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Glowing in the Gulf: Depleted Uranium's Low Intensity Nuclear War

by Mitchel Cohen

The U.S. escaped the 1991 Gulf war with few direct casualties. While 250,000 Iraqis were killed outright by the U.S. bombardment and another 750,000 died as a result of the U.N.'s international embargo spearheaded by the U.S., "only" 376 U.S. soldiers died in the Gulf; almost all of them were killed by so-called "friendly fire," shot accidentally by their fellow soldiers.(1) The fourteen U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks and fifteen U.S. Bradley Fighting vehicles destroyed in the Gulf war were knocked out by "friendly fire" as well.

All twenty-nine vehicles were hit by a new kind of ammunition: shells encased in "depleted uranium" (DU), which makes them superhard and able to penetrate all existing armor-plating. DU was used exclusively by U.S. and British forces in the Gulf not only as armor-penetrating ammunition by M1A1 Abrams tanks and A-10 attack planes, but as tank armor. DU, which is 1.6 times denser than lead, proved so effective that not a single U.S. tank was destroyed by Iraqi fire.

Over the course of the two month war, 3,700 Iraqi tanks were obliterated -- 1,400 of them by shells encased in depleted uranium. Thousands of artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and other equipment were destroyed by DU rounds. 940,000 30mm shells encased in depleted uranium were fired from U.S. planes, and 14,000 larger DU shells from tanks, along with an untold number of Tomahawk missiles tipped with depleted uranium. By war's end, roughly 300 tons of uranium from spent rounds lay scattered in various sizes and states of decay across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait.(2) Welcome to the wave of the future: "low intensity" nuclear war, inaugurated in the Gulf War by the United States.(3)

Depleted uranium is a highly toxic and radioactive by-product of the uranium enrichment process used in nuclear reactors and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Natural uranium, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is comprised of three isotopes: 99.27 percent U238, 0.72 percent U235, and .0057 percent U234. DU is uranium with the U235 isotope -- the fissionable material -- reduced from 0.7 percent to 0.2 percent -- thus, "depleted." The Pentagon says DU is relatively harmless, emitting "only" 60 percent the radiation of non-depleted uranium. But Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman have shown that even low-level radiation emitted during the "normal" functioning of nuclear power plants creates havoc with people's immune system as well as the surrounding environment.(4) And, according to independent scientists, "a DU antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays."(5) A tank driver receives a radiation dose of 0.13 mrem/hr to his or her head from overhead DU armor,(6) which may seem like a very low dose. However, after 32 continuous days, or 64 12-hour days, the amount of radiation a tank driver receives to his head will exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standard for public whole-body annual exposure to man- made sources of radiation.(7) Unfortunately, U.S. tank crews were not monitored for radiation exposure during the Gulf war.(8)

When properly encased, the Pentagon says DU gives off very little radiation. But DU becomes much more radioactive when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. "As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys."(9) One researcher found that a single molecular particle of depleted uranium will subject an individual to radiation at a level 800 times what is permitted by federal regulations for external exposure.(10) Twenty-two vets are known to have uranium shrapnel imbedded in their bodies.

As DU-artillery shells heat up, the uranium becomes aerosolized, releasing high amounts of radioactivity -- not the low amounts the military claims for "normal" depleted uranium. Clouds of deadly uranium dioxide dust particles swept over large areas of Iraq and Kuwait, devastating agriculture, soil and water.(11)

One army reserve engineer said he was relieved when he found out that a deafening explosion near his unit's camp just inside the Kuwaiti border was not an Iraqi chemical or nuclear attack, but the accidental explosion of a 40-ton U.S. Hemmt transport vehicle carrying DU antitank rounds. "It was about 1,000 meters from our camp and the wind was blowing our way," he said. "A big black cloud blew right over us."(12) In a survey of 10,051 Gulf War vets, it has been found that 82 percent had entered captured Iraqi vehicles, many of which were disabled by DU rounds. With more than 600,000 pounds of depleted uranium left scattered throughout the region, by war's end the U.S. had turned the Gulf area into a deadly radioactive grid, affecting not only U.S. soldiers but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who live in the Gulf. Is it any wonder that many symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are so similar to radiation sickness?

Radioactivity inflicts severe damage on the total environment while weakening immune systems, destroying the kidneys, lungs, bones and liver, and rendering the human body susceptible to all sorts of diseases a healthy individual is able to ward off. Iraqi children continue to find uranium-coated shells; they have been coming down with all sorts of deadly illnesses associated with radiation poisoning. A secret report by the British government estimated that the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf could alone account for 500,000 deaths in the region.(13) That report was based on estimates that 25 tons of depleted uranium munitions had been used; in actuality, the Department of Defense now estimates that the U.S. fired more than 12 times that amount.

As the only country to have ever dropped atomic bombs on a populated area, the U.S. government has long attempted to circumvent international treaties and develop ever-newer weapons of mass destruction. In 1953, Gen. Douglas McArthur issued a plan to dump radioactive cobalt across Korea to create a permanent radioactive barrier between the North and South. That plan was considered but never implemented (as far as we know). President Jimmy Carter tried to obtain funding for a "neutron bomb" that would annihilate people and all living beings but leave buildings and capital intact. That project was beaten back by public outcry and mass protests. The U.S. government has threatened to use nuclear weapons on dozens of occasions, including against Vietnam in 1953 and again in 1969 -- the latter squelched at the last minute by President Richard Nixon due to the huge anti-war protests taking place at the time in the U.S.(14) In fact, so adamently has the world's population -- including the vast majority in the U.S. -- opposed atomic weapons of every sort that it took the enormous propaganda effort of the Gulf War for the U.S. government, for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to get away with using radioactive weapons against living people.

The U.S. Department of Defense has more than 1.1 billion pounds of nuclear waste in storage from fifty years of nuclear weapons production and nuclear power plants. The government, hemmed in by public opposition, health and environmental movements, is always trying to find new "acceptable" ways to dispose of it. It has apparently found one. Billions of dollars allotted to the Environmental Restoration branch of the Department of Energy for cleaning up nuclear waste sites is now being used instead to ship nuclear waste free of charge to munitions manufacturers all over the world to be "recycled" into weapons.

Dr. Helen Caldicott reports that these radiological weapons have already been exported to Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Kuwait and others. Where is the cry at the United Nations to end the manufacture, distribution and use of such weapons before it's too late? In introducing the use of depleted uranium weapons the U.S. government used its own soldiers as guinea pigs, permanently destroyed the ecology of the region, and left an ongoing legacy of childhood leukemia, birth defects and poisoned water for civilians living in the Gulf. And the U.S. -- as it did in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- has made the horror of low intensity nuclear weapons the necessary norm for future conflicts.


1. Patrick Sloyan, "For Gulf War Troops, Fire Wasn't Friendly," New York Newsday, August 10, 1991.

2. Dan Fahey, "Collateral Damage: How U.S. Troops Were Exposed To Depleted Uranium During the Persian Gulf War," in Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons, International Action Center, 1997, p. 28. Fahey is a director of the National Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network of the Military Toxics Project (MTP), PO Box 845, Sabattus, ME 04280; (207) 375-8482;

3. One of the first extensive exposs of DU in a mainstream journal was written by Eric Hoskins, "Making the Desert Glow," Op-Ed in The NY Times, Jan. 21, 1993. Also, see Nama Lefkir-Lafitte and Roland Laffite, "The Use of Radioactive Weapons Against the `Iraqi Enemy'," in Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 1995.

4. Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low Level Radiation, High Level Cover-Up, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1990; Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, Nuclear Radiation & the Destruction of the Immune System, Red Balloon Collective, 1993; and, Sternglass, Low Level Radiation: The story of one scientist's attempt to call public attention to radiation damage to infants and the unborn, Ballantine Books, 1972.

5. Bill Mesler, "The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet," The Nation, Oct. 21, 1996.

6. U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI), Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army: Technical Report, June 1995, p.102.

7. ibid., p.102.

8. Fahey, op cit.

9. ibid.

10. Dr. J.W. Gofman, a biomedical researcher for the San Francisco-based Committee for Nuclear Responsibility.

11. Nama Lefkir-Lafitte and Roland Laffite, in "The Use of Radioactive Weapons Against the `Iraqi Enemy'," Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 1995, cite a report by the British Authority for the Control of Atomic Energy, as follows: "The Report also underscores that the greatest danger comes from uranium dust produced when projectiles hit and incinerate vehicles. ... On impact a high proportion of the metallic mass is transformed into an aerosol whose fine particles, easily carried by the wind, are easily absorbed.") A U.S. Army fact sheet states: "When a DU penetrator impacts a target surface, a large portion of the kinetic energy is dissipated as heat. This results in smoke which contains a high concentration of DU particles. These uranium particles can be inhaled or ingested and are toxic." (Skogman, D.P., "Depleted Uranium Facts," for Commander, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Department of the Army, May 24, 1991.) And a March 7, 1991 directive issued by the army's Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command reads: "Any system struck by a DU penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated with DU. ... Precaution must be taken to avoid inhaling or ingesting DU particles. Respirator or protective mask should be worn at minimum, along with gloves. Ideally, protective clothing should be worn as well. ... [After cleanup] protective clothing should be discarded."

12. Bill Mesler, "The Gulf War Secret," in San Francisco Bay Guardian, Nov. 15, 1995.

13. British Atomic Energy Administration, printed in the London Independent, Nov. 1991. Cited by Eric Hoskins, op cit., and Bill Mesler, op cit.

14. Daniel Ellsberg, "A Call to Mutiny," in Protest and Survive.

Permission to reproduce this article, in its entirety with byline, in any form, is granted by the author.

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