MADISON, Wis. — Early this spring, the U.S. Department of Defense held a barely noticed briefing on America's use of radioactive weaponry in the Iraq war. The weapons in question are called "depleted uranium" bullets and — as military officials proudly say — they may be the best tank-busting weapons ever made.
From his Pentagon podium, Army Col. James Naughton expressed unreserved admiration for the big silver-colored bullets. Or at least for their ability to take out the enemy. In our battles with the Iraqis, their traditional ordnance bounced off American tanks. By contrast, U.S. uranium-enhanced ammunition took their armored vehicles apart. Or as Naughton said smugly, "The result was Iraqi tanks destroyed, U.S. tanks with scrape marks."
You might think of this as just another chest-beating exercise by us American warrior types. But Naughton and his colleagues in the U.S. military have a particular need to praise — or rather defend — depleted uranium bullets. The real purpose of the recent briefing was to counter "misinformation." Translated, that means other people don't like our choice of tank-killer devices.
The critics, ranging from environmentalists in Europe to scientists in the Middle East, say that in all our recent engagements — the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia and now the latest Iraqi conflict — we left our poisonous, uranium-dusted footprints all over other people's homelands. They worry that the chunks of radioactive litter scattered across former battlefields have already caused a variety of illnesses. They worry, too, about the potential for future harm.
This image of the U.S. as a major military polluter is not the one we want to cultivate abroad. And the Pentagon doesn't seem to like making nice in response. Naughton, for instance, snappily suggested that Iraqi critics are merely political subversives: "They want it to go away because last time we kicked the crap out of them. I mean, there's no doubt that DU gave us a huge advantage so wouldn't it be great if we [the Iraqis] could convince the world to make the U.S. give up DU?"
It strikes me that there's no need to be quite so defensive. There's no real pressure on the U.S. to stop using the bullets, and there's no real national debate over DU munitions. If Americans are aware of the issue at all, they mostly regard it as a mess in someone else's backyard. A few U.S. veterans and antiwar protesters have railed against uranium-based weapons, but they haven't been able to excite much interest.
There's a different level of anger and frustration in Europe, where our peacekeeping forces fired some 13 tons of DU bullets during missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The complaints are even louder in Iraq, where physicians have blamed what they claim is an increasing rate of birth defects on the United States. The Pentagon estimates that the 1991 Gulf War left behind about 320 tons of DU debris. It hasn't calculated the tonnage from the recent conflict — "We're busy with other issues," said Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner — but the numbers are expected to be higher.
As always, it's a mistake to think of a battleground as something that can just be tidied up. What conflict hasn't produced decades' worth of hazardous war souvenirs? You can still occasionally dig up the rusting bullets of our 19th century Civil War in the mountains of the Southeast. There remain regions in France still marked by the chemical poisons of World War I. The land mines placed in wars, small and large, continue to maim the innocent in Asia and Africa. And in Japan, the destructive effects of World War II's ultimate radioactive weapon may be repaired, but they have certainly not been forgotten.
Should DU bullets be classed in this company? Rationally, of course, there's no comparing antitank munitions with the legacy of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." Some remnant tons of slightly radioactive metal should barely flicker on the environmental threat meter. If the rest of the world would just be more rational, we wouldn't be having this discussion.
That kind of exasperated reasoning approaches the position of the Pentagon and, in fact, many independent scientists. Robert L. Park of the American Physical Society is downright sarcastic on the question: "I always figured it would be a lot better to be shot with a uranium bullet than a dum-dum — it should make a good clean hole. Physicists don't spend much time worrying about natural uranium, and DU is even less radioactive by about 40%."
There's another way to look at depleted uranium, and that's as a problem that can really, really linger. Uranium 238, the primary heavy metal in DU bullets, has a radioactive half-life of 10^9 years. Wimp radiation or not, the fragments and shells and uranium-loaded bits and pieces are the kind of war souvenirs that can bother people for a long time, making them edgy about us, our battle tactics, and what we casually leave behind.
So what is it about DU bullets that makes our military swoon? Depleted uranium is a byproduct of weapons processing. Remove the lighter, more radioactive isotopes for bomb production and you're left with something like the world's heaviest rock. DU is almost twice as dense as lead. It was this big-bad-stone-in-a-slingshot potential that first attracted weapons scientists.
But then they discovered something even better. Other metals, from tungsten to steel, flatten on impact. But the uranium heats, peeling back from the bullet's point. In effect, it self-sharpens, meaning that it can tear into armored tanks with unparalleled force. As Naughton said: "We don't want to fight even. Nobody goes into a war and wants to be even with the enemy. We want to be ahead, and DU gives us that advantage."
It also means we can end battles quickly, surely a good thing. If by doing that DU bullets save lives, and if the radiation is a minor issue, it's fair to ask why other people dislike them so much. For one thing, radiation is only part of the problem. Like other heavy metals, such as lead, depleted uranium is chemically toxic. Absorbed by the body, heavy metals can damage kidneys, break down nerves and cause chemically induced cancers. The Pentagon actually considers this a greater risk. Military doctors have been watching Gulf War veterans, braced for those illnesses. But they haven't uncovered such signs of evil.
In the 12 years of testing, they've found no such poisoning, no radiation-linked cancers, no patterns of uranium-sparked disease. United Nations studies conducted in Kosovo and Bosnia came up similarly empty on health effects. That doesn't mean these are benign materials. Studies in cell cultures and microorganisms show even low-level toxicity does harm at the cellular level, that even wimp radiation kills and deforms cells. A few studies have suggested DU might be worse than passive metals like lead, that the radiation and toxicity could work together to cause genetic damage. Perhaps. So far, though, only the Iraqis have noted severe effects in humans, from birth defects to cancers, but they have also refused to allow the United Nations to independently verify the claims.
So give us some credit here. One of the reasons this hasn't been a high-profile issue in this country is that no one has produced consistently convincing reasons for worry. And then take some credit away — we haven't responded to the real issue behind the criticism. The rest of the world doesn't trust us on this one. Not even our allies: "But what if they [the Americans] are wrong?" the British science magazine New Scientist asked in April.
Ask yourself this: Would you trust an invading nation that left its toxic weaponry all over your country and responded to complaints by saying that it was only a little poisonous? Or that these were terrific tank-busters? We should remember that being a good winner involves a lot more than the victory dance itself.
When it comes to depleted uranium weapons, I vote for the high moral ground. Let's acknowledge that perception of risk can sometimes be as frightening as risk itself. Let's invite U.N. environmental inspectors to do an independent assessment in Iraq. And as a matter of principle, let's clean up our mess. It may look like it's someone else's problem. But it's really ours.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times