Some shells fired in the Gulf and Balkan wars contained a type of recycled nuclear waste that is much more hazardous than depleted uranium, according to a book to be published in France next week.
The book, Depleted Uranium: The Invisible War, could change the debate on whether weapons used by the United States and Nato caused widespread sickness among war veterans and civilians.
The authors, a Frenchman, a Belgian and an American, produce evidence that the US government knew six years ago that its stocks of "safe" depleted uranium had been contaminated by spent nuclear fuels. Whether this recycled material was mixed up with the "classic" depleted uranium (DU) accidentally or deliberately remains unclear.
The book uncovers evidence that the Pentagon knew in 1995 that its armour-piercing shells and bombs contained substances more environmentally menacing than the "natural" depleted uranium that Washington, London and Nato headquarters have repeatedly defended. In other words, the entire DU debate has been based on false premises.
The findings of Martin Meissonnier, Frederic Loore and Roger Trilling have been independently confirmed in the past few days by researchers at a Swiss government laboratory, which analysed spent US munitions from Kosovo. The lab found that the shells contained traces of an isotope of uranium uranium 236 which occurs only in nuclear waste.
The Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, admitted last week in reply to a question from one of the authors of the book that depleted uranium intended for armour-piercing weapons had been contaminated by small amounts of plutonium at the defence department nuclear plant at Paducah in Kentucky.
The vigorous defence of DU weapons by the US and other Nato governments has been based on the argument that DU is a "natural" material of relatively low radioactivity. DU, in its classic form, is the heavy metal left behind mostly uranium 238 when the most fissile part of raw uranium, mined from the earth, is removed for use as a nuclear fuel, so classic DU is obtained before the nuclear reaction process.
The book produces evidence that at least some of the weapons used in the Gulf and Balkans contained another kind of uranium, obtained by recycling spent nuclear fuels after the reaction process. The danger is that this form of uranium sometimes called "dirty depleted uranium" can contain traces of highly radioactive materials, such as plutonium.
Mr Trilling said yesterday: "The whole debate should go back to square one. We are not saying that we know for sure that DU caused Gulf syndrome sicknesses, or the similar illnesses reported in the Balkans. Personally, I doubt that depleted uranium weapons are the cause, or sole cause, of the Gulf or Balkan syndromes, whatever these weapons may have actually contained.
"What we are saying is that the US government's defence of depleted uranium has been, to be charitable, extremely misleading. The book is a plea for more research not research on abstract theories about classic depleted uranium, but on the actual contents of US and Nato weapons. Until then, everyone on all sides of the argument is talking in the dark and should shut the hell up."
The book is based on two years of interviews and investigations originally done for a French television documentary, which was shown last year. Extra material has been discovered in the past few months. The writers allow both sides of the argument about classic DU to make their cases in great detail. But there are three important new pieces of information:
* Independent research by Dr Asaf Durakovic, an American of Croatian origin, has found traces of uranium 236 in the urine or bodies of 42 American Gulf veterans. Uranium 236 is not present in the natural world and should not be present in "clean" depleted uranium.
* An official report by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute in 1995 acknowledged the possibility that "depleted uranium used by the Department of Defense contains traces of uranium 236". This implies that some of the DU used in US weapons was created from spent nuclear fuel, not from raw, mined uranium.
* The nuclear plant at Paducah in Kentucky was accused of "waste, fraud, abuse and bad management" by the General Accounting Office, the official US government watchdog, in 1992. The accounting office report protested that the plant was recycling uranium from nuclear waste, without proper safeguards, endangering its own workers. Paducah is one of the three sites in America that produce the DU used by US and Nato weapons. It was the site named by the Pentagon spokesman last week as a source of contamination of some DU weapons with plutonium.
Mr Trilling said yesterday that the "charitable" interpretation of the evidence was that clean and "dirty" forms of DU had been mixed up at Paducah, or in US Department of Defense stocks, some time in the 1980s. A decision had been taken to use up the stocks in the belief, or hope, that only small quantities of highly radioactive material were involved.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.