In the process of saving Iraq from Saddam by thoroughly bombing large cities, the United States may be upping the depleted uranium (DU) used in munitions for this war.
As the Federation of American Scientists say:
In military applications, when alloyed, Depleted Uranium [DU] is ideal for use in armor penetrators. These solid metal projectiles have the speed, mass and physical properties to perform exceptionally well against armored targets. DU provides a substantial performance advantage, well above other competing materials. This allows DU penetrators to defeat an armored target at a significantly greater distance. Also, DU’s density and physical properties make it ideal for use as armor plate. DU has been used in weapon systems for many years in both applications.
Depleted uranium results from the enriching of natural uranium for use in nuclear reactors. Natural uranium is a slightly radioactive metal that is present in most rocks and soils as well as in many rivers and sea water. Natural uranium consists primarily of a mixture of two isotopes (forms) of uranium, Uranium-235 (U235) and Uranium-238 (U238), in the proportion of about 0.7 and 99.3 percent, respectively. Nuclear reactors require U235 to produce energy, therefore, the natural uranium has to be enriched to obtain the isotope U235 by removing a large part of the U238. Uranium-238 becomes DU, which is 0.7 times as radioactive as natural uranium. [Other sources list it as 60-65 percent — Ed.] Since DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, there is very little decay of those DU materials.
In addition to the radioactivity, DU is chemically toxic, pyrophoric — meaning it burns fiercely on penetration — and usually spreads aerolisized particles over a large area on impact. The particulates can be carried on the wind up to 26 miles and enter the human body through ingestion, inhalation or through openings in the skin.
There has been no link proved between DU munitions and Gulf War Syndrome, which has affected about 100,000 veterans of that conflict, or the increased rate of childhood cancers in southern Iraq. The Pentagon has denied any danger from DU (well, apart from being used in bombs, of course.) Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen once compared it to lead paint.
“Where it’s unsafe, it’s like leaded paint,” Cohen said. “Leaded paint does not pose a problem to you unless it starts to peel and then children or others ingest it.”
I’m a little slack-jawed at this comment. Lead paint was banned in U.S. homes in 1978 due to its extreme toxicity.
Overall, I’m personally dubious. While the Pentagon has played down the dangers of DU, this is also the agency that furiously denied for years that Gulf War Syndrome existed at all, regardless of the causes. And while DU in an unexploded munition might be relatively harmless, burned and aerosolized DU will be spread over a much larger area and could enter the soil and water table of the environment. How many studies have been done? Why are NATO allies nervous about exposing their troops to American munitions?
Perhaps DU really is as harmless as the DoD contends. But in a world in which the U.S. has _lost_ a PR battle with Saddam Hussein, is it really a wise move to use munitions that many believe increases the risk of childhood cancers? (Irony alert: The U.S. will open itself up to charges that it used a weapon against an enemy who may have used aflatoxins, which can cause liver cancer in children, against the Kurds of Halabja.) My point is not that there’s a moral equivalence between Saddam’s regime and the United States government — there’s not one, and I strongly disagree with people who make that argument — but that the United States shouldn’t be _looking_ for more reasons to have the world suspicious of its actions and/or motives.
I know that in any war soldiers should use the best weapons available to them; these weapons could end the war more quickly. But heavy use of DU weapons in a “shock and awe” campaign strikes me as yet one more reason to oppose Mr. Bush’s Splendid Little War.
*Correction:* Earlier, I referred to José MarÃa Aznar as the Spanish _prime minister_ but a Spanish reader has informed me he’s Spain’s _president_. The CIA World Factbook 2002 also refers to him as the president. Oops! (In my defense, however, almost every English-languag media I’ve seen refers to him as prime minister.)