Battle over depleted-uranium arms


Ammunition: The military's use of the leftovers from nuclear weapons and power plants is raising questions about possible environmental effects and the long-term health of soldiers exposed on battlefields.

April 04, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On the day Philip Berrigan and three companions went on trial in Towson for a protest action against depleted-uranium weapons, NATO confirmed for the first time the use of DU ammunition in Kosovo, and the United Nations warned that children should be kept away from old target zones.

In December, these activists from the Plowshares movement hammered on A-10 Warthog warplanes at the Maryland Air National Guard base in Essex and poured blood over them in symbolic protest against military use of depleted uranium.

DU is not dinner-table conversation in America unless somebody wants to dump it in your backyard. Then it's a hot topic.

DU is what's left over when uranium is enriched for nuclear weapons or power plants. The United States has created a "stockpile" of 1.5 billion pounds. It is given away to munitions manufacturers. No one much denies that it is a very unpleasant substance, toxic and radioactive. How toxic and how radioactive is the question.

"Converting the nation's inventory of depleted uranium hexafluoride is a daunting challenge," says Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, referring to the chemical name of the volatile by-product of uranium ore processing.

Most of the 770,000 tons is stored at Paducah, Ky., Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The Department of Energy is implementing plans to convert, use or store the substance in safer, more stable forms.

Tank-busting ammunition

NATO's secretary-general, Lord Robinson, has reported to the United Nations that A-10 aircraft fired about 31,000 rounds of DU ammunition -- about 10.5 tons -- during some 100 missions against armored vehicles in Kosovo. In the 1991 Persian Gulf war, A-10s fired 860,000 to 940,000 rounds.

The A-10 is a tank-busting warplane, and experts say the dense mass of depleted uranium -- the heaviest naturally occurring element, a baseball-size chunk weighing 8.5 pounds -- penetrates modern armor more efficiently than any other ammunition. The very small leading edge of the round punches enormous kinetic energy into a very tiny area.

It also can be used defensively. Depleted uranium's density -- one and a half times the density of lead -- "makes it an effective armor plating for combat vehicles," an Army press release says.

It is used both ways on the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Steel-encased depleted-uranium armor protects it, as its 120 mm cannon fires rounds armed with depleted-uranium "penetraters."

"Also," the Army says, "[DU] has self-sharpening characteristics when used as a munition. This means that as a depleted-uranium shell penetrates a target, it self-sharpens, flaking off particles that themselves can ignite fuel and other ammunition."

DU ammunition also ignites on impact and, in the description of British war correspondent Robert Fisk, "burns and pulverizes into a dust that soars into the sky in a heat column from a burning tank and drifts over desert or fields."

In their raid, Berrigan, 76, and his allies -- the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 50, a priest from New York City; Susan Crane, 56, a member of Berrigan's Jonah House community; and Elizabeth Walz, 33, founder of a Catholic Worker house in Philadelphia -- focused on the A-10's seven-barrel Gatling guns, which fire 30 mm DU ammunition at up to 3,900 rounds a minute.

Prison for Berrigan

Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. sentenced Berrigan to 30 months in prison for his part in planning and carrying out the protest. The others received sentences of 18 or 27 months. He did not allow introduction of evidence about depleted uranium.

The Plowshares activists say DU is dangerous and deadly, a long-term threat to human health and the environment, a cause of cancer in those exposed to battlefield dust and debris created when DU rounds hit a target, a cause of congenital malformations in unborn infants and possible genetic damage to future offspring.

The Army press release says: "There's no reason to be afraid of depleted uranium -- unless you're the enemy."

Responding to a CBS "60 Minutes" show that linked DU and gulf war illnesses, Col. Eric G. Daxon, a consultant to the Army surgeon general, says, "In order for uranium to cause the health effects they describe, the exposure would have to be factors of 100 to 1,000 times higher than the highest we could predict they were exposed to."

A crew member who stayed in his tank 24 hours a day, seven days a week, could not exceed occupational-safety standards, Daxon says, because radiation-dose rates from "intact" munitions and armor are low.

He says peacetime safety standards might be exceeded only "if you are in, on or near -- less than 50 meters -- a vehicle at the time it is hit by a DU munition."

When the dust settles, he says, the standards rapidly fall to levels lower than the safety standards.

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