A Dark Magic in America's Silver
Depleted uranium helps the U.S. win wars. But it's sowing profound
Blum, Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science
writer and the author of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the
MADISON, Wis. ‹ Early this spring, the U.S. Department of Defense
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
>From his Pentagon podium, Army Col. James Naughton expressed unreserved
admiration for the big silver-colored bullets. Or at least for their
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
"The result was Iraqi tanks destroyed, U.S. tanks with scrape marks."
You might think of this as just another chest-beating exercise by
American warrior types. But Naughton and his colleagues in the U.S.
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
of tank-killer devices.
The critics, ranging from environmentalists in Europe to scientists
Middle East, say that in all our recent engagements ‹ the 1991 Persian
War, Kosovo, Bosnia and now the latest Iraqi conflict ‹ we left
poisonous, uranium-dusted footprints all over other people's homelands.
worry that the chunks of radioactive litter scattered across former
battlefields have already caused a variety of illnesses. They worry,
about the potential for future harm.
This image of the U.S. as a major military polluter is not the one
to cultivate abroad. And the Pentagon doesn't seem to like making
response. Naughton, for instance, snappily suggested that Iraqi
merely political subversives: "They want it to go away because last
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
world to make the U.S. give up DU?"
It strikes me that there's no need to be quite so defensive. There's
pressure on the U.S. to stop using the bullets, and there's no real
debate over DU munitions. If Americans are aware of the issue at
mostly regard it as a mess in someone else's backyard. A few U.S.
and antiwar protesters have railed against uranium-based weapons,
haven't been able to excite much interest.
There's a different level of anger and frustration in Europe, where
peacekeeping forces fired some 13 tons of DU bullets during missions
Bosnia and Kosovo. The complaints are even louder in Iraq, where
have blamed what they claim is an increasing rate of birth defects
United States. The Pentagon estimates that the 1991 Gulf War left
about 320 tons of DU debris. It hasn't calculated the tonnage from
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
just be tidied up. What conflict hasn't produced decades' worth
war souvenirs? You can still occasionally dig up the rusting bullets
19th century Civil War in the mountains of the Southeast. There
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
Asia and Africa. And in Japan, the destructive effects of World
ultimate radioactive weapon may be repaired, but they have certainly
Should DU bullets be classed in this company? Rationally, of course,
no comparing antitank munitions with the legacy of the two atomic
dropped on Japan, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." Some remnant tons
radioactive metal should barely flicker on the environmental threat
If the rest of the world would just be more rational, we wouldn't
That kind of exasperated reasoning approaches the position of the
and, in fact, many independent scientists. Robert L. Park of the
Physical Society is downright sarcastic on the question: "I always
it would be a lot better to be shot with a uranium bullet than a
it should make a good clean hole. Physicists don't spend much time
about natural uranium, and DU is even less radioactive by about
There's another way to look at depleted uranium, and that's as a
that can really, really linger. Uranium 238, the primary heavy metal
bullets, has a radioactive half-life of 4.5x109 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
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,
radioactive isotopes for bomb production and you're left with something
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
But then they discovered something even better. Other metals, from
to steel, flatten on impact. But the uranium heats, peeling back
bullet's point. In effect, it self-sharpens, meaning that it can
armored tanks with unparalleled force. As Naughton said: "We don't
fight even. Nobody goes into a war and wants to be even with the
want to be ahead, and DU gives us that advantage."
It also means we can end battles quickly, surely a good thing. If
that DU bullets save lives, and if the radiation is a minor issue,
to ask why other people dislike them so much. For one thing, radiation
only part of the problem. Like other heavy metals, such as lead,
uranium is chemically toxic. Absorbed by the body, heavy metals
kidneys, break down nerves and cause chemically induced cancers.
Pentagon actually considers this a greater risk. Military doctors
watching Gulf War veterans, braced for those illnesses. But they
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.
Nations studies conducted in Kosovo and Bosnia came up similarly
health effects. That doesn't mean these are benign materials. Studies
cell cultures and microorganisms show even low-level toxicity does
the cellular level, that even wimp radiation kills and deforms cells.
studies have suggested DU might be worse than passive metals like
the radiation and toxicity could work together to cause genetic
Perhaps. So far, though, only the Iraqis have noted severe effects
humans, from birth defects to cancers, but they have also refused
the United Nations to independently verify the claims.
So give us some credit here. One of the reasons this hasn't been
high-profile issue in this country is that no one has produced consistently
convincing reasons for worry. And then take some credit away ‹ we
responded to the real issue behind the criticism. The rest of the
doesn't trust us on this one. Not even our allies: "But what if
Americans] are wrong?" the British science magazine New Scientist
Ask yourself this: Would you trust an invading nation that left
weaponry all over your country and responded to complaints by saying
was only a little poisonous? Or that these were terrific tank-busters?
should remember that being a good winner involves a lot more than
victory dance itself.
When it comes to depleted uranium weapons, I vote for the high moral
Let's acknowledge that perception of risk can sometimes be as frightening
risk itself. Let's invite U.N. environmental inspectors to do an
assessment in Iraq. And as a matter of principle, let's clean up
It may look like it's someone else's problem. But it's really ours.
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at
Click here for article licensing and reprint options
E T E R N A L MEDICAL DISASTER