A Dark Magic in America's Silver Bullets
Onderwerp:  [du-list] from LA Times
     Datum:    Mon, 02 Jun 2003 21:58:10 +0200
       Van:      martin meissonnier <martinm@imaginet.fr>
       Aan:      undisclosed-recipients:;
http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-op-blum1jun01,1,2046942
story June 1, 2003 
WEAPONS
A Dark Magic in America's Silver Bullets
Depleted uranium helps the U.S. win wars. But it's sowing profound fear.

           By Deborah Blum, Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science
writer and the author of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of
Affection."
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 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 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.

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BURNING 'DEPLETED' URANIUM: 
AN  E T E R N A L  MEDICAL  DISASTER

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