filters, three of them at a distance of 42 kilometres from the site (2). The contamination derived from the National Lead Industries Plant (NL) in Colonie (just 16 km east of the laboratory) on the outskirts of the town of Albany. National Lead manufactures penetrators for shells and wing counterweights for civil aircraft. Unconnected with Dietz's findings, in 1980 New York State ordered NL to cease production for having exceeded regulation radioactivity discharges to the environment. The site was closed and decontaminated.

Dietz analysed 26 uranium-bearing particles extracted from several of KAPL's air filters. Four particles contained pure depleted uranium. The other 22 particles were enriched uranium. He explained that "the four DU particles were near the upper end of the "'respirable' size range, which is about 5 micrometres. Respirable means that particles will pass through the upper respiratory airway to the lung and become deposited in various interior regions of the lung, where many will remain for many years. A 5 micrometers uranium dioxide particle can cause a high, localised yearly radiation dose to lung tissue. It is a radioactive hot spot in the lung (3)." In fact, at several plants manufacturing DU arms in the US there have been strikes among workers in the "dirty plants" which produce these weapons, demanding that certain forms of cancer be recognised as industrial illnesses and pressing for better working conditions.

When depleted uranium ammunitions hit their targets, they release radioactive particles, as well as dust containing toxic heavy-metal elements. The uranium is liable to spontaneous combustion and produces vapours which burn at very high temperatures.

The contaminating effects of these weapons both for the environment and the surrounding populations has long been denied by the military authorities. However as long ago as 28 September 1990 the US army was already publishing a thick technical dossier giving advice in the event of accidents involving depleted uranium (4). It says "No equipment or materials involved in the accident/incident are to be removed from the site for unrestricted use until the item(s) have been monitored by radiation protection personnel and decontaminated as required." The guide also points out that "as they burn, high explosives melt, flow, drip, spread, and mix with surrounding ground or wreckage. After the fire is extinguished, the explosives are safe only if they are completely burned. High explosives which have not completely burned remain an extreme explosive hazard. After these explosives have cooled below ignition temperature they will, like metal, take on curious shapes. They may have picked up impurities while molten or burning, which will make them actually more dangerous than they were before melting."

In March 1991 a tank containing depleted uranium armaments was buried in the nuclear dump at Barnwell in South Carolina, while three other tanks were buried in Saudi Arabia and Germany (5). Eight days after the end of the Gulf war a memo on depleted uranium issued by US Army Command gave the first instructions for soldiers on how to deal with "vehicles contaminated by radioactivity".

It was only with the revelations about "friendly fire" that the US was forced publicly to admit the use of DU armaments during the Gulf war. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm 29 American vehicles were contaminated by DU on the battlefield. Twenty-one of them (6 Abrams tanks and 15 Bradley combat vehicles) had been damaged by these munitions. In total 15 soldiers were killed and more than 60 injured by fire from DU arms. Since Iraq did not possess these kinds of weapons, it was obvious that the damage must have been a result of targeting errors by US troops (6). The Army Times (the US army's official newspaper) of 26 July 1993 published a detailed list of damage sustained as a result of "friendly fire" without, however, saying anything about deaths that may have occurred after the event.

Five years after the war, 30 of the soldiers who had been victims of this "collateral damage" were checked by the Depleted Uranium Program at the MD VA Medical Centre in Baltimore. Fifteen still presented with a high level of radioactivity in their urine. Dietz subsequently carried out a study into DU contamination effects among Gulf war veterans and noted that "If you've got any indication of DU at this late date, even at low levels, it would indicate you'd had a pretty heavy dose five years ago!". But he adds that "the US army and the Department of Veterans' Affairs have shown an unwillingness to investigate health issues associated with the toxicity and radioactivity of inhaled and ingested DU aerosol particles that have become absorbed in the body. Both have refused to test large numbers of veterans for the presence of DU in their bodies" (7).

Devastating effects

Nevertheless, it is by now accepted that some of the pathologies listed as "Gulf war syndrome" were actually due to the presence of DU. The International Action Center, set up by the former US attorney-general, Ramsey Clark, has been very active against the Gulf war, campaigning for the embargo against Iraq to be lifted. One of its members, Sara Flounders, reports that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has carried out a study among 251 veterans' families in Mississippi. Since the war 67% of them have had children with serious abnormalities (8).

There has been an increase in certain cancers and hitherto unknown congenital malformations - and exactly the same has been reported, on an alarming scale, from Iraq. It is difficult to evaluate the exact quantity of DU armaments that were used in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. According to the US armed forces, more than 14,000 rounds were used by US troops, of which 7,000 were during training in the Saudi Arabian desert prior to the war and 3,000 were lost during a fire at a US Army arms dump at Doha in Kuwait. Ammunition used by the British and probably other armed forces needs to be added to the count.

A secret report from Britain's Atomic Energy Authority, made public in November 1991 (9), indicates that at least 40 tons of DU were left in the desert by the Allied forces. It notes the presence in Kuwait and Iraq of enough uranium to cause "500,000 potential deaths". Nine years after the end of the conflict Iraqi doctors are still reporting abnormally high incidences of leukaemia among children, tumours and cancers among adults, and births or abortions of foetuses with monstrous abnormalities.

Two international symposiums on the subject were held in Baghdad (1994 and 1998), with the participation of foreign specialists and Gulf war veterans. At the December 1998 session the participants highlighted the need for international help in setting up a rigorous epidemiological study to examine causes and effects. They also raised the issue, which cannot currently be resolved, of identifying the location of zones affected, particularly in the south, and ensuring their decontamination. "A ban on these weapons is a matter of concern for all of us", said Dr Sami Al Araji, a member of the Iraqi Society for Environmental Protection, at its March meeting in Baghdad, "because yesterday it was Iraq, but after that, who knows?" After that is now Yugoslavia (10).

(1) "Anti-armour ammunition with depleted uranium penetrators", US Defence Department memorandum, March 1979.

(2) Leonard A. Dietz, "Contamination of Persian Gulf War veterans and others by depleted uranium", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, New York, 19 July 1996. In the same study the author points out that on 4 October 1992, when an El Al Boeing-747 crashed into an apartment building in Amsterdam, Holland, it contained 279kg of DU in its fuselage which "burned and contaminated the surrounding area".

(3) "Investigation of excess alpha activity observed in recent air filter collections and other environmental centres", DLA Chem-434-LADD, Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, 24 January 1980.

(4) "Guidelines for safe response to handling, storage and transportation accidents involving army tank munitions or armour which contain depleted uranium", US Department of the Army, Technical Bulletin, TB 9-1300-278.

(5) Wall Street Journal, New York, 10 June 1991.

(6) Dan Fahey, "Collateral Damage: how US Troops were exposed to depleted uranium during the Persian Gulf War" in Depleted Uranium Network of the Military Toxics Project, San Francisco, 20 September 1996.

(7) Leonard A. Dietz, op. cit.

(8) Sara Flounders, Ramsey Clark, "Metal of Dishonour... depleted uranium", International Action Center, New York, 1998. E-mail address: Website at http:/

(9) Nick Cohen, "Radioactive waste left in Gulf by Allies", Independent on Sunday, London, 10 November 1991. See also Le Monde diplomatique, April 1995.

(10) The organisation Human Rights Watch has exposed and denounced Nato's use of cluster bombs in Yugoslavia. These munitions generally have a non-exploding failure rate of 5-10% and are left lying on the ground. Here they become, objectively, anti-personnel mines, putting civilian lives at risk both during and after the conflict - potentially for years to come. See Human Rights Watch, "NATO use of cluster bombs must stop", New York, 11 May 1999. Also

Translated by Ed Emery

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