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Robert James Parsons: DU- U$ dirty secret | March 2002

For those of us who think this war is wrong no matter what kind of amunition is used, this article may not seem so important. But it can be very important to share with people who do not quite see things as we do, but who still care at some level...

Le Monde Diplomatique
March 2002

America's big dirty secret

The United States loudly and proudly boasted this month of its new bomb currently being used against al-Qaida hold-outs in Afghanistan; it sucks the air from underground installations, suffocating those within. The US has also admitted that it has used depleted uranium weaponry over the last decade against bunkers in Iraq, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan. by ROBERT JAMES PARSONS *

"The immediate concern for medical professionals and employees of aid organisations remains the threat of extensive depleted uranium (DU) contamination in Afghanistan." This is one of the conclusions of a 130-page report, Mystery Metal Nightmare in Afghanistan? (1), by Dai Williams, an independent researcher and occupational psychologist. It is the result of more than a year of research into DU and its effects on those exposed to it.

Using internet sites of both NGOs (2) and arms manufacturers, Williams has come up with information that he has cross-checked and compared with weapons that the Pentagon has reported " indeed boasted about " using during the war. What emerges is a startling and frightening vision of war, both in Afghanistan and in the future.

Since 1997 the United States has been modifying and upgrading its missiles and guided (smart) bombs. Prototypes of these bombs were tested in the Kosovo mountains in 1999, but a far greater range has been tested in Afghanistan. The upgrade involves replacing a conventional warhead by a heavy, dense metal one (3). Calculating the volume and the weight of this mystery metal leads to two possible conclusions: it is either tungsten or depleted uranium.

Tungsten poses problems. Its melting point (3,422ªC) makes it very hard to work; it is expensive; it is produced mostly by China; and it does not burn. DU is pyrophoric, burning on impact or if it is ignited, with a melting point of 1,132°C; it is much easier to process; and as nuclear waste, it is available free to arms manufacturers. Further, using it in a range of weapons significantly reduces the US nuclear waste storage problem.

This type of weapon can penetrate many metres of reinforced concrete or rock in seconds. It is equipped with a detonator controlled by a computer that measures the density of the material passed through and, when the warhead reaches the targeted void or a set depth, detonates the warhead, which then has an explosive and incendiary effect. The DU burns fiercely and rapidly, carbonising everything in the void, while the DU itself is transformed into a fine uranium oxide powder. Although only 30% of the DU of a 30mm penetrator round is oxidised, the DU charge of a missile oxidises 100%. Most of the dust particles produced measure less than 1.5 microns, small enough to be breathed in.

For a few researchers in this area, the controversy over the use of DU weapons during the Kosovo war got side-tracked. Instead of asking what weapons might have been used against most of the targets (underground mountain bunkers) acknowledged by Nato, discussion focused on 30mm anti-tank penetrator rounds, which Nato had admitted using but which would have been ineffective against superhardened underground installations.

However, as long as the questions focused on such anti-tank penetrators, they dealt with rounds whose maximum weight was five kilos for a 120mm round. The DU explosive charges in the guided bomb systems used in Afghanistan can weigh as much as one and a half metric tons (as in Raytheon's Bunker Buster " GBU-28) (4).

Who cares?

In Geneva, where most of the aid agencies active in Afghanistan are based, Williams's report has caused varied reactions. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs have circulated it. But it does not seem to have worried agency and programme directors much. Only Médecins sans Frontiéres and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) say they fear an environmental and health catastrophe.

In March and April 2001, UNEP and the World Health Organisation (WHO) published reports on DU, reports that are frequently cited by those claiming DU is innocuous. The Pentagon emphasises that the organisations are independent and neutral. But the UNEP study is, at best, compromised. The WHO study is unreliable.

The Kosovo assessment mission that provided the basis for the UNEP analysis was organised using maps supplied by Nato; Nato troops accompanied the researchers to protect them from unexploded munitions, including cluster bomb sub-munitions. These sub-munitions, as Williams discovered, were probably equipped with DU shaped-charges. Nato troops prevented researchers from any contact with DU sub-munitions, even from discovering their existence.

During the 16 months before the UNEP mission, the Pentagon sent at least 10 study teams into the field and did major clean-up operations (5). Out of 8,112 anti-tank penetrator rounds fired on the sites studied, the UNEP team recovered only 11, although many more would not have been burned. And, 18 to 20 months after the firing, the amount of dust found directly on sites hit by these rounds was particularly small.

The WHO undertook no proper epidemiological study, only an academic desk study. Under pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO confined itself to studying DU as a heavy-metal, chemical contaminant. In January 2001, alerted to the imminent publication by Le Monde diplomatique of an article attacking its inaction (6), the WHO held a press conference and announced a $2m fund " eventually $20m " for research into DU. According Dr Michael Repacholi of the WHO, the report on DU, under way since 1999 and supervised by the British geologist Barry Smith, would be expanded to include radiation contamination. The work would include analyses of urine of people exposed to DU, conducted to determine the exposure level.

But the monograph, published 10 weeks later, was merely a survey of existing literature on the subject. Out of hundreds of thousands of monographs published since 1945, which ought to have been explored in depth, the report covered only monographs on chemical contamination, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The few articles about dealing with radiation contamination that had been consulted came from the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, the Pentagon think- tank. It is unsurprising that the report was bland.

The recommendations of the two reports were common sense, and repeated advice already given by the WHO and echoed regularly by the aid organisations working in Kosovo. This included marking off known target sites, collecting penetrator rounds wherever possible, keeping children away from contaminated sites, and the suggested monitoring of some wells later on.

Uranium plus

The problem can be summed up as two key findings:

o Radiation emitted by DU threatens the human body because, once DU dust has been inhaled, it becomes an internal radiation source; international radiation protection standards, the basis of expert claims that DU is harmless, deal only with external radiation sources;

o Dirty DU " the UNEP report, for all its failings, deserves credit for mentioning this. Uranium from reactors, recycled for use in munitions, contains additional highly toxic elements, such as plutonium, 1.6 kilogrammes of which could kill 8bn people. Rather than depleted uranium, it should be called uranium plus.

In a French TV documentary on Canal+ in January 2001 (7), a team of researchers presented the results of an investigation into a gaseous diffusion " recycling " plant in Paducah, Kentucky, US. According to the lawyer for 100,000 plaintiffs, who are past and present plant employees, they were contaminated because of flagrant non-compliance with basic safety standards; the entire plant is irrevocably contaminated, as is everything it produces. The documentary claimed that the DU in the missiles that were dropped on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq is likely to be a product of this plant.

These weapons represent more than just a new approach to warfare. The US rearmament programme launched during Ronald Reagan's presidency was based on the premise that the victor in future conflicts would be the side that destroyed the enemy's command and communications centres. Such centres are increasingly located in superhardened bunkers deep underground.

Hitting such sites with nuclear weapons would do the job well, but also produce radiation that even the Pentagon would have to acknowledge as fearsome, not to mention the bad public relations arising from mushroom-shaped clouds in a world aware of the dangers of nuclear war. DU warheads seem clean: they produce a fire modest in comparison with a nuclear detonation, though the incendiary effect can be just as destructive.

The information that Williams has gathered (8) shows that after computer modelling in 1987, the US conducted the first real operational tests against Baghdad in 1991. The war in Kosovo provided further opportunity to test, on impressively hard targets, DU weapon prototypes as well as weapons already in production. Afghan-istan has seen an extension and amplification of such tests. But at the Pentagon there is little transparency about this.

Williams cites several press articles (9) in December 2001 mentioning NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) teams in the field checking for possible contamination. Such contamination, according to the US government, would be attributed to the Taliban. But, last October, Afghan doctors, citing rapid deaths from internal ailments, were accusing the coalition of using chemical and radioactive weapons. The symptoms they reported (haemorrhaging, pulmonary constriction and vomiting) could have resulted from radiation contamination.

On 5 December, when a friendly-fire bomb hit coalition soldiers, media representatives were all immediately removed from the scene and locked up in a hangar. According to the Pentagon, the bomb was a GBU-31, carrying a BLU-109 warhead. The Canal+ documentary shows an arms manufacturer's sales representative at an international fair in Dubai in 1999, just after the Kosovo war. He is presenting a BLU-109 warhead and describing its penetration capabilities against superhardened underground targets, explaining that this model had been tested in a recent war.

Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence, on 16 January this year admitted that the US had found radiation in Afghanistan (10). But this, he reassured, was merely from DU warheads (supposedly belonging to al-Qaida); he did not explain how al-Qaida could have launched them without planes. Williams points out that, even if the coalition has used no DU weapons, those attributed to al-Qaida might turn out to be an even greater source of contamination, especially if they came from Russia, in which case the DU could be even dirtier than that from Paducah.

Following its assessment mission in the Balkans, UNEP set up a post-conflict assessment unit. Its director, Henrik Slotte, has announced that it is ready to work in Afghanistan as soon as possible, given proper security, unimpeded access to hit sites, and financing. The WHO remains silent. When questions about the current state of the DU research fund were addressed to Jon Lidon, spokesman for the director general, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the WHO did not answer. Yet Williams urges that studies begin immediately, as victims of severe UD exposure may soon all be dead, yet with their deaths attributed to the rigours of winter.

In Jefferson County, Indiana, the Pentagon has closed the 200-acre (80-hectare) proving ground where it used to test-fire DU rounds. The lowest estimate for cleaning up the site comes to $7.8bn, not including permanent storage of the earth to a depth of six metres and of all the vegetation. Considering the cost too high, the military finally decided to give the tract to the National Park Service for a nature preserve " an offer that was promptly refused. Now there is talk of turning it into a National Sacrifice Zone and closing it forever. This gives an idea of the fate awaiting those regions of the planet where the US has used and will use depleted uranium.

* Journalist, Geneva

(1) See website

(2) The internet sites of Janes Defense Information, the Federation of American Scientists, the Centre of Defense Information.

(3) See FAS Website

(4) FAS and USA Today


(6) See Deafening silence on depleted uranium, Le Monde diplomatique English edition, February 2001.

(7) La Guerre radioactive secrète, by Martin Meissonnier, Roger Trilling, Guillaume d'Allessandro and Luc Hermann, first broadcast in February 2000; updated and rebroadcast in January 2001 under the title L'Uranium appauvri, nous avons retrouvé l'usine contaminée by Roger Trilling and Luc Hermann.

(8) The Use of Modeling and Simulation in the Planning of Attacks on Iraqi Chemical and Biological Warfare Targets

(9) For example "New Evidence is Adding to US Fears of Al-Qaida Dirty Bomb", International Herald Tribune, December 5, 2001; "Uranium Reportedly Found in Tunnel Complex", USA Today, December 24, 2001.

(10) "US Says More Weapons Sites Found in Afghanistan", Reuters, January 16, 2002.

Translated by the author

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