May 16th, 2000
3. Open Air

A pond near the firing range. No construction is anywhere to be seen, but the sign says: UNDER CONSTRUCTION NO FISHING, NO BOATING NO RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES (Socorro, New Mexico)A pond near the firing range. No construction is anywhere to be seen, but the sign says:
(Socorro, New Mexico)

Denial of Atmospheric Firing
Tanks not used as targets

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (commonly called New Mexico Tech) is on the west end of Socorro City. From the outer edge of the campus you can see the mountain firing range used by the university-owned and operated Energetic Materials Research Test Center (EMRTC).

Munitions company testing

"Welcome." Vice president Van Romero (44) extends his large hand. We're in a room on the second floor of Brown Hall. He is dressed casually in jeans and sneakers. His manner is friendly and open, but when he sees the camera I put on the table, he says, "Please don't take my picture. Here at New Mexico Tech most of our work involves anti-terrorist measures. I can't do anything that might advertise my face to terrorists."

The university was founded in 1893 to teach and study mining and the extraction of mineral resources. During World War II, however, the focus changed to weapons development. Now, of 140 faculty members, 100 work for the EMRTC Division, which is involved in the research and development of missile warheads and other weapons. New Mexico Tech has about 1,500 students.

The firing range of about 8,000 hectares is used to test the weapons developed by the university and by the Defense Department and munitions factories.

"Research related to depleted uranium munitions accounts for less than 5% of our total research. Most of the testing is of munitions brought here by the army or Aerojet or other manufacturing companies."

Forty tons in more than twenty years

Between the start of DU testing in 1972 and 1993, EMRTC says it used about 40 tons of DU. When I asked if the DU rounds were fired at old tanks or used in unshielded open-air tests, Romero flatly denied both. "We have never used a tank as a target. And in testing DU penetrators, we have always used a catch box for shielding, right from the beginning."

According to his explanation, a catch box is made of wood and packed with sand. A plate of lead, iron or other metal is then placed in the box as the target for the DU penetrator. Romero says this method seals the DU particles in the sand and keeps them from scattering into the air, which would pose the greatest health threat.

I pointed out the difficulty of obtaining data about levels of destructive power without firing at a real target. Romero answered with complete confidence, drawing on a white board to illustrate his points. "A target like a tank is too complicated. Scientists want to know how effective a DU round is against a certain substance. This is sufficient. Besides, in our so-called open-air tests, the term "open-air" refers only to the flight course from the tank or gun that fires the shell to the catch box. It does not imply an unshielded open-air shot."

If so, then EMRTC's use of this term differs from that of other similar facilities in the US.

No answer about the present situation

Romero says that the university and the state Environmental Protection Department, which has a "surveillance role," have frequently monitored environmental contamination from DU on the firing range and in Socorro City. "We have found no evidence of DU release into the environment, even at the firing range. We find no heavy metal contamination whatsoever."

The university is presently working to improve the wire-guided "tow missile," a weapon fired from a tank cannon that pulls with it a wire conductor. Some believe that these weapons have DU warheads. Romero refused to give me a clear answer, "I don't know about other facilities, but we are not using them here. I am not at liberty to tell you the substance we use."

Turning the subject away from DU, Romero began to tell me about various anti-terrorist measures. His business card is inscribed with the university slogan, "THINKING FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM." I shudder to think of what they will come up with.

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