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Depleted uranium: Devastation at Home and Abroad


by Leuren Moret


San Francisco Bay View, 7 November 2001

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,  23  January 2002

“The little fox is still. The dogs of war have made their kill.” These are the words of famous Black poet and writer Langston Hughes, commenting on war. He couldn’t have said it better.

Few communities have felt the impact of war more than Hunters Point. The impact of war is not felt just overseas, in a distant country. It is right here in our own backyards: death and illness from radiation exposure, chemical exposure, and the economic devastation that ensues when the military moves on and leaves the mess behind.

The bombing of Afghanistan by U.S. government forces has direct ties to Hunters Point. It was at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard that a radioactive material called depleted uranium (DU), currently being used in the bombing of Afghanistan, was first tested by the Navy.

The United States now has hundreds of thousands of tons of depleted uranium piled in heaps outdoors at DOE facilities. It is 99.5 percent of what is left when the most fissionable isotope (one of three) is extracted from naturally occurring uranium. The extracted uranium is used in nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel for nuclear reactors. The 99.5 percent that is discarded cannot be put back into the mines it came out of because, after crushing and processing, the volume is greater than before it was removed from the mines. “Depleted uranium” does not mean it is not radioactive - it is very radioactive and very dangerous to all living things.

The Department of Defense got the bright idea of using depleted uranium in weapons because: it is very dense, which gives it greater penetrating power to destroy tanks, etc.; it is “pyrophoric,” which means that upon impact, it explodes into fire and smoke, creating submicroscopic radioactive particles which travel great distances and can remain suspended until it is “rained out” of the atmosphere; it is cheap, and passes the responsibility for disposal from DOE on to civilians (that means us) and the environment.

Since depleted uranium is so radioactive, it will continue acting internally on living things long after the battlefield has been cleared - with delayed effects, which impact soldiers and civilians for the rest of their lives. The half life of uranium is 4.5 billion years - in ten half-lives radioactivity becomes an insignificant amount. In 45 billion years it will no longer be a danger. In other words, it’s “fun” for the DOD, it’s “cheap” for the arms manufacturers (who reap good profits by making it), and “good riddance” says DOE (with 480,000 tons on hand).

The Navy first tested depleted uranium munitions in 1977 at Hunters Point. From the USS Bigelow, the Phalanx Weapons System fired 3,000 rounds of depleted uranium penetrators per minute. The tests exceeded expectations and production started in 1978 to fill orders for 23 U.S. Navy and 14 foreign military systems.

The Army A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed “the Warthog,” fired most of the depleted uranium munitions in the Gulf War, between 300 to 800 tons. The Abrams Tank, the Marines M-60, the U.S. F-16 and U.S. Apache helicopters have been fitted to fire DU munitions. Many cruise missiles contain DU balance weights.

The use of DU is not being covered up, but the health hazards have been. Gulf War Syndrome not only killed, maimed, and made soldiers sick, they brought it home. In a study of 251 Gulf War veterans’ families in Mississippi, 67 percent of their children were born without eyes, ears or a brain, had fused fingers, blood infections, respiratory problems or thyroid and other organ malformations.

The U.S. has manufactured and tested depleted uranium in 39 states. The cleanup bill — just for the depleted uranium — at the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana would be $7.8 billion. The DU has not been cleaned up, but DOD has closed the area. Communities living near these test ranges will continue to be exposed and suffer health problems.

For 40 years, the Sierra Army Depot in Northern California has burned millions of tons of old munitions — including 20 times more DU than was used in the entire Gulf War. The radioactive smoke and ash, full of heavy metals, phosgene gas and dioxins, contaminated local communities as well as that of many Native Americans living downwind — especially the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.

The health problems in those communities have been horrendous. The Sierra Army depot burned old munitions in open pits — and was the single largest contributor to air pollution in California — 17-23 percent. Norman Harry, former Pyramid Lake Tribal Chairman, and Nevada Senator Harry Reid, worked with others to shut it down. A month ago, Lassen County refused to renew the burn permit for the Sierra Army Depot — finally.

The United States has used DU weaponry in the Gulf War, Kosovo, Serbia, Vieques Island, and Torishima Island near Okinawa, Japan; and sold DU to at least 23 countries at great profits. As mentioned earlier, DU is part of the arsenal the U.S. and British military forces are using against Afghanistan.

The depleted uranium that has contaminated the Gulf States since the Gulf War can be detected on gamma meters in Greece and Bulgaria on windy days. It’s the weapon that “keeps giving”... and keeps killing.

DU is also used as ballast in commercial and military planes. On Sept. 11, a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. Dr. Janette Sherman, research associate with the Radiation and Public Health Project, had spoken a few days earlier at a Sept. 6 press conference in Hunters Point. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Dr. Sherman notified the Nuclear Information and Resource Service that she detected elevated levels of radiation in her home, located seven miles from the Pentagon. Dr. Sherman still had a gamma meter she had borrowed for her visit to Hunter’s Point. The EPA, the FBI, and other federal agencies, including HMRU (Hazardous Materials Response Units), USAR teams, the local fire department and the Virginia HAZMAT were notified, and an investigation began at the Pentagon.

A pile of rubble from the crash was found to be radioactive, but EPA official Bill Bellinger of the agency’s Region III Environmental Radiation Monitoring Office was unconcerned when contacted by Diane D’Arrigo from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Bellinger indicated that it was probably depleted uranium and mentioned that americium 241could also be scattered around the crash site. He was convinced that depleted uranium is not radiologically toxic, but commented that it is more of a hazard when aerosolized.

Firefighters, Pentagon personnel, and communities nearby did breathe the smoke and ash from the fire. The agencies that are supposed to be protecting us are not. There was no follow-up investigation.

And what about the World Trade Center in New York? Radiation issues almost never get coverage from mainstream media. It is a taboo subject, a silent killer, as Hunter’s Point residents know too well.

The true patriots in this country are two women: Barbara Lee for saying “no” to needless further devastation of an already war-torn country, and Dona Spring, who brought the issue to the table in the Berkeley City Council. Berkeley is the only city in the United States to pass a resolution calling for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan.

Whether or not we agree with the military action in Afghanistan, our soldiers have fought for hundreds of years to give us the right to say yes … or no. War is how our “leaders” bleed us, too. It is economically, radiologically and chemically devastating at home as well as abroad.

Useful links: For an article about how DU is currently being used to bomb Afghanistan, visit www.zolatimes.com/V5.44/afghan_uranium.html .

For information about the testing of DU in Hunters Point Shipyard via the USS Bigelow and the Phalanx Weapons System, visit www.spar.navy.mil/ships/ddg995/wep-phal.html .

To read an article about the use of DU as ballast in commercial as well as military planes, www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/dhap997.html .

The Radiation and Public Health Project website is located at www.radiation.org .

Visit the Nuclear Information and Resource Service at www.nirs.org .

Leuren Moret, an environmental geologist and independent scientist, is president of Scientists for Indigenous People. Leuren Moret can be reached at [email protected] .

Copyright Leuren Moret 2002. Reprinted for fair use only. 

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