Since their use in the Gulf War for the first time, depleted uranium penetrators continue to haunt most areas where the US troops were deployed in the Middle East. However, the threat they pose to people and their connections to nuclear weapons have been overlooked by most politicians and civilians.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a lethal weapon. DU is a highly concentrated substance left over from the enrichment process that produces nuclear fuel and bombs. DU bullets were developed in the 1970s with the purpose of destroying top-line Soviet tanks. As a weapon, its density is valued by the US military. Nowadays, around 20 countries either use or keep them. DU penetrators turned out to be the most effective piercers of tanks.
Effects of the DU penetrator can be felt long after its deployment. DU is radioactive. When DU is blown to pieces as it hits the metal, it burns and pulverizes. It turns into radioactive dust. Its radioactivity can be felt for the next 4.5 billion years. Additionally, a DU particle can travel at least 26 miles. In the short-term, it is chemically toxic when its particles are inhaled by humans. If DU particles become trapped in human body, the health of a person is severely damaged. High cancer incidence may result.
Costs are borne on both sides – by not only the residents of the areas of the Gulf, but by the US forces as well. The “Gulf War Syndrome,” a multisymptom disorder found in Gulf War veterans, has been exposed to the public for years now. Chemical toxicity, including that resulting from DU, is blamed for this syndrome, which leaves its victims with physical stress and illness.
But even despite the dangers of DU, the substance has been used widely. In Iraq alone, 320 tons were fired. Radiation levels in Iraq where DU was deployed are 35 times the normal level. DU was also used in Yugoslavia. According to NATO, 31,000 DU bullets were fired over Kosovo in 1999. It was estimated that 50,000 bullets were fired over Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro.
Once released into the environment, removal of DU is next to impossible. Costs of DU particle removal are too high for the contamination level Iraq has experienced. For example, 152,000 pounds of DU were cleaned from 500 acres of the closed Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana. Though this is only one quarter of the amount deployed in Iraq, it is estimated it cost four to five billion dollars.
In 1996, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution urging countries to eliminate testing and use of indiscriminate and weapons of mass destruction, as such weapons have long term effects on human life. However, all people have an inherent right to life. Thus, DU limits and sometimes even destroys this right.
Still, the US continues to engage in politics of overkill. Nuclear weapons and depleted uranium penetrators are only some of the mediums through which this politics is exercised. A few days ago, the second anniversary of the New START was commemorated. Still, the connection between depleted uranium and nuclear weapons is almost invisible in the eyes of the public and politicians.
Peterson, S. (1999). The Gulf War Battlefield Still “Hot” with Depleted Uranium. Middle East Report, 211, p. 2 – 5.
Peterson, S. (2000). Depleted Uranium Haunts Kosovo and Iraq. Middle East Report, 215, p14.