Heavy Weapons

The Army’s Depleted Uranium Shells Pierce Armor—And Also Make People Sick

Early in Operation Desert Storm’s four-day ground war, the story goes, an American Abrams M-1A1 tank got bogged down in Iraqi mud. Its fast-moving unit, the 16,000-member 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, continued its push toward Basra, leaving the beleaguered tank behind to await a rescue vehicle.

This Abrams M-1A1 tank is equipped with depleted uranium (DU) armor and weaponry, making it a fearsome foe—and also a health hazard. Inset: DU shells spread toxic particles on impact.
AP Photo/John S. Zeedick/(inset) AP Photo/Hidajet Delic

Suddenly, three Iraqi T-72 tanks attacked. The Abrams—built for speed—was a sitting duck before the Soviet Union’s most advanced armor. But because the American tank was equipped with armor-piercing shells made from depleted uranium (DU, a waste product of the process that produces enriched uranium for use in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants), it was able to destroy all three of its attackers.

This story may not be true. Although it is widely posted on the Internet, mentioned in the compendium From Shield to Storm and cited in an anti-DU book called Metal of Dishonor, an extended search of Lexis-Nexis finds no reference to it before 2000. Calls to the U.S. Army’s public information office brought no further clarification. Metal of Dishonor author Dan Fahey says he regrets citing the incident.

But the story is plausible. Although many accounts of the Gulf War credit U.S. air bombardment with the lopsided American victory, the overwhelming superiority of U.S. and allied tanks, armor and DU ammunition were also factors. U.S. and coalition ground forces destroyed 1,000 Iraqi tanks and thousands of armored personnel carriers during the ground war. Iraqi forces destroyed zero Abrams tanks.

The mystery behind the three-to-one incident mirrors the larger controversy enveloping depleted uranium weaponry. Despite its success on the battlefield, in the past decade DU has been implicated in health problems suffered by thousands of U.S. soldiers and blamed for a five-fold increase in the cancer rate among civilians in Southern Iraq. Since the U.S. military’s widespread use of DU in the Gulf became known in 1991, the Pentagon has struggled to suppress mounting evidence that DU munitions are simply too toxic to use. It has cashiered or attempted to discredit its own experts, ignored their advice, impeded scientific research into DU’s health effects and assembled a disinformation campaign to confuse the issue.

"The cover-up started with the infamous Los Alamos memorandum sent to our team in Saudi Arabia during March 1991," claims Doug Rokke, a retired health physicist who the Army tasked with the clean up of the nine U.S. tanks and 15 Bradley Fighting Vehicles that had been destroyed by "friendly fire" from DU shells. The memo suggested to Rokke that he downplay any environmental dangers or health hazards he might find. "There has been and continues to be concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment," the memo says. "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."

Rokke, the Army’s lead expert on DU in the 1990s, directed the cleanup effort and then developed a rigorous, 12-hour training program in DU safety and handling for U.S. soldiers. But the military never implemented the program. Between 1991 and 1996 Rokke also urged the military brass to test veterans for exposure to DU, and treat and monitor those who had been exposed. He says the Pentagon ignored him, along with many other military medical experts and a 1993 congressional order. He was fired from his post. Rokke blames his own persistent respiratory problems and a cataract on DU exposure.

Rokke wants DU banned, as do many Gulf War vets, peace and environmental activists around the globe. In 1996 a United Nations subcommittee passed a resolution urging that its use be banned, along with other weapons of mass destruction. The measure was adopted by a vote of 15 to one, with the U.S. the sole dissenter.

In 1999, the European Parliament voted to urge NATO to suspend the use of DU munitions. The request was ignored. In March, 6,000 activists rallied in Hiroshima, Japan, calling on the U.S. not to attack Iraq again and to stop using and selling depleted uranium weapons. Protestors used their bodies to spell out the words "NO DU."

The U.S. has had DU ammunition since the 1970s, but never used it on the battlefield until the Gulf War. The U.S. and allied British fired 340 tons of DU in anti-tank shells in that conflict, by their own accounting. Tons more were used in the Balkans and Afghanistan.The 1990s saw a tremendous proliferation of DU munitions around the world. In 1991 only the U.S., Great

Britain and (probably) Israel had DU; by 1999, it was in the arsenals of a dozen countries. Both the U.S. and Russia sell depleted uranium weapons on the world arms market, providing a lucrative outlet for what had been expensive-to-dispose-of nuclear waste.

In the U.S. arsenal, DU is used not only in armor penetrators, but also in large bunker-buster bombs, cruise missiles and, according to Rokke, even light arms. "We have these things down to machine gun rounds," he says. "This concept that DU is only used against tanks is totally wrong. It works great against any soft targets. When it comes out of the barrel it is already on fire." That radioactive firestorm is the reason DU is so effective at piercing armor. It is also the reason DU is so dangerous to soldiers and civilians after the battle. The uranium ignites on impact.

When DU burns through a target, between 40 and 70 percent of every penetrator turns into fragments, smoke and uranium oxide dust. The dust, with particles as small as one micron, settles out on the ground and, studies show, can be carried by the wind as far as 25 miles away. These tiny particles can stick to hair and skin, and get swallowed or inhaled, where they lodge permanently in the lungs. Recent research suggests that DU’s chemical toxicity damages the brain. It also emits alpha and beta radiation, which can damage lungs, kidneys and other soft tissues, especially the digestive tract.

The Pentagon admits that it should have given soldiers better training on how to avoid or deal with DU contamination, but claims the effects were unknown before the war, and at any rate are known to be mild today. "There just isn’t any scientific foundation to draw a connection between exposure and incidence of cancer or birth defects," says Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of deployment health support at the Pentagon. But a military-funded report released just months before the Gulf War warned of DU’s potential health effects.

For years, the Iraqis have claimed that allied DU rained on Iraqi forces has caused elevated rates of cancer and horrific birth defects. The Bush administration has dismissed these stories as propaganda. A request by the World Health Organization to study the problem was rebuffed by Saddam Hussein.

Retired Army colonel Dr. Andras Korenyi-Both says he "unintentionally opened a Pandora Box" by researching the causes of Gulf War Syndrome. Although nearly 28 percent of all returning Gulf W

ar veterans—more than 200,000 of them—have filed claims that they are sick, he says all of the medical research has garnered "not a single positive result."

Rokke says the Army ignored his work on the health effects of DU "because this sucker is awesome at killing." Korenyi-Both is more measured. "I do not believe [it is a] government conspiracy. I do believe it is government insensitivity and cowardice," he says. "My youngest boy is a first lieutenant serving his country in the same sandbox. He gets the same protections we got. That concerns me."