Depleted Uranium’s Legacy

The ravages of radiation are targeting a second generation

World Reports

The Right Livelihood Foundation

In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the UK Atomic Energy Authority produced a report estimating that 50 tons of dust from depleted uranium (DU) shells left behind in the Iraqi soil could cause up to 500,000 extra cancer deaths in the region over a 10-year period. At least 300 tons of DU-tipped shells (and possibly much more) were used against Iraqi tanks.

In 1997, a British Ministry of Defense paper–recently leaked to the press–warned that “inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance–if any” and noted that “uranium dust inhalation… has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.”

These warnings are seriously at variance with claims from Washington, London and NATO that there is no proven link between DU and leukemia or other illnesses. For citizens’ organizations and military personnel who have fallen sick since serving in the Gulf or Kosovo, the no-proven-link argument deliberately avoids the issue. NATO members Italy, Germany and Greece all have pushed for a moratorium on the use of DU, but they have been overruled by the US and Britain.

Storage of DU–a by-product of the nuclear fuel and reprocessing industries–is a growing problem. One British site alone has 20,000 tons of DU. Recycling DU into ammunition is a perfect solution for the military-industrial complex.

In the meantime, some companies can’t wait. After an employee tipped off a national newspaper, British Nuclear Fuels admitted it was dumping 30,000 bags of nuclear waste containing DU on a municipal waste heap near Lancashire in northwest England. This is alleged to pose a long-term risk, because when uranium decays it breaks down into radon gas–a well-known cause of lung cancer.

The risk of leukemia from depleted uranium ammunition may be 100 times greater than official estimates. Research by low-level radiation specialist Chris Busby has shown that leukemia deaths after the Chernobyl disaster were 100 times greater than predicted. The reason (which would apply equally in Iraq) is that forecasts have been based on short-term exposure to intense blasts of radioactive rays rather than on exposure to the long-lived radioactive particles created when uranium shells explode and shatter. The European Parliament’s Green Group has called for a total ban on DU weapons.

In January, the British military resumed test firing of DU shells at the Dundrennan firing range near Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Since 1982, more than 7,000 shells have been fired at the range. The shells are meant to land in the sea, but attempts to retrieve are not always successful and 28 tons of DU shells have gone missing. An independent nuclear consultant called this “a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually it will end up in the food chain. What they have done is outrageous and irresponsible.” Environmentalists fear that the shells could break up and be washed ashore after a storm, posing a hazard for children playing on beaches.

Furthermore, up to 24 shells have misfired and hit the ground, generating clouds of DU dust. In most cases these “malfunctioning penetrators” buried themselves in the ground and have not been recovered.

Excerpted from Cornerstones, the newsletter of the Research Office of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation [Box 15072, S-10465 Stockholm, Sweden,].

Our Polluted Earth

US–NASA’s orbiting TERRA satellite captured an astounding record of clouds of CO2 bursting from industrial centers and washing over the Northern Hemisphere from March to December 2000. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has posted the animation online as an 5.63 megabyte downloadable file [].

The satellite imagery also reveals that, in addition to clouds of CO2, “about half of the global emissions of carbon monoxide are caused by human activities.”

Uranium in War: The US in Kosovo

by Rosalie Bertell (Author of Victims of the Nuclear Age)

Every nation with a nuclear industry has access to depleted uranium (DU). In addition to the US and Britain, some 17 countries are known to have DU weapons, including Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Israel and France. Governments and the nuclear industry refuse to admit the human health effects of exposure to DU because this could force them to pay millions in compensation, and probably cause the closure of all nuclear industries that expose workers and the public to low levels of radiation.

A June 1994 US Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) report critical of the use of DU in the Gulf War has not been widely distributed, even to members of the US Congress. Ignoring the danger, the US and UK used DU in Bosnia. The US alone used it extensively in Kosovo. Veterans and peacekeepers exposed to DU during these wars have reported severe illnesses including leukemia and cancers.

Depleted uranium is still radioactive. One gram of DU emits more than 12,000 cell-damaging alpha particles per second.

Although the public has been assured that this radioactive and toxic debris poses no hazard to human or environmental health, workers at the uranium enrichment facilities experience illnesses similar to those of Gulf War veterans. There are several problems with these assurances. They are based on epidemiological studies of uranium dust inhalation, whereas in battle, exploding DU shells create tiny aerosol particles called ceramic uranium. These radioactive particles remain in the body longer, thereby increasing their biological damage to tissues.

Physicists calculate the energy that a uranium atom releases into the surrounding tissue in a sphere of about 30 microns (0.03mm) and average it over the whole body. The reality is that the localized dose can cause serious rupture of the DNA and tissue lesions.

From the point of view of longevity, DU is worse than a land mine. The human senses cannot detect it and it can cause years of agony and death for women, men and children well into the future. There is no international law, treaty regulation or custom that requires the US to decontaminate and restore the poisoned Persian Gulf environment.

For more information Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center [39 West 14th Street, No. 206, New York, NY 10011,] has conducted hearings to hold the US and NATO responsible for violations of international law for its use of DU in Kosovo.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.