Depleted Uranium or Depleted Conscience?

by Jeff Lindemyer

December 10, 2001

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Yugoslavia president Vojislav Kostunica once remarked, "We could say those who used the infamous depleted uranium have a depleted conscience." (1) While Kostunica's comments were directed at NATO's use of depleted uranium in Yugoslavia, they also apply to the other areas where it has been used, namely Iraq, Kuwait, Serbia, Bosnia, Puerto Rico, Okinawa, and even within the United States. (2) Now one more country may be added to that list: Afghanistan. Although possibly not used to the same extent as some of the previous countries, the use of depleted uranium in Afghanistan still poses a significant health and environmental threat to the region.

Concern over the use of depleted uranium (DU) dates back to the "Gulf War," when over 310 tons of DU was fired in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. (Rokke, Apr 13) DU was mainly machined into armor-piercing 120mm "sabot" rounds used by tanks, 25mm and 30mm rounds used by Marine Corp. AV-8B Harrier aircraft and Air Force A-10 "tank-busters," respectively, (3) but was also used in 50 caliber rounds and clusterbombs as well (Rokke, Apr 13). With depleted uranium being nearly twice as dense as lead, the larger "sabot" rounds slice through battle armor and because it is also pyrophoric, burst into flames as well. The result is that upon impact, 40 to 70% of the solid DU penetrator becomes tiny particles of uranium oxide and fragments which are left on the terrain, within or on impacted equipment, or within impacted structures, explains Dr. Doug Rokke. As former U.S. Army DU Project Director and Operation Desert Storm DU Team health physicist, Rokke was assigned to clean up the depleted uranium after the Gulf War. He continues, "The remainder of the penetrator retains its initial shape. Thus we are left with a solid piece of uranium lying someplace which can be picked up by children. DU also ignites in the air during flight and upon impact. The resulting shower of burning DU and DU fragments causes secondary explosions, fires, injury, and death." (4)

Added are concerns that the depleted uranium munitions used in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans were not even "clean" DU rounds, instead containing other elements that are far more harmful. "Depleted uranium (U-238) is made from uranium hexaflouride, which is the non-fissionable by-product of the uranium enrichment process completed at facilities in Tennessee, Ohio, and Kentucky during which fissionable U-234 and U-235 are removed to make bombs and reactor fuel." (Rokke, Apr 13) It was in the Peducah, Kentucky plant, Pentagon officials finally admitted, that "depleted uranium intended for armour-piercing weapons had been contaminated by small amounts of plutonium" and other highly toxic nuclear by-products as a result of the plant recycling nuclear waste into the depleted uranium sometime in the 1980s. What is even more troubling is that the Pentagon has known since at least 1995 that the DU had been contaminated and continued to use the material anyway. (5) This puts an entirely new spin on old concerns regarding depleted uranium's health risks.

The Department of Defense has continually held that depleted uranium offers little to no health risk. (DoD, Dec 13) Former Defense Secretary William Cohen remarked that DU was no more dangerous than "leaded paint" (6) and a U.S. Army briefer even assured reporters it was "safe enough to eat!" Normally, "Individuals can be exposed to depleted uranium in the same way they are routinely exposed to natural uranium, i.e. by inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact (including injury by embedded fragments)," with inhalation being the most likely route of intake. (7) According to the World Health Organization, "Potentially, depleted uranium has both chemical and radiological toxicity with the two important target organs being the kidneys and the lungs... Long-term studies of workers exposed to uranium have reported some impairment of kidney function depending on the level of exposure... Insoluble inhaled uranium particles tend to be retained in the lung and may lead to irradiation damage of the lung and even cancer if a high enough radiation dose results over a prolonged period." (WHO, Apr 2001) But, again, this ignores the small amounts of plutonium that troops and civilians alike have actually exposed to.

The most contentious issue surrounding health effects arising from depleted uranium is its radioactivity, which the United States has repeatedly stated is too low to cause any likely damage. (8) While it is true that the ionizing radiation given off by gamma emissions is reduced by about 60% in depleted uranium, the alpha particles that cause cellular damage are proportionally increased. This cellular damage will most likely result in internal exposure considering that a great deal of DU becomes aerosolized upon hitting its target. Thus, "The incomplete statement that DU is 60% less radioactive than natural uranium simply ignores the serious internal damage caused by alpha emissions! In addition daughter products emit beta particles and gamma rays that may cause further radiological damage." (Rokke, May 2001) The government does concede, however, that "Taken into the body via metal fragments or dust-like particles, depleted uranium may pose a long-term health hazard to personnel if the amount is large." (DU FAQ) A July 1990 report from the US Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command similarly concluded that depleted uranium is "linked to cancer when exposures are internal."

The adverse health effects caused by uranium have been documented as far back as World War II. In a previously classified letter to General Leslie Groves, dated October 30, 1943, senior Manhattan Project scientists — the S-1 Executive Committee on the "Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon" — maintained that the inhalation of uranium would be followed by "bronchial irritation coming on in a few hours to a few days." The document continues, "Beta emitting products could get into the gastrointestinal tract from polluted water, or food, or air. From the air, they would get on the mucus of the nose, throat bronchi, etc. The stomach, caecum and rectum, where contents remain for longer periods than elsewhere would be most likely affected. It is conceivable that ulcers and perforations of the gut followed by death could be produced even without general effects from radiation." (9) All of these symptoms are strikingly similar to those experienced by Gulf War veterans, employees at uranium manufacturing or processing facilities, and exposed populations, such as those in Iraq.

Allies were again reminded of the disastrous consequences of using depleted uranium before the initial deployment of the weapons. "Since 1991 numerous US Department of Defense reports have stated that the consequences of DU were unknown. That is a lie. They were told. They were warned," (10) recounts Dr. Rokke. "I can confirm that medical and tactical commanders knew all the hazards," testifying to personally giving military personnel briefings on the hazards. "The United States and British military personnel, as part of NATO, willfully disregarded health and safety and the environment by their use of DU, resulting in severe health effects, including death. I and my colleagues warned the US and British officials that this would occur. They disregarded our warnings because to admit any correlation between exposure and health effects would make them liable for their actions wherever these weapons have been used." (11)

The reason for the continued usage of depleted uranium is evident in the infamous Los Alamos Memorandum, dated March 1, 1991, whose subject reads, "The Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetrators." (12) The memo, sent to Dr. Rokke's team in Saudi Arabia, explains "The recent war has likely multiplied the number of DU rounds fired at targets by orders of magnitude. It is believed that DU penetrators were very effective against Iraqi armor; however, assessments of such will have to be made." It continues, "There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal." The memo concludes, "If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DoD proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we shall stand to lose a valuable combat capability." Dr. Rokke is blunt in his reaction to the document, "This memo told us to be sure that we should only report our findings so that DU munitions could always be used. In other words, lie." (Rokke, May 24) Rokke believes that this was only the beginning of the depleted uranium cover-up and is not alone.

Despite official Pentagon and NATO denials, the use of depleted uranium has drawn substantial international fire. Several governments that provided troops in the Persian Gulf, and more recently in the Balkans, fear that a string of unexplained illnesses in veterans might have been caused by the DU ammunition fired by US warplanes. Germany, Italy, and the European Parliament have all called for a moratorium on using the ammunition. (13) Dozens of organizations, including the International Action Center led by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, have called for an international ban on the use of depleted uranium (14) and dozens more, including Amnesty International, have similarly asked governments to refrain from using DU. In Greece, Portugal, Italy and other European countries demonstrators with broad base support have demanded that their soldiers be brought back from Kosovo and not be replaced. (15) And in one particularly pointed instance, the chief prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte, stated that NATO's use of depleted uranium may be investigated as a possible war crime. (16)

If the investigation ever develops, the path to depleted uranium will eventually lead to Afghanistan. In anticipation of the attacks in Afghanistan, The Daily Telegraph reported that shells containing depleted uranium were being shipped to the Middle East to be used in the upcoming attack in Afghanistan. (17) Shortly thereafter, a BBC report suspected that the use of depleted uranium would not be far off, noting "American and British forces have not yet released the full details of precisely what they have dropped on Afghanistan. But it's likely that some of the bombs and cruise missile warheads contained depleted uranium..." (18) A few weeks after the attacks began, several Afghan doctors at different locations began noticing what they suspected were symptoms from chemical weapons and worried that depleted uranium was being used. While they welcomed independent confirmation, they could not verify the allegations themselves, as Afghanistan does not have the facilities to do so. (19)

Independent DU researcher Dai Williams investigated allegations of depleted uranium being used in Afghanistan. "Reports from the Center for Defense Information suggest that at least 500 tons of smart bombs and cruise missiles have been used in the first three weeks of the Afghan war. They are most likely to have been used on 'high value targets' e.g. Taliban and Al-Qaeda command centres, airfields, and other military installations." (20) Although the number of "high value targets" in Afghanistan is minimal, it is also very possible that such munitions have been extensively used to penetrate Taliban caves and bunkers. (21) If so, this would substantially increase the amount of DU used in the area.

In its attacks against Afghanistan, Dai Williams explains, the United States has been using a new generation of "hard target" smart bombs and cruise missiles that can penetrate 10 feet of reinforced concrete before exploding. The weapons use "dense metal" warheads to double their penetrating power on hard targets and so far have been used to attack Taliban bunkers, caves, command centers, fuel and ammunition stores. But since 1997, US and UK governments have not disclosed the type of metal contained within these bombs, most likely due to political reasons demonstrated in the Los Alamos memorandum. In either case, depleted uranium and tungsten are the leading contenders. Both depleted uranium and tungsten have previously been used to fulfill the needed role of an ultra-dense metal, though DU is preferred because it is burns inside the target to become an incendiary bomb and is far cheaper and easier to manufacture. (Williams, 17 Nov) Considering that tungsten is widely known to be less of a health and environmental threat than depleted uranium, it seems especially unusual for the Pentagon not to announce this in order to set the record straight.

According to several Pakistani newspapers, these suspicions are, in fact, a reality. "A leading military expert told Dawn that since October 7 the United States Air Force has been raining down depleted uranium shells at targets inside Afghanistan, especially against the Taliban front lines in the north." (22) The Weekly Independent similarly states, "Hard target weapons loaded with reprocessed nuclear waste have been used as secret weapons in the US-led air strikes against the Taliban, exposing human lives in Afghanistan and the adjoining border areas of Pakistan to a serious risk of radiation poisoning." (23) It then cites evidence of Taliban troops and Afghan civilians alike being exposed to the depleted uranium and quotes Defense Department spokesperson Kenneth Bacon indirectly confirming the use of DU in the area. "Reports emanating from Afghanistan," the newspaper goes on to state, "reveal that after the fall of the Taliban and the landing of allied forces there, the troops and aid agencies have been told to proceed with caution," steering clear of any and all of the locations bombed by allied forces.

In a recent e-mail, Executive Director of International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST) Damacio Lopez stated that his organization intends to ask the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense and the United States Pentagon if and where depleted uranium has been used in Afghanistan. If the request is not successful, IDUST members plan on traveling to Afghanistan to measure for any trace of DU themselves. It is absolutely imperative that investigations into the use of depleted uranium in Afghanistan not fall victim to political agendas like those in Iraq and Bosnia, yielding accurate and useful information.

Adverse health effects due to depleted uranium (and its many other contaminants) have been seen throughout the world. The 944,000 rounds fired in Iraq, the 31,000 rounds fired in Serbia, and the 10,000 rounds fired in Bosnia can testify to that. Despite well-documented knowledge of the health and environmental consequences that ensue, the Pentagon has not eliminated depleted uranium from its arsenal, but has instead continued its use. Most likely, Afghanistan is now the next in a growing list of those whose fate will forever be intertwined with depleted uranium. This issue must be pushed to the forefront because the people of Afghanistan cannot afford any further tragedy.



1.  "Kostunica: NATO's 'depleted conscience'." CNN.com. 17 Jan. 2001. (http://asia.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/01/16/defence.uranium.02).  (back)
2.  Rokke Ph.D., Doug. "Use of Depleted Uranium: A Crime Against Humanity." 13 Apr. 2000. (http://www.prop1.org/2000/du/00du/000413dr.htm).  (back)
3.  United States. Department of Defense. Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. Environmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium in the Gulf. 13 Dec. 2000. (http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_s01.htm).  (back)
4.  Rokke Ph.D., Doug. Presentation entitled "The Scourge Of Depleted Uranium" at the United Nations - UNESCO International conference, "The Child: A Victim of War and a Messenger of Peace" on May 24-25, 2001. (http://www.nirs.org/intl/depleteduranium.htm).  (back)
5.  Lichfield, John. "Pentagon 'Knew NATO Shells Contained Dangerous Nuclear Waste.'" The Independent (UK). 29 Jan. 2001. (http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0129-02.htm).
   Carr-Brown, Jonathon. "Uranium shells held 'cocktail of nuclear waste.'" The Sunday Times. 21 Jan. 2001. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/0121-02.htm.  (back)
6.  Kozaryn, Linda. "Cohen: handled properly, DU Poses No Risk." American Forces Press Service. 11 Jan. 2001. (http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2001/n01112001_200101111.html).  (back)
7.  World Health Organization. Department of Protection of the Human Environment. Depleted Uranium: Sources, Exposures, and Health Effects. Geneva: Apr. 2001. (http://www.who.int/environmental_information/radiation/depleted_uranium.htm).  (back)
8.  United States. Department of Defense. Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. Depleted Uranium FAQ. (http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/faq_17apr.htm).  (back)
9.  United States. War Department. United States Engineer Office. Memorandum to Brigadier General L. R. Groves. Oak Ridge: 30 Oct. 1943.  (back)
10.  Rokke Ph.D., Doug. Address given at the National Vietnam and Gulf War veterans Coalition 17th Annual Leadership Breakfast at the US Senate Caucus Room on November 10, 2000. Reported in both the San Francisco Times and the Sunday Herald. (http://sftimes.editthispage.com/stories/storyReader$61).  (back)
11.  Arbuthnott, Felicity and Mackay, Neil. "Allies 'told in 1991 of uranium cancer risks.'" Sunday Herald. 7 Jan. 2001. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/0107-02.htm).  (back)
12.  United States. Department of Defense. Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. Los Alamos Memorandum. 1 Mar. 1991. (http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/declassdocs/navy/19960917/082696_d50027_001.html).  (back)
13.  Fahey, Dan. "Depleted Uranium: America's 'Gift' That Keeps On Giving." Los Angeles Times. 18. Feb. 2001. (http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0218-03.htm).  (back)
14.  Clark, Ramsey. "An International Appeal to Ban the Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons." International Action Center. (http://www.iacenter.org/depleted/appeal.htm).  (back)
15.  Colligan, Paddy. "Campaign to Ban Weapons: Soldiers, Doctors Testify on Effects of DU." International Action Center. 3 Mar. 2001. (http://www.iacenter.org/du_banconf.htm).  (back)
16.  "Use of DU Weapons Could Be War Crime." CNN.com. 15 Jan. 2001. (http://asia.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/01/14/balkans.uranium/index.html).  (back)
17.  Hall, Macer. "Veterans' alert on uranium shells." The Daily Telegraph. 23 Sept. 2001. (http://news.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2001/09/23/wsold123.xml).  (back)
18.  "Bombing; the long-term fears." BBC World Service. 10 Oct. 2001. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/011010_bomb.shtml).  (back)
19.  Salahuddin, Sayed. "Taliban Claims US Using Chemical Weapons." Reuters. 29 Oct. 2001. (http://in.news.yahoo.com/011029/107/17l8u.html).  (back)
20.  Williams, Dai. "Depleted Uranium in the Afghan War: Are ground troops and civilians at risk in 'hard target' smart bomb and cruise missile target zones?" 30 Oct. 2001. (http://www.xs4all.nl/~stgvisie/VISIE/du-afghanistan.html).  (back)
21.  Williams, Dai. "Mystery metal bombs may cause Afghan war syndrome." 17 Nov. 2001. (http://www.xs4all.nl/~stgvisie/VISIE/du-afghanistan1).html.  (back)
22.  "U.S. Bombings To Have Lasting Effects: Experts." Dawn (Pakistan). 13 Nov. 2001. (http://www.dawn.com/2001/11/13/int6.htm).  (back)
23.  Sufian, Sarmad. "US Used Nuclear Waste." The Weekly Independent (Pakistan). Vol 1, No.23. 29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001. (http://www.weeklyindependent.com/).  (back)


       Jeff Lindemyer is presently studying political science at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy and international affairs. A peace and justice activist, he has also interned for United States Senator Paul Wellstone. Lindemyer can be reached at Swans.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Jeff Lindemyer 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published December 10, 2001
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