Back to Main page Depleted Uranium Hazard
"Ingested DU particles can cause up to 1,000 times the damage
of an X-ray", said Mary Olson, a nuclear waste specialist and biologist
at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington D.C.

Too Hot to Handle

(from :

Rob Edwards

IN 1991 Doug Rokke went to the Middle East as a US army health physicist to clean up uranium
left by the Gulf War. He helped decontaminate 23 armoured vehicles hit by shells
in “friendly fire” incidents.
Today he has difficulty breathing. His lungs are scarred and he has skin problems and kidney
damage. Rokke, a major in the US Army Reserve’s Medical Service Corps, has no doubt what
made him ill—contact with radioactive metal.Three years after he worked in the Gulf, the
US Department of Energy tested his urine. They found that the level of uranium in his sample
was over 4000 times higher than the US safety limit of 0.1 micrograms per litre.
Now aged 50 and an environmental scientist at Jacksonville State University in Alabama,
Rokke is campaigning to stop the US firing uranium weapons in the Balkans. “It is a war
crime to use uranium munitions when men, women and children are exposed to them without
any medical screening or care,” he says. “It is totally, totally wrong.”
Depleted uranium, or DU, is a radioactive heavy metal. It is the waste left over when the
isotope uranium-235 is extracted from naturally-occurring uranium to fuel nuclear power
stations and build nuclear bombs. DU typically consists of 99.7 per cent uranium-238.

As a by-product of the nuclear industry, DU is cheap and plentiful. And DU shells are a
very effective weapon against tanks and armoured cars. They can pierce several inches of
armour-plated steel thanks to DU’s extremely high density. They’re better at penetrating
armour than traditional anti-tank weapons made of tungsten.

DU was used for the first time in battle during the 1991 Gulf conflict with Iraq. The US
Department of Defense says that US planes and tanks fired 860 000 rounds of ammunition
containing 290 tonnes of DU. British tanks fired 100 rounds containing less than 1 tonne
of DU, according to the Ministry of Defence.
Gulf veterans such as Rokke believe exposure to this DU is one of the causes of Gulf War
Syndrome, the unexplained illness or group of illnesses that has afflicted thousands of
soldiers since the war. Iraqi scientists also claim that DU was responsible for a rise in
the numbers of cancers and birth defects in southern Iraq. But both the US and British
governments dispute this. They say there is no evidence that DU has damaged the health of
military personnel.

But the row is erupting again with the US admission it is using DU weapons in the
two-month-old war against Serbia. In a press briefing in Washington DC on 3 May, Major
General Charles Wald, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs
of Staff, confirmed that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against Serbian
forces. The US Joint Chiefs’ spokesman, James Brooks, told New Scientist that AV-8
Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans also carried DU munitions. The British
Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has said that no DU is “in use” by British forces. But
there are more than 20 British Challenger tanks, which fired DU ammunition in the Gulf
conflict, stationed in Macedonia ready for action if ground troops move into Kosovo—a move
supported by Britain as the limitations of an air offensive become apparent.
NATO says that DU has been used against Serbian forces since the second week of May. “It
has not been used extensively,” says a NATO spokesman. “It has never been proved that the
use of DU endangers the health of people. It is no more dangerous than mercury.”

Neither NATO nor the US will say how just much DU has been fired in the Balkans. But there
are 40 A10s and 6 Harriers in action, capable of unleashing a lot of uranium. A10s, for
example, are armed with a 30-millimetre Gatling gun that can fire 3900 shells a minute,
one in five of which contains 300 grams of DU. This means that each A10 could release 234
kilograms of DU a minute. If US and British tanks take part in a ground offensive,
observers say more DU is likely to be fired.

As well as its ability to pierce armour plating, DU has the unfortunate tendency to ignite
on impact, creating clouds of uranium oxide dust—facilitating its spread in the
environment and increasing the danger posed by the alpha radiation it emits. Mike Thorne,
a uranium expert from AEA Technology at Harwell in Oxfordshire, formerly part of the UK
Atomic Energy Authority, points out that as an alpha-emitter, it poses a similar risk to
plutonium if it gets inside the body. As such, even the tiniest amounts could cause cell
damage that marginally increases the risk of cancer. DU also emits dangerous beta
radiation. Its main component, uranium-238, has a half-life of 4.46 billion years. Thorne
argues that it could in theory contribute to Gulf War Syndrome: “In view of its poorly
defined biochemical effects, DU could be a contributory factor,” he says.

Chemically, DU poses a great threat to the kidneys, where high concentrations can lead to
organ failure. But according to Thorne, even small amounts could have subtle but
ill-understood effects. That is why a major study by the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory
in 1989 recommended reducing the safety limit for uranium in kidneys from 3 micrograms per
gram to 0.3 micrograms per gram.

There is evidence that civilian authorities take the threat from DU very seriously. In the
aftermath of the Gulf conflict, the UK Atomic Energy Authority came up with some
frightening estimates for the potential effects of the DU contamination left by the
conflict. It calculated that if 23 tonnes of DU were inhaled--8 per cent of the amount
actually fired in the Gulf—this could cause “500 000 potential deaths”. This was “a
theoretical figure”, it stressed, that indicated “a significant problem”.

Potential deaths
The AEA’s calculation was made in a confidential memo to the privatised munitions company,
Royal Ordnance, dated 30 April 1991. The memo offered to send a team to Kuwait to clear up
the DU—an offer that was never taken up. The high number of potential deaths was dismissed
last year as “very far from realistic” by a British defence minister, Lord Gilbert. “Since
the rounds were fired in the desert, many kilometres from the nearest village, it is
highly unlikely that the local population would have been exposed to any significant
amount of respirable oxide,” he said. The Balkans war, however, is not being fought in a
desert but in areas where people have, or did have, houses.

As a result of earlier pressure from Gulf veterans, the British government commissioned
two reports. In April this year, Lord Gilbert quoted the 1993 investigation by the Defence
Radiological Protection Service, which concluded “that there was no indication that any
British troops had been subjected to harmful over-exposure to DU during the Gulf

But the other report, published by the Ministry of Defence in March, did acknowledge that
troops could have inhaled DU dust in the Gulf and that this “could theoretically lead to
damage to lung tissue and subsequently to a raised probability of lung cancer some years

The ultimate irony is that DU could poison the very land that NATO is trying to protect,
says Rokke. “The aim of this war is to enable the Kosovars to return home. But unless the
uranium is cleaned up, those that survive the Serb atrocities and the NATO aerial attacks
will have to return to a contaminated environment where they may become ill.”
From New Scientist, 5 June 1999