WASHINGTON Thousands more people than anticipated
face health and pollution threats from plutonium and other highly radioactive
elements that fouled vast amounts of uranium recycled by the U.S. nuclear weapons
program over the past 50 years. Recycled uranium was shipped worldwide from
1952 until 1999, when distribution was halted by revelations of its contamination.
Now, new federal studies reviewed by USA TODAY show that
the program yielded 250,000 tons of tainted uranium roughly double the
estimates of two years ago. The material was handled at about 10 times the number
of sites revealed previously, reaching more than 100 federal plants, private
manufacturers and universities.
The studies suggest that thousands more workers than expected
might have unwittingly faced radiation risks beyond those associated with normal
uranium, increasing their odds of developing cancer and other ailments. That
places an unexpected burden on a soon-to-begin federal program to compensate
sick nuclear weapons workers.
Contaminants from the tainted uranium also raise the potential
for soil and groundwater pollution at some of the newly recognized processing
sites. That threatens to complicate cleanup plans.
Most recycled uranium went back into nuclear weapons production
or was used as fuel for power reactors. But thousands of tons also were used
in everything from academic research to the making of armor for Army battle
The vast majority of the material contained only traces
of impurities too little, scientists say, to pose risks beyond those
posed by natural uranium, which is mildly radioactive and raises health hazards
if inhaled as dust. But some plants handled recycled uranium in ways that concentrated
its contaminants, significantly boosting its hazards.
"This stuff circulated much more widely than we'd thought,"
says Robert Alvarez, an official at the Department of Energy when it launched
the new studies in 1999.
"The problem is, they really don't have reasonable estimates
of how much (contamination) was in a lot of this recycled uranium," adds Alvarez,
now a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. "It could range from very
tiny amounts to relatively high levels."
Federal researchers conclude in the new studies that contamination
generally was "extremely low." But that finding masks problems.
The uranium's contaminants apparently were concentrated
at a dozen or more previously unrecognized sites, raising pollution and worker
health threats. But it's unclear which batches of uranium were most dangerous
or where they went so not all high-risk sites are identifiable.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says, "The government has a responsibility
to follow up."
Military study finds fouled weapons safe
Since the 1980s, the Pentagon has relied
increasingly on the super-hard, super-dense qualities of depleted-uranium metal,
using it in tank shielding and armor-piercing munitions. And much of it is fouled
with traces of plutonium and other dangerous radioisotopes.
The Army got word of the problem in August 1999, when the
Department of Energy told commanders that the depleted-uranium armor in the
latest Abrams tanks was made with recycled material contaminated during nuclear
weapons production. The Army quietly studied 60 samples of the tainted metal
before concluding early last year that "the presence of these trace radionuclides
in armor is safe."
This year, amid charges that U.S. and NATO troops were
sickened from exposure to depleted-uranium "tank-killer" munitions in the Persian
Gulf War and the Balkans, the Pentagon revealed publicly that the bullets were
made from contaminated metal. Although federal studies suggest that workers
who made the recycled uranium metal may face heath risks, military officials
insist that the contamination posed no threats in the finished military products.
Even so, at least two branches of the service have abandoned
use of the controversial munitions.
The Pentagon's troubles with the contamination have intensified
a heated global debate on the use of munitions and military hardware made with
depleted uranium, so-called because much of the uranium's natural radioactivity
was sapped when it was fed into nuclear reactors to make weapons fuel.
Studies to date support the contention that the levels
of contaminants in depleted-uranium metal are tiny and account for little, if
any, increase in the already low risks normally associated with the material.
Depleted uranium produces a roughly 1% increase in the "background" radiation
people normally absorb from sunlight and other natural sources.
But many veterans, environmentalists and public health
officials are unconvinced. Their skepticism is heightened by the Pentagon's
failure to announce the contamination of munitions and tank armor for more than
a year after it learned of the problem. Some experts recommend more study of
the mix of radioactive substances.
"You need to check to see if there's a cocktail that includes
some of these more radioactive (contaminants)," says Malcolm Grimston, a senior
fellow specializing in chemical and nuclear studies at the Royal Institute of
International Affairs in London. "You need to redo the calculations."
Munitions appear to be the most widely used military product
containing depleted uranium. U.S. forces fired more than 300 tons during the
Gulf War. Iraq claims the spent rounds littering its land caused broad environmental
damage and increased cancer rates. The same armor-piercing munitions were used
extensively by U.S. and NATO warplanes during the 1999 bombing of Kosovo. That
prompted ongoing risk studies by NATO and the World Health Organization.
The stakes are high, given depleted uranium's wide military
use. A draft document prepared by the Energy Department in 1999 and obtained
by USA TODAY shows that the fouled material was shipped to at least 50 U.S.
military installations, foreign and domestic, for various uses, ranging from
the tank armor and munitions to counterweights in military planes and ships.
Pentagon officials say substantial precautions are taken
in using depleted uranium, but there have been problems. In 1999, for example,
a maintenance bay at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia was contaminated with
mildly radioactive dust after a technician used a hammer to break counterweights
made of depleted uranium off a C-141 cargo plane. Urine and blood tests were
done on the technician and other workers, but no harm was reported.
Amid all the controversy, the Navy and Marines have decided
to abandon use of the depleted-uranium munitions. Both have switched to tungsten,
a non-radioactive, high-density metal.
"We're not considering depleted uranium anymore because
of the environmental problems associated with it, be them real or perceived,"
says Col. Clayton Nans, head of the Marines' Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle
program and former chief of the service's firepower division. "We don't want
to be in a position of having someone say, 'You can't bring your armor piercing
rounds on the battlefield.' "
© Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Receivers of depleted uranium
Aerojet Ordance Company
U.S. Army, Yuma Proving Ground
U.S. Air Force , Eglin AFB
USAF, Rocket Propulsion Lab, Edwards
U.S. Army, Sierra Army Depot
U.S. Army, Seneca Army Depot
USAF, HQ Aeroscape (Norveich AB, GR)
USAF, Grissom AFB, Indiana
U.S. Air Force, Nellis AFB
GE, Armament Systems Department
U.S. Army Overseas
USAF, Sunny Point Military OCean Terminal
General Defense Corp, linchbaugh Div
GDOS, Milan Army Ammunitions Plant
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Hahn AB, Ger)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Sembach AB, Ger)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Bentwaters AB)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Suwon AB, Korea)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Cheong-Ju AB)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Bissell AB, Ger)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Woodbridge, RAF)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Nordholz, RAF)
USAF, Lackland AFB, TX
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Leipheim AB, Ger)
U.S. Air Force, Eielson AFB
USAF, HQ Aerospace (England AFB, LA)
U.S. Army, Benet Weapons Laboratory
U.S. Army, Rocky Island Arsenal
U.S. Navy. Puget Sound Shipyard
Boeing Defense & Space- Oak Ridge
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Brengarten-Gas)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Wethersfield)
U.S. Navy, Naval Research Laboratory
U.S. Army, Arsenal Research Lab
U.S. Army, Picatinny Arsenal
U.S. Army, Picatinny Arsenal
Space & Defense Electronics
U.S. Navy, Sea Systems Command
USAF, Richard-Gebaur AFB, MO
USAF, HQ Aerospace (Dejbjerg Denmark)
USAF, HQ Aerospace (N A S, New Orleans)
U.S. Navy, Air Weapons Station
Aerojet Ordnance Tennesse
U.S. Army, Armor & Engnr Bd
U.S. Navy, NAval Weapons Laboratory
U.S. Army, Jefferson Proving Ground
U.S. Air Force, Kirtland AFB
U.S. Air Force, McClelland AFB
U.S. Army, APG, Combat Systems Test