LANL is Sending Deadly Depleted Uranium into the Air We Breathe
A Special Report for Sun Monthly by Marilyn Gayle Hoff
Back in 1943, a memo to Manhattan Project''s General Leslie Groves from Drs.
Conant, Compton and Urey extolled the lethal possibilities of radioactive
materials ""as a Gas Warfare Instrument. The material . . . ground into
particles of microscopic size and . . . distributed in the form of a dust or
smoke or dissolved in liquid, by ground-fired projectiles, land vehicles,
airplanes, or aerial bombs . . . would be inhaled by personnel. The amounts
necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely
Incubating well before the first nuclear weapon exploded, this old dream of
radiological weapons -- weapons that kill or harm by means of radiation --
is now a full-blown reality wherever munitions made of depleted uranium (DU)
catch fire. DU munitions now proliferate in the U.S. arsenal. Bullets or
bombs made of DU range in size from 20 millimeters (7/8-inch diameter) to
120 millimeters (10-inch diameter), a variety obviously intended for diverse
""Depleted uranium has contaminated the Earth and global atmosphere,"" said
Leuren Moret, a whistle-blower formerly of Laurence Livermore National
Laboratory. She added up 340 tons of DU exploded in the first Gulf War; an
undisclosed amount reducing targets in Bosnia and Kosovo to radioactive
rubble; 1,000 tons bestowed upon Afghanistan; and as of 2004, before U.S.
bombing intensified and vastly ballooned the total, well over 2,000 tons
But on its way to nailing U.S. ambitions abroad, DU needs to be stored,
designed, manufactured, and tested here at home. Discounted Casualties, a
book by Japanese journalist Akira Tashiro, listed 26 American states housing
DU firing ranges, DU weapon factories and/or DU storage facilities. Three in
New Mexico -- Sandia Lab in Albuquerque, the Energetic Metals Research Test
Center (EMRTC) three kilometers from Socorro, and Los Alamos National
Laboratory (LANL) within sight of Santa Fe -- were listed as
research-and-development and test-firing sites for DU weapons, exploded in
the open air. The EMRTC at Socorro admitted it used about 40 tons of DU
between 1972 (the start of DU testing) and 1993. Until very recently the
uses of DU at Los Alamos have escaped public notice.
DU Is an Extremely Effective Weapon
After the first Gulf War, Doug Rokke, with 35 years of military experience
and a PhD in health physics, was dispatched to the Middle East as a U.S.
army contamination expert in charge of Gulf War I uranium cleanup. He spoke
of his tour of duty in an interview titled ""The War Against
Ourselves"":""DU is an extremely effective weapon. Each tank round is 10
pounds of solid uranium-238 contaminated with plutonium, neptunium,
americium . . . generating intense heat on impact. When uranium munitions
hit, it''s like a firestorm inside any vehicle or structure, and so we saw
tremendous burns, tremendous injuries. It was devastating.""
If contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and americium, the uranium in
munitions is not technically DU. Transuranic elements like plutonium occur
almost never in nature and are born chiefly in nuclear reactors. From this
deadly radioactive spent reactor fuel also comes uranium for munitions,
flavored with its extreme contaminants. Straight from the mines, natural
uranium has likewise gone into munitions. Public-relations-minded military
brass nonetheless call all uranium munitions ""depleted.""
DU consists entirely of uranium, chiefly the isotope U-238. It is
""depleted"" during a process called ""enrichment,"" which extracts traces
of the more fissile isotope U-235 to make nuclear fuel rods and, originally,
A-bombs. The DU remainder is 99.8 percent U-238. Natural uranium is 99.3
percent, half of a percent difference. The United States stores a million
unquiet tons of DU ""waste,"" gives it away free to U.S. munitions makers,
and peddles it around the world.
Uranium is pyrophoric, meaning spontaneously combustible. Put pure uranium
powder on a sunny Phoenix pavement some July afternoon and it will burst
into flames. It is 1.7 times denser than lead. Its zero-sum price tag and
self-sharpening combustibility persuaded the generals to choose depleted
uranium over equally dense tungsten for munitions purportedly limited to
penetrating tank and bunker armor. At this task DU artillery fire has no
peers, burning neat holes through tank armor and incinerating all within.
DU is shot from the 120 millimeter barrels of tank guns, from A-10 Warthog
airplanes and from unrevealed smaller weapons. The munitions are shaped like
bottles, the shell fatter than the bullet, to keep the DU from touching the
barrel as it shoots out. Friction of a DU bullet against its barrel could
explode the weapon.
Fine aerosols of uranium oxides and nitrides form when DU weapons ignite,
since flaming uranium also bonds with atmospheric nitrogen. About 33 percent
of DU dust is soluble. What becomes of these incinerated aerosols
indefinitely suspended in the atmosphere, spread by wind or, if
precipitated, borne by water, sunk to groundwater, or stirred up again by
wind, footsteps and wheels? Asaf Durakovic, of the Uranium Medical Research
Center in Canada, wrote: ""There is no existing study measuring the distance
traveled by such particles."" To avoid studies, which would provide real
answers to these questions, nuclear promoters embrace ""models.""
Last summer a report in the July 15 Taos Horsefly stated that Los Alamos
National Laboratory is permitted to burn, per year, three-fourths ton of
depleted uranium (DU) in the open air and tempered this shocking news with
the soothing information, based on a model, that smoke from such
conflagrations would travel only 50 meters.
Models are computer programs, built within parameters that reflect the
careful choosing of which data to consider or stress and which to ignore or
downplay. Model makers who wish to lullaby the populace can select their
parameters accordingly, like the model that reckoned the deaths and
illnesses caused by Chernobyl to be statistically insignificant when seen as
a percentage of the total world population.
Thus a postfire risk-assessment model professed to study the distance smoke
would travel from a fire, while its parameters excluded how the fierce,
shifty, spring winds whipping the Cerro Grande forest fire through Los
Alamos in 2000 actually did blow smoke, pollutants and particulates 55 miles
northeast to Taos -- one of many affected communities snubbed by its
calculations. Models can disregard how residents of LANL''s neighbor San
Ildefonso Pueblo are forbidden to cut their own contaminated timber. And
stressing that an atom of uranium, a heavy metal, has the world''s biggest
naturally occurring nucleus, a model can conclude that particles of DU smoke
are too weighty to travel any farther than the length of my driveway.
According to whistle-blower Leuren Moret, ""There are too many variables to
consider in a model. It''s like statistics -- you can make it say anything
Such DU dispersion models, said Moret, are ""not considering particle
size."" Flaming DU burns at 3,000 to 6,000 degrees Centigrade, producing ""a
large number of extremely small particles in the nanoparticle range."" A
nanoparticle is 0.001 microns, or a billionth of a meter. In the pull of
gravity, a particle so minute is as light as air. The particle remains
""suspended as atmospheric dust [unless] it is rained out, snowed out or
removed by moisture such as fog and deposited in the environment,"" said
Moret. ""This contaminates air, water, soil and food with ionizing
radiation, internally exposing all living things.""
To avoid litigation and bad-for-business publicity, the U.S. nuclear
industry dresses its activities up pretty, a strategy called ""greenwash.""
Nuke promoters tout DU cooking utensils and convert the badly contaminated,
decommissioned Rocky Flats plutonium processing site in Colorado into a
wildlife refuge playground. Even while generals deny carpeting Iraq and
Afghanistan with fine uranium dust, they rationalize that uranium is barely
radioactive and claim that its alpha radiation cannot harm us internally
because it can''t penetrate skin -- which means, explained retired Manhattan
Project and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Marion Fulk,
each alpha particle dumps its intense energy all at once into a tiny area,
making it ""very wicked."" Here the parameters of the generals'' model
exclude wounds and the human need to eat, drink and breathe. ""1.3 billion
people have been killed, maimed and diseased globally from the nuclear
weapons and nuclear power projects,"" said Moret.
The orchestrated campaign to downplay depleted uranium comes with shifting
themes: don''t mention depleted uranium; don''t acknowledge using depleted
uranium; acknowledge using it only to penetrate the armor of tanks and
bunkers; assert that the dust from exploded uranium falls down and goes
nowhere; imply that the ""depletion"" of uranium renders it harmless; never
mention that not all uranium munitions are depleted; stress that depleted
uranium, no big deal, is the least radioactive of all radioactive elements;
argue that since alpha radiation from DU can''t penetrate the skin, it can''
t harm the body; claim that any radioactive particles that do enter the body
will be swiftly expelled; never admit to any connection between exposure to
DU and illness, birth defects, death or Gulf War Syndrome, the infamous
malady afflicting veterans of Gulf War I.
""There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on
the environment,"" reads a post--Gulf War I report by LANL. ""Therefore, if
no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU
rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the
arsenal. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat
activities, then we should assure their future existence . . . through
Service/DoD proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that
we stand to lose a valuable combat capability.""
British environmental writer Keith Parkins commented, ""It is not in the
interests of the military-industrial-complex to admit the link between Gulf
War Syndrome and depleted uranium, or to admit that those who were on the
battlefield will suffer long-term health effects, as to do so would be to
deny the use of the latest military toy."" Such an admission would also
throw open a floodgate of litigation.
I asked David Fuehne of LANL''s Environmental Stewardship Division if it was
true that LANL considers DU nonhazardous. On behalf of LANL he replied, ""A
given mass of DU is less radioactive than a similar mass of most radioactive
materials. The hazards of exposure of DU are primarily due to its chemical
toxicity. All heavy and dense materials, such as lead and uranium, can be
harmful if inhaled or ingested in significant quantities.""
Marion Fulk countered, ""U-238 radiates 12,600 disintegrations per second
per gram. Do you consider that safe? I don''t."" Beyond DU''s chemical and
radiological toxicity, Fulk said, ""the finely divided nanoparticles can
breech the cells, and when they enter the cell they will act as catalysts
for any reaction thermodynamically available to go downhill toward entropy.
It''s like putting the cells in a Waring blender -- you get the same
chemical composition, but no life.""
Depleted Uranium and Gulf War Syndrome
What else do the Americans want?"" spoke Sayed Gharib from Tora Bora,
Afghanistan. ""They killed us, they turned our newborns into horrific
deformations, and they turned our farm lands into graveyards, and destroyed
our homes. . . . we have nothing to lose.""
When asked if the United States and Britain were using DU in the post-9/11
war on Afghanistan, United Kingdom Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon told the
UK Parliament, ""It is not being used at present."" But a recent random
sampling of 17 geographically scattered Afghans by Dr. Asaf Durakovic
disputed this denial.
Durakovic is a former U.S. Army medical advisor, fired after he found
uranium in the urine of U.S. and Canadian Gulf War I veterans in 1999, seven
to nine years after exposure. In his recent study, the uranium he found in
Afghan subjects closely matched uranium from Afghan War bomb-attack craters.
He reported, ""The results were astounding: the [Afghan] donors presented
concentrations of toxic and radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400
times greater than in the Gulf veterans tested in 1999.""
Symptoms suffered by these irradiated Afghans -- fatigue, serious
immunodeficiencies, kidney damage, leukemia, cancer, and on and on --
closely paralleled the so-called Gulf War Syndrome, a catastrophe that the
Pentagon strives to blame on oil fires, vaccinations, post-traumatic stress
disorder, and chemical and biological weapon releases, never mentioning DU.
In the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fewer scapegoats compete with
DU for the toxic blame. And uranium in the urine nine years beyond exposure
disputes the mollifying claims by nuclear apologists that radionuclides
(radioactive substances) are swiftly expelled by the body.
As U.S. Army contamination expert Doug Rokke, who now battles serious health
problems, described his uranium cleanup operation, ""When we first got
assigned to clean up the DU and arrived in northern Saudi Arabia, we started
getting sick within 72 hours. Respiratory problems, rashes, bleeding, open
sores started almost immediately."" Nobody warned soldiers fighting in U.S.
invasions about the toxicity of DU weapons, and nobody warned or shielded
New Mexico village volunteer firefighters, who battled the Cerro Grande
forest fire close by LANL''s blazing DU firing ranges, even while the ranges
'' extreme contamination went up in smoke.
Of the 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War I, where only 148 died in
combat, 11,000 are now dead. ""By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on
Permanent Medical Disability,"" stated Arthur N. Bernklau, executive
director of Veterans for Constitutional Law in New York. Compare this 56
percent disability rate with the 10 percent disability rate for Vietnam
veterans poisoned by Agent Orange. Boosted by our present wars, the number
keeps growing. Terry Jamison from the Department of Veterans Affairs
recently reported that ""Gulf Era veterans"" on medical disability since
1991 number 518,739. Bernklau said, ""The long-term effects have revealed
that DU is a virtual death sentence.""
Depleted Uranium: There Is No Safe Dose
Depleted uranium"" is a handy moniker, useful for masking its ecocidal
talents, which the generals have always known full well. Witness this 1995
U.S. Army technical report: ""If depleted uranium enters the body, it has
the potentiality of causing serious medical consequences. The associated
risk is both chemical and radiological.""
The half-life of U-238 is the current age of Earth -- 4.5 billion years.
Half of what now exists will still be around 4.5 billion years hence.
Compared to its deadly radioactive offspring, some with half-lives of mere
minutes, it decays very slowly and transforms, element by element, through
many lethal radioactive steps before settling down as lead. Citing this poky
rate of decay, the generals publicly dismiss DU as nontoxic, even as they
downplay how much they use it.
But its virtual immortality means that once its particles camp out inside
your body, they and their radioactive decay progeny will steadily bombard
your cells with radiation forever. Doug Rokke said, ""A portion of this
stuff is soluble, which means it goes into the bloodstream and all of your
organs. The insoluble fraction stays -- in the lungs, for example. The
radiation damage and the particulates destroy the lungs.""
Consider a nanoparticle of insoluble uranium oxide, 1/10,000 the diameter of
a red blood cell. Small enough to elude the filtering celia in your air
passages, it can lodge in your deepest lung sacs. According to physicist
Marion Fulk, an average man inhales at least 100 billion nanoparticles per
day. The likelihood keeps growing that several or multitudes of those
particles will be uranium.
Scientist and radiation expert Dr. Rosalie Bertell testified, ""DU is a very
powerful alpha particle emitter, with each particle carrying a force of
about 4.2 MeV (million electron volts). It requires only 6 to 10 eV
(electron volts) to break the DNA or other large molecules in the body.""
""If you damage a cell, you''d better kill it,"" Fulk said to me. For if
just one alpha particle merely manages to deform just one cell still able to
reproduce, that cell could quit your body''s team, aspire to untrammeled
growth and become instead your parasite, your cancer. Such cell damage
arises from what the nuclear industry shrugs off as ""low level"" radiation.
Nuclear power opponent Dr. Judith Johnsrud wrote me, ""I am appalled that DU
would be incinerated anywhere. . . . Despite DOE and DoD attempts to claim
that depleted uranium is not hazardous to human health, I would have to
conclude that any alpha emitter which is inhaled (or ingested) and thus
becomes an internal emitter cannot help but pose a hazard. . . . Recent
research in the field of radiation microbiology has quite clearly
established that a single radiation track through a cell is enough to cause
a subsequent damage, including but not limited to cancer.""
""By any reasonable standard of biomedical proof,"" asserted molecular
biologist Dr. John W. Gofman, formerly of Lawrence Livermore Lab, ""there is
no safe dose.""