June 9th, 2000
2. The Deteriorating Environment

Spreading radioactive contamination
Severe damage from heavy metals

A tank destroyed by a DU round. Nearby fields are feared contaminated by radioactivity. (suburbs of Safan City in southern Iraq)

On battlegrounds in southern Iraq near its Kuwait border, DU rounds flew during the 1991 Gulf War. They were also used in the southern Serbia (Yugoslavia) and Kosovo Province during the Kosovo War in 1999.

A total of 950,000 rounds of various sizes

While on assignment in these regions, a certain thought came to me repeatedly. "If this had happened in the US, the country that fired the rounds, how would the people react?"

During the Gulf War, the US and British armies used roughly 950,000 rounds of DU (about 320 tons) ranging in size from 25 to 120mm. They were fired in Kuwait and sourthern Iraq. Soil and atmospheric studies started by Iraqi scientists in 1996 are still detecting rather high levels of radioactivity in the vicinity of tanks destroyed by DU rounds.

U-238 in Kuwait

"Radioactivity is even higher in soil near unexploded DU rounds buried in the ground," stressed a female environmental scientist (47) employed as assistant professor at the University of Baghdad. Scientific studies in Yugoslavia have confirmed the same phenomenon there.

How many unexploded rounds are buried in the ground? No accurate estimates are available for either Iraq or Yugoslavia. The half-life of DU (U-238) is 4.5 billion years. However small the quantity, the U-238 scattered over the earth will emit radiation forever.

When the DU emissions from a DU penetrator plant in the suburbs of Albany (capital of New York) were found to have exceeded the monthly state permissible maximum of 150 micro curies (DU mass: 387 grams, 14 oz.), the plant was closed.

Kuwait is virtually the same size as Shikoku (the smallest of Japan's four major islands). Many believe the radioactive contamination from DU in Kuwait equals or exceeds that in southern Iraq. A fire in a US munitions repository in Doha in July 1991 burned stacks of DU rounds, reportedly causing massive environmental contamination. The US and Kuwaiti governments both stated at the time that the fire had "no environmental impact."

Just prior to the Gulf War, the US and Great Britain used a firing range in Saudi Arabia to test DU rounds. Contamination from these tests is feared as well.

When enriched uranium is produced for nuclear weapons or nuclear power, large amounts of DU are generated as radioactive waste. Though the radioactivity emitted is low, many countries have established strict standards for handling it.

For example, in the US DU may only be handled with the permission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Workers at plants that produce DU penetrators must continually wear protective masks and film badges that reveal their exposure dose.

Sloppy DU controls

However, sacrificing control for the sake of production and the permissive monitoring system of the NRC have combined to allow grave environmental contamination at these plants and to adversely affect the health of workers and nearby residents.

A production plant in Concord, Massachusetts dumped U-238 sludge and contaminated water on its property for many years, contaminating soil and groundwater in the vicinity with radioactivity. Decontamination measures to prevent its spread outside the plant site are now an urgent task.

Moreover, depleted uranium is a heavy metal as toxic as lead or cadmium. Thus, the radioactivity contamination is compounded by heavy metal toxicity.

Contamination at DU test firing ranges used by the US Army, Navy and Air Force is also serious.

Arjun Makhijani (55), a nuclear scientist, is one of three editors of the book Nuclear Wastelands, which describes areas of radioactive contamination around the world. He is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research located in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Makhijani warns, "Contaminated areas are expanding in the US, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere in the world due to development and testing of nuclear weapons and nuclear power accidents like Chernobyl. It is absolutely unconscionable to put radioactive waste requiring strict controls in weapons and strew them around in other countries just because they are effective."

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