Depleted Uranium: Enduring Risk
Six years ago this past Sunday, the U.S. government launched a war against the government of Afghanistan.
Air power was the key. Two B-2 Stealth bombers flew from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, each carrying sixteen 2,000-lb satellite-directed bombs. Five B-1B and 10 B-52 heavy bombers flew from Diego Garcia, the U.S. island base guarding the Persian Gulf. Twenty-five strike aircraft attacked from two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. U.S. Navy F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats dropped 500-lb guided bombs and 2,000-lb earth penetrators. Fifty Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British ships and submarines. The targets for the first few days were military facilities, both those of the Taliban government and those used by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.
For the Tora Bora bunkers, the U.S. Air Force allotted 32 individual GBU-31, 2,000-lb bombs, carried by the B-1 Lancer bombers, launched from the U.S.A. and from Diego Garcia. A single aircraft can carry up to 24 tons of bombs. The 5,000-lb bunker busters and the earth penetrator weapons were dropped by B-2 bombers. Within a few days, the U.S. government announced that they had destroyed the main targets.
By Oct. 29, 70 per cent of U.S. air strikes were in support of the Northern Alliance armed forces, most guided by the U.S. Special Forces on the ground. The MQ-1 Predator drone with Hellfire missiles was operating over Taliban forces, directing air attacks and launching missiles.
By Nov. 5 the number of individual air missions was up to 120 per day, adding F-16 and
F-15 fighter-bombers out of U.S. bases in Kuwait.
The turning point in the war to oust the Taliban government came on Nov. 6 at Mazar-e Sharif, a key city in the northern plains. Attack aircraft rained down hundreds of MK82 500-lb bombs. B-52 bombers used carpet bombing to kill thousands of Taliban forces. It was here that U.S. forces dropped the first BLU-82 Daisy Cutter bomb, each weighing 15,000 lbs, producing devastation over a 600-yard radius. All the weapons used by the U.S. air attack included depleted uranium shielding.
Depleted uranium (DU) is produced during the uranium enrichment process. The U-235 used to produce fuel for reactors generating electricity is removed, leaving the U-238 isotope. The material is extremely dense and increases the penetration ability of weapons; it is used to coat shells and warheads on missiles and bombs. On impact, the shell, with its uranium and traces of americium and plutonium, vaporizes and becomes very tiny particles of radioactive dust. When it is inhaled it can stay in the body, emitting radiation.
The DU used in U.S. weapons comes from the uranium mines in Saskatchewan.
In the 1991 Gulf war, DU was delivered almost exclusively with shells from tanks and ammunition used by aircraft. It is used in all armour-piercing ordnance. In the wars in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, NATO allies added DU missiles and bunker busting bombs. Thousands of DU bombs and missiles have been used by U.S. forces in the Afghan and Iraq wars. A typical bunker bomb contains 1.5 tonnes of depleted uranium.
In August 2003 Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor used a Geiger counter to test several sites in Baghdad near where bunker-buster bombs and missiles had fallen. He found radiation readings that were between 1,000 and 1,900 times higher than normal background radiation readings. DU weapons are still being extensively used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the 1991 Gulf War, birth defects and leukemia rose dramatically in the areas around Basra where these weapons were used. By 2003, the U.S. Defense Department admitted that over 200,000 Gulf War veterans had filed for compensation for death, illness or disabilities.
The veterans refer to this as "Gulf War Syndrome." In the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition suffered 148 deaths.
Since then 8,000 veterans of this war have experienced early death.
In 1996 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that DU weapons were illegal "weapons of mass destruction." In 2002, the U.N. Human Rights Convention passed a resolution urging a ban on the use of any DU weapons. We will have to wait to find out the impact of these weapons on the people of Afghanistan and the men and women in the U.S., Canadian and NATO armed forces.
Warnock is a Regina political economist and author. This is an extract from his forthcoming book Afghanistan: The Creation of a Failed State, to be published by Fernwood in 2008.
© The Leader-Post (Regina) 2007