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Time to Ban Depleted Uranium Weapons Used in Gulf, Kosovo
Published on Sunday, February 4, 2001 in the Baltimore Sun
Time to Ban Depleted Uranium Weapons Used in Gulf, Kosovo
by Rahul Mahajan
 
Some of the armor-piercing, tank-killing depleted-uranium ammunition used by the U.S. military was contaminated with highly radioactive substances, possibly including plutonium, according to a recent Swiss study.

That simple scientific fact has serious political consequences for the United States.

More than 300 tons of DU were deposited in Iraq during the Gulf War, and perhaps another 25-30 tons more recently in Kosovo. Peace activists and U.S. military scientists for some time have expressed concerns about the health effects even of "uncontaminated" DU, including claims of links to severe birth defects, leukemia and the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome in U.S. veterans. Those concerns have always been dismissed by U.S. government officials, who say that DU is relatively harmless because of its low radioactivity.

These revelations of highly radioactive contaminants should be the last straw -- it's time for a worldwide ban on DU munitions.

The facts are straightforward: Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology discovered that DU munitions used in Kosovo were contaminated with U-236, an isotope of uranium not found in nature. Numerous other scientists, including former U.S. military biologist and retired colonel Asaf Durakovic, have found traces of U-236 in the urine of Gulf War veterans.

This means that DU cannot be naturally occurring uranium with the fissionable U-235 removed from it, as the U.S. government had claimed until recently. U-236 is created only in nuclear reactors and bombs; there is no other known source. The DU being used must have come from reprocessed reactor fuel. This means that "depleted" uranium almost certainly contains plutonium and other extremely carcinogenic substances.

A recently released book -- "Depleted Uranium: The Invisible War," by Martin Messonnier, Frederick Loore and Roger Trilling -- cites a 1999 Energy Department report stating that the Paducah plant "created depleted uranium potentially containing neptunium and plutonium." Paducah, Ky., is one of three places, all in the United States, where most of the world's DU is generated.

The U.S. government had managed to keep the issue mostly under wraps until the recent controversy caused by the deaths from leukemia of eight Italian veterans of Balkan operations (dozens of other Europeans have also died) and the Pentagon's sensational revelations that it used DU extensively in Bosnia in 1995.

Before that, the concern of Americans for the millions of Iraqis, Serbs and Kosovar Albanians potentially at risk was too slight to provoke serious action. The government's "concern" for its veterans, to which any serviceman in Vietnam exposed to Agent Orange can attest, was equally slight.

Government officials also used scientific arguments to obfuscate and confuse the issue.

Against the circumstantial evidence associating DU with a dramatic increase in birth defects and leukemia in southern Iraq, they pointed to the absence of any epidemiological study of DU-affected areas. They didn't, however, explain why they haven't conducted such a study.

Against the numerous claims of DU's health hazards from other scientists and the unexplained illnesses of tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans, they pointed to a handful of scientific studies that showed some veterans with DU in their bodies had not experienced any increase in health problems.

Against the acknowledgement in the U.S. Army's own field manuals of the hazards of DU on the battlefield, they maintained a stony silence.

All this must change. The serious study that veterans' groups and peace activists have asked for must begin. The government should make good on its covenant with its soldiers to look out for their well-being, as well as on its ethical obligation to assess the effects on innocent victims, such as the civilians of Iraq and Serbia.

We also need an international tribunal on DU. When Serbian President Kostunica contended that NATO's use of DU was a war crime, the United States scoffed. Can it do the same now that Dr. Doug Rokke, former head of the U.S. Army's DU assessment team, has agreed?

Standard U.S. tactics during recent wars, such as deliberate destruction of electrical grids and water-treatment facilities, clearly violate international law, but the "lone superpower" does not often allow itself to be investigated. On the DU issue, in the face of mounting international and domestic outrage, America may not have a choice,.

So far, the U.S. government and NATO have been hostile and negligent, refusing to destroy stocks of DU weapons. NATO spokesman Mark Laity explained, "The onus is on those who call ill health to prove it, rather than on us, who don't." Fractured English aside, this abdication of responsibility is reprehensible.

In addition to ordering studies immediately and compensating victims, we should learn that scientific arguments supporting the status quo must be examined critically. Although they are generally grounded in well-established fact and theory, they cannot be judged by the public without an effective guarantee of honesty and full disclosure.

As long as governments and corporations can get away with lying to us and hiding information on scientific questions, we will lack the basis for informed choice, which is vital to any notion of democracy.

Rahul Mahajan is a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at rahulm@mail.utexas.edu

© 2001 by The Baltimore Sun

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