JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBERS 1 AND 2
SPECIAL REPORT: R A D I O A C T I V E W A R F A R E
WHEN ROBERT SANDERS LEFT BROOKLYN PARK, Minnesota for the Gulf War, he never imagined that he would still be at war four years later -- much less with the U.S. government.
Sanders' tank was hit on the sands of Kuwait by "friendly fire" of a decidedly unfriendly kind. The Pentagon field tested a new generation of uranium-tipped bullets and shells in the Gulf War. One of the bullets, made of radioactive "depleted uranium" (DU), sliced through the armor of his tank, driving tiny shards of radioactive shrapnel into Sanders' face and shoulders.
Escaping from the tank, Sanders noticed that the faces of his crew members were "charcoal black and crispy." His first thought, he recalls, was "this is what the people in Hiroshima looked like after being exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb." He has been sick ever since.
Sanders was one of 22 U.S. soldiers struck by DU shells. Thousands of other Gulf War soldiers were exposed to DU on the battlefield when they inhaled radioactive dust from these projectiles.
U-235 is a highly radioactive isotope accounting for just 0.5 percent of natural uranium. When U-235 is extracted from natural uranium to fuel nuclear weapons and power plants, the leftover byproduct is DU, uranium depleted of U-235. The term "depleted uranium" is misleading, however, because this material, which contains the highly toxic U-238 isotope, has a radioactive half-life of at least 4.5 billion years. Even when U-238 does decay, it turns first into thorium-234 and then into protactinium-234. Protactinium-234 releases highly potent beta particles that may lead to cancerous growth in body cells.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) possesses more than 500,000 tons of DU waste that the government has accumulated since the Manhattan Project of World War II. The government has spent billions of dollars to find a final dumpsite for this waste, but Native nations and other communities from Maine to New Mexico have resisted efforts to dump radioactive waste in their backyards [see "Indian Burial Grounds for Nuclear Waste," Multinational Monitor, September 1995].
Using DU weaponry in the Gulf War killed two birds with one stone. It eradicated enemy troops and weapons and disposed of tens -- perhaps even thousands -- of tons of radioactive DU on Gulf War battlefields. Although even the higher estimates of the amount of DU left in the Gulf region represent a small fraction of U.S. DU waste stockpiles, the international arms market is a potentially vast dumping ground for this material.
The DOE's primary DU stockpiles are at five nuclear weapons production sites: Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky; Savannah River in Aiken, South Carolina; Portsmouth Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio; Fernold Environmental Management Project, near Cincinnati, Ohio; and the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
From the Pentagon's perspective, DU weaponry has revolutionized tank warfare. DU is dense material that is 2.5 times heavier than iron and 1.7 times heavier than lead, penetrating steel tank armor better than any weapon material ever produced. DU bullets are smaller than conventional anti-tank bullets, travel at higher speeds over a longer range and are extremely deadly. DU also has so-called pyrophoric qualities, burning intensely on impact, scorching steel, human beings and whatever else it encounters.
The U.S. Army acknowledges firing at least 14,000 rounds (or 40 tons) of DU ammunition in Kuwait and southern Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were incinerated when the DU bullets hit their tanks. Other estimates based on Freedom of Information Act requests suggest that U.S., British and possibly Saudi forces fired 940,000 rounds (2,686 tons) of uranium-tipped bullets in the war and at least 300 metric tons of DU remained on the battlefields after Iraq's defeat.
DU armor-piercing bullets destroyed more than 1,400 Iraqi tanks. "Friendly fire" DU bullets also killed 35 U.S. soldiers and wounded 72 others, a June 1994 study in the Journal of Occupational Medicine found. In fact, DU penetrator bullets disabled more U.S. tanks in the war than Iraqi weapons did. U.S. tank crews "feared friendly fire from [U.S.] Abrams tanks more than they feared the enemy," according to a January 1992 report from the U.S. Congressional research body, the General Accounting Office report.
Exposing U.S. soldiers
While DU projectiles are clearly more deadly than those made with conventional materials, their radioactivity poses special hazards. When a DU anti-tank weapon hits its target, it releases particles of radioactive dust in the air that can be ingested or inhaled. The surface of each DU round is also radioactive prior to being fired. A typical DU shell stripped of its metal cover and held close to the body for an hour emits a radiation dose that is equivalent to 50 chest X-rays, according to U.S. Army estimates. Most significantly, the chemical effects of DU on the human body are similar to lead, which also causes acute toxic effects when inhaled or ingested.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has downplayed the hazards of depleted uranium. The "radiological danger from depleted uranium is negligible," says a DOD fact sheet released in June 1993. "However, because there is a theoretical possibility of a few individuals experiencing adverse health effects, at even very low doses, the Army treats depleted uranium dust as a potential hazard and, therefore, handles depleted uranium with care."
During the Gulf War, however, U.S. and allied soldiers were not told they had radioactive bullets in their arsenal. Even the top commanders planning the war say they were not told about the threat posed by these weapons, which were used in a war situation for the first time in the Gulf War. General Calvin Waller, second in command to Norman Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War, was interviewed on NBC's "Dateline" in February 1994 about his knowledge of DU weapons. He said that neither he nor General Schwarzkopf were told about the radioactive hazards of DU weapons and, therefore, issued no warning to their troops.
Although Army training manuals written in the 1980s warned tank crews and commanders about the dangers of long-term handling of DU rounds, Pentagon officials did not warn Gulf War troops to wear gloves, masks or other protective clothing. "It is an inexcusable act for anyone who knew this prior to the start of the hostilities who didn't ensure and insist that the word was passed to the lowest levels," said Waller on "Dateline."
As it turns out, a Defense Department memo did circulate to Gulf commanders about the dangers of DU weapons. The memo made three key points: First, any vehicle or system struck by a DU penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated. Second, personnel should avoid entering contaminated areas. Finally, if troops must enter contaminated areas, they should wear protective clothing. Unfortunately, this memo was written on March 7, 1991, eight days after the shooting stopped in the Gulf War.
In 1993, the General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted an investigation into the DOD's handling of uranium weapons during the Gulf War. The GAO report, "Operation Desert Storm: The Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal With Depleted Uranium Contamination," concluded that DOD did not inform combat or maintenance crews that the material they were handling was radioactive or dangerous. Several Army personnel reported that they had handled depleted uranium armor and weapons extensively without using any protective gear. The report noted that "army officials believe that DU protective methods can be ignored during battle and other life-threatening situations because DU-related health risks are greatly outweighed by the risks of battle."
Leonard Deitz, radiation specialist and former physicist at the General Electric Knolls Atomic Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, says that "the military knows very well that no protection can be given troops in the field when you have a huge amount of this stuff being fired. Therefore, they're not going to bother. Why? Because it [radioactive uranium oxide dust] won't kill the soldiers immediately. But it is going to have a long-term effect."
Of the more than 600,000 U.S. troops that served in the Gulf War, approximately 60,000 have reported medical problems with a variety of symptoms, ranging from respiratory problems, liver and kidney dysfunction, memory loss, headaches, fever, low blood pressure and birth defects among their newborn children.
A Veterans Administration study of 251 Gulf War veterans' families in Mississippi found that 67 percent of the children born since the war have severe illnesses, with effects ranging from missing eyes and ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.
Similar medical reports coming from Iraq suggest serious health effects in children which could be related to DU exposure. The Iraqi Health Ministry has reported an increase of leukemia and aplastic anemia in children older than four years old since the Gulf War. The number of congenital birth defects has skyrocketed to 28 percent today from 8 percent before the war. Liver and kidney disease are now ranked as fourth and fifth causes of death among children over the age of five.
Given the economic blockade of Iraq, it is difficult to get reliable diagnostic equipment to medical officials to confirm these statistics or to provide the affected children with adequate treatment. Officials say that most of the Iraqi children who die do so from secondary causes such as immune system failures and a lack of adequate nutrition and safe drinking water.
The DOD has denied any link between the symptoms that thousands of Gulf War vets are experiencing and their exposure to DU. A recent U.S. government study of 10,000 vets concluded there was not one single cause of what has been called "Gulf War Disease." The other causes of illnesses the DOD looked at were smoke from oil fires, chemical and biological weapons, experimental vaccines that vets received before the war and parasites endemic to the Gulf region. The study did not find DU exposure to be a cause of the illnesses, though it did examine the possibility.
Several veteran groups immediately denounced the government study, suggesting a coverup similar to the Pentagon's treatment of Agent Orange victims during and after the Vietnam War. Radiation experts claim the DOD cannot get a clear picture of the effects of DU weapons without doing whole body gamma ray scans of exposed vets, a diagnostic test that the DOD has not done.
Robert Sanders says that dealing with the Veterans Administration since he returned from the Gulf has been a nightmare. "The doctors say in my records that I am making up my symptoms, that I over-exaggerate my injuries. In all this time, they have still not sent me for a body count to measure the radioactivity in my body."
Dan Fahey, a veteran with Swords to Plowshares, argues that the DOD and Congress are "more concerned with public relations than providing adequate medical treatment and disability compensation to afflicted veterans." He points to the 1994 Persian Gulf Veterans Benefits Act, championed as a progressive measure to compensate vets for undiagnosed illnesses. Yet 95 percent of the veterans that have filed for compensation under the Act have been denied. "Congress and the Department of Veteran Affairs have benefited, however," writes Fahey, "by creating the impression that they are doing all they can to help Gulf vets."
Damacio Lopez, co-author of the March 1993 GAO report, "Uranium Battlefields Home and Abroad: Depleted Uranium Use by the Department of Defense," says that many of the worst illnesses related to DU exposure may not show up for another 15 to 20 years. Given the latency period of many cancers, he says he would eventually expect to find significant increases in lung cancer in vets that inhaled or ingested radioactive uranium oxide particles on the battlefield.
Physicist Dietz concurs with Lopez. In a paper he submitted to the recently established Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran Illnesses, Dietz wrote that when a DU penetrator in a cannon round is fired at high velocity against armor, about "10 percent of it burns up, forming micrometer-size uranium oxide particles that can be inhaled or ingested." Deitz argues that "given the tonnage of uranium penetrators in cannon rounds that were fired on the battlefields in Iraq and Kuwait, it is likely that many thousands of soldiers became contaminated with DU."
The war at home
Gulf War veterans are not the only people concerned about depleted uranium exposures. Three years ago, the Norway, Maine-based Military Toxics Project set up a network of community activists, workers, Native Americans and veterans all living or working around sites where DU weapons are produced or tested on U.S. firing ranges. Calling itself the National Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network, the group has joined with veteran groups to pressure the government to fund research into Gulf-related illnesses and to provide adequate health care to affected veterans and their families. Dolores Lymburner, coordinator of the Network, says the "network is also working for an international ban on the production, testing and use of DU weapons." The Network is currently linking with interested citizen and health groups around the world, and preparing to bring the issue to the attention of the United Nations.
Judy Scotnicki from Concord, Massachusetts is a community leader in the DU Network. She lives a few miles from Nuclear Metals, Inc. (NMI), the company responsible for 40 percent of DU weapons produced in the United States. Several years ago, she and her neighbors formed Citizens Research Environmental Watch (CREW) when a federal policy to deregulate nuclear waste would have allowed Nuclear Metals to dump some of its radioactive waste in a local landfill, less than five miles from Walden Pond, the home of the nineteenth century U.S. naturalist Henry Thoreau.
CREW blocked attempts by Nuclear Metals to get a dump permit. In the course of its research, it learned that, over a 25-year period, NMI dumped 400,000 pounds of radioactive waste into an unlined pit on its property. State and private labs have confirmed that Nuclear Metals has contaminated groundwater and the bedrock below the pit, as well as a nearby cranberry bog. The Assabet River borders the NMI property. Officials do not know how long it will take the underground radioactive plume to reach the river.
NMI spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last year, CREW received a grant from the Vermont-based Ben and Jerry's Foundation to test the soil around the NMI site for traces of depleted uranium. Using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified lab, the group found that soil three-quarters of a mile away from the factory has 19 times the normal background level of radiation. Subsequent tests conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection were inconclusive as to the presence of DU. One NRC sample at the southeast fence of NMI measured a mean level of 8 times the background level of radiation; other samples, the NRC stated, were "consistent with background levels."
Using the state's health registry, CREW found that Concord, the wealthy suburban town 15 miles west of Boston where NMI is based, has thyroid cancer rates two-and-one-half times the state average. The thyroid gland is especially sensitive to radiation.
Asked why local officials have not taken more aggressive action against Nuclear Metals, which employs 120 people, Scotnicki says "there is hardly an organization in this town, including some of the churches, that has not taken money from this company."
"Our community has been part of an experiment with uranium weapons, yet we don't even talk about it. We need to realize that our community takes money from a company that is poisoning us as well as making a weapon that kills many more people long after the shooting is over. It's a moral issue, not just an environmental issue."
Mike Moore, public health administrator of the town of Concord, disputes Scotnicki's assessment. The decade-long delay in the cleanup of the NMI site is due to the high degree of public involvement in the process, he says. And action is now pending, he says; according to Moore, NMI has requested $3 million from the Army to pay for the initial remedial work to dig up the radioactive sludge and dirt and ship it to Barnwell, South Carolina.
John Paul Hasko is a former worker at the Aerojet Ordnance plant in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Aerojet is the Pentagon's largest supplier of DU weapons, producing about 60 percent of all DU penetrator bullets. Back in 1981, Hasko's union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), went on strike against Tennessee Nuclear Specialties, an Aerojet subsidiary, because of dangerous working conditions in the factory. Hasko remembers at that time "you could put your finger in your nose and it would come out black. That was because of all the uranium oxide dust in the air."
Hasko and other workers at the plant received in vivo monitoring (whole-body counts) to determine the levels of radioactive material in their lungs and other organs. The monitors found that Aerojet workers had approximately 10 times the acceptable levels of radioactive material in their lungs. Hasko still has radioactive dust in his lungs.
In 1982, OCAW brought suit against the company for issues related to the strike over worker exposure to radiation. Eighteen months and 15,000 pages of testimony later, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge ruled in the union's favor. When this judgment was later reversed by the NLRB, the OCAW appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The appeals court threw the case back to the NLRB for further review. A decision is expected soon.
What angers Hasko is that because of the high visibility of the Aerojet workers case in the early 1980s, the Pentagon has known for at least a decade about the health effects of inhaling and ingesting DU particles. In 1982, then-Senator Al Gore even held special Senate subcommittee hearings on radiation exposure at the Aerojet ordnance factory. Yet the government allowed thousands of U.S. soldiers to be exposed unknowingly to radiation in the Gulf War. "We need to see who is responsible for this: the companies making the weapons, the Army, the Air Force ... somewhere along the line someone was hoodwinked about the dangers of uranium weapons," Hasko says. "The rest of the story is basically a coverup."
The Department of Defense is not currently conducting in vivo monitoring of vets who were exposed to radiation in the Gulf. "If these vets went into a 'box'" (for whole-body radiation scans), says Hasko, "the gig would be up. These radioactive particles stay in your body until you die. The longer you live, the more damage they do to you internally."
Communities living beside military testing ranges are also alarmed at the Pentagon's testing of depleted uranium weapons. Research conducted by a community group formed around Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Maryland showed that the Army had exploded more than 29,000 kilograms of DU weapons at the site over a more than two-decade period. Len Dietz calculates that, based on his assumptions about the percentage of uranium dust that would become airborne, the APG could have averaged uranium dust emissions of 11,600 microcuries per month (30,000 grams) during the period of weapons testing. That amounts to 78 times the emission limits set for uranium.
The Army had tested DU weapons for at least 25 years until 1979, when it discontinued open air testing at APG. Helen Richick, a leader of the APG Superfund Citizen's Coalition, says that residents living near APG "have been breathing in uranium for 25 years." Like Robert Sanders, Richick wants the Pentagon to pay for a comprehensive health study to see how much uranium has accumulated in residents' bodies.
The Army currently has licenses to test DU weapons on 12 range sites around the United States. At the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, one of the Army's former weapons testing sites, there are 90,000 kilograms of DU weapons littering the ground. The Army does not know if it will ever be able to restore the site or whether it will simply fence it off permanently.
Spreading DU around the world
Despite widespread concern among Gulf War vets and in U.S. communities about the dangers of DU weapons, the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and their military suppliers are excited about the sales potential of DU weapons as well as the transfer of DU to allies for their own weapons production. In the past decade, there have been steady shipments amounting to several million pounds of depleted uranium to U.S. allies. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission shipment records show the biggest recipient of DU is Britain, followed by France and Canada.
In September 1993, the U.S. State Department granted a license to British Nuclear Fuels to purchase 120,200 kilograms of depleted uranium, 95 percent of it for penetrator munitions production.
More recently, the LAKA Foundation in Holland reported that France announced in February 1994 that it signed a contract to send 390 LeClerc tanks, along with 400,000 rounds of DU penetrator shells, to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. To meet this demand, France has recently built a series of DU reprocessing facilities at its Pierrelette nuclear complex. The French government also received authorization from the United States to import more than 2 million pounds of DU from Nuclear Metals, Inc., the largest shipment of DU to date.
To augment the French shipment, President Clinton approved the sale of DU weapons to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1995. Within a few years, writes LAKA, "Gulf oil resources will be protected by a permanent garrison of DU-capable armored brigades."
While the United States, France and Britain are arming the Middle East and NATO allies for future radioactive warfare, Robert Sanders, thousands of other veterans and Iraqi children are still suffering from the health effects of the previous war. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is continuing to produce and test depleted uranium radioactive weapons in communities across the country, creating radioactive battlefields at home and abroad.
After four years of fighting the Veterans Administration and the DOD, Robert Sanders is bitter about his government's lack of concern for vets who came home sick from the Gulf War. "I think they want us to die," says Sanders, "because if we die they don't have to face the problem of having irradiated their own troops."