Recycling the Army Way

The Pentagon Uses Radioactive Waste as Armor and Bullets

As many as 700,000 American soldiers served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but it wasn’t until last year that the Pentagon finally admitted that some of those servicemen and women may have been exposed to chemical weapons.

During the Gulf War, depleted uranium was used for the first time on the battlefield and dubbed a “conventional” weapon.

Deborah Edwards didn’t serve in the Gulf War, but she has all the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome, a controversial medical condition-still denied by the military-that is characterized by chronic fatigue, digestive problems and joint pain. In the early 90s, Edwards worked at Vitro Corporation, which tested bullets and other ammunition at Eglin Air Force Base’s Teefax facility on the Florida panhandle. “I was low person on the totem pole, so I got all the bad work,” she says. After test firings, Edwards worked inside a big stainless steel tank, cleaning it of radioactive shell fragments.

Today, like many Gulf War veterans, Edwards is disabled, having had, she says, three knee operations, two tumors removed from her foot, chronic asthma, and nerve and muscle deterioration in her back and legs. Vitro has given way to a new contractor, which continues the “advanced warhead experimentation,” while Edwards collects $471 a month in Social Security disability benefits. Until last month, Edwards never associated her ailments with the job she held five years ago. Then Dr. Christina Larson, a psychologist at the University of West Florida, told her about Depleted Uranium (DU), the dense radioactive waste product the Pentagon reprocesses into artillery shells and armor plating for tanks. Edwards grows more certain each day she was poisoned by her former employer.

Dr. Larson says she began her work on DU after speaking to an Air Force public relations officer several years ago. “He told me if I wanted to ask about sonic booms, that was fine, but DU, no. When he was telling me this, his hands were shaking.”

Since 1938, the U.S. government has had this problem: After extracting U-235 to make bombs, what could be done with the leftover U-238, the 99.8 percent of the uranium ore that is not explosive? Depleted uranium still contains about .2 percent U-235. It is still radioactive. And it could be enriched to Plutonium 239, also a prime bomb material. For 50 years, critics have urged that DU be disposed of with extraordinary care. But the military has had other ideas.

DU was used to make components of the first two atomic bombs. Now it’s being fashioned into bullets. During the Gulf War, DU was used for the first time on the battlefield and dubbed a “conventional” weapon. More than twice as dense as lead, DU is the world’s most impenetrable armor plating, used in the skin of the Army’s M1A1 Abrams battle tank. In fact, just about the only thing that can stop a tank shrouded in DU is a bullet of the type Edwards helped test as an electronics technician.

Like Edwards, the soldiers who used and handled these shells were mostly not told what they were handling—many didn’t find out the stuff was radioactive until years later. According to The Washington Post, a fire at an ammunition depot at the Doha Army base in Kuwait may have contaminated 3,000 U.S. soldiers with uranium oxide dust and uranium hexafluoride. Depleted uranium is only slightly radioactive, but as a heavy metal, it is extremely toxic, causing cancer, birth defects and serious kidney ailments.

DU’s explode-on-impact properties turned the Army’s A-10 “Warthog” attack plane into a devastating weapon during the Gulf War. Its comparatively small, 30-mm cannon shells destroyed Iraqi tanks by burning through their steel armor instantly and killing everyone inside. “It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out,” says Army combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer.

The United States fired 350 tons of DU projectiles during the Gulf War. According to an Army report, when a DU projectile explodes, tiny particles of uranium are inhaled by anybody in the area—be they survivors of the blast, rescue workers or bystanders who happen along days or weeks later. About 80 percent of U.S. soldiers in the Gulf climbed in or on destroyed Iraqi vehicles; most could have been exposed to DU dust.

According to Leonard A. Dietz, a former Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory scientist, a five-micron particle of uranium oxide can travel miles from its source and lodge in the lungs permanently, where it would expose surrounding tissue to a 1,360-rem radiation dose each year, 8,000 times the federally permitted dosage. “The fallout range of airborne DU aerosol dust is virtually unlimited,” Dietz says.

After the Gulf War ended, Congress asked the Army Environmental Policy Institute to prepare a report on DU; it was completed in June 1994, but was not made public until last year, when a high-ranking Army official leaked it to The Military Toxics Project. “Depleted uranium has no business being used as a munition,” says project national organizer Dolly Lymburner.

The report notes positively that the comparatively cheap DU has already been sold to the militaries of Turkey, Pakistan, Israel and Thailand, but admits that its toxicity is inherent: “No available technology can significantly change the inherent chemical and radiological toxicity of DU.” The report also acknowledges that DU is radioactive and should be deposited in a “licensed repository.” But the U.S. government has 500,000 tons of DU stockpiled or dumped in more than 50 non-licensed installations in the U.S.

Woody Cunningham, technical director for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said last March that the long-term solution is to convert the DOE’s 46,000 rusting steel cylinders of uranium in Pikton, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Paducah, Kentucky into some usable form for manufacturing. The Army is studying a process developed by a Tennessee-based partnership between Lockheed Martin and Molten Metal Technology that allegedly breaks down materials like DU into basic elements, which are then recycled into fuel and ceramics.

Meanwhile, The Military Toxics Project’s Depleted Uranium Citizens’ Network is trying to build support for an international ban on the military use of depleted uranium.