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A Dark Magic in America's Silver Bullets

Depleted uranium helps the U.S. win wars. But it's sowing profound fear.

June 01, 2003|Deborah Blum | Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection."

MADISON, Wis. — Early this spring, the U.S. Department of Defense held a barely noticed briefing on America's use of radioactive weaponry in the Iraq war. The weapons in question are called "depleted uranium" bullets and -- as military officials proudly say -- they may be the best tank-busting weapons ever made.

From his Pentagon podium, Army Col. James Naughton expressed unreserved admiration for the big silver-colored bullets. Or at least for their ability to take out the enemy. In our battles with the Iraqis, their traditional ordnance bounced off American tanks. By contrast, U.S. uranium-enhanced ammunition took their armored vehicles apart. Or as Naughton said smugly, "The result was Iraqi tanks destroyed, U.S. tanks with scrape marks."

You might think of this as just another chest-beating exercise by us American warrior types. But Naughton and his colleagues in the U.S. military have a particular need to praise -- or rather defend -- depleted uranium bullets. The real purpose of the recent briefing was to counter "misinformation." Translated, that means other people don't like our choice of tank-killer devices.

The critics, ranging from environmentalists in Europe to scientists in the Middle East, say that in all our recent engagements -- the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia and now the latest Iraqi conflict -- we left our poisonous, uranium-dusted footprints all over other people's homelands. They worry that the chunks of radioactive litter scattered across former battlefields have already caused a variety of illnesses. They worry, too, about the potential for future harm.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 22, 2003 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Depleted uranium -- An Opinion article that ran on June 1 said the half-life of uranium-238 was 109 years. It is 4.5 billion years. The article also said depleted uranium was almost twice as dense as lead. It is 67% denser.

This image of the U.S. as a major military polluter is not the one we want to cultivate abroad. And the Pentagon doesn't seem to like making nice in response. Naughton, for instance, snappily suggested that Iraqi critics are merely political subversives: "They want it to go away because last time we kicked the crap out of them. I mean, there's no doubt that DU gave us a huge advantage ... so wouldn't it be great if we [the Iraqis] could convince the world to make the U.S. give up DU?"

It strikes me that there's no need to be quite so defensive. There's no real pressure on the U.S. to stop using the bullets, and there's no real national debate over DU munitions. If Americans are aware of the issue at all, they mostly regard it as a mess in someone else's backyard. A few U.S. veterans and antiwar protesters have railed against uranium-based weapons, but they haven't been able to excite much interest.

There's a different level of anger and frustration in Europe, where our peacekeeping forces fired some 13 tons of DU bullets during missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The complaints are even louder in Iraq, where physicians have blamed what they claim is an increasing rate of birth defects on the United States. The Pentagon estimates that the 1991 Gulf War left behind about 320 tons of DU debris. It hasn't calculated the tonnage from the recent conflict -- "We're busy with other issues," said Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner -- but the numbers are expected to be higher.

As always, it's a mistake to think of a battleground as something that can just be tidied up. What conflict hasn't produced decades' worth of hazardous war souvenirs? You can still occasionally dig up the rusting bullets of our 19th century Civil War in the mountains of the Southeast. There remain regions in France still marked by the chemical poisons of World War I. The land mines placed in wars, small and large, continue to maim the innocent in Asia and Africa. And in Japan, the destructive effects of World War II's ultimate radioactive weapon may be repaired, but they have certainly not been forgotten.

Should DU bullets be classed in this company? Rationally, of course, there's no comparing antitank munitions with the legacy of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." Some remnant tons of slightly radioactive metal should barely flicker on the environmental threat meter. If the rest of the world would just be more rational, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

That kind of exasperated reasoning approaches the position of the Pentagon and, in fact, many independent scientists. Robert L. Park of the American Physical Society is downright sarcastic on the question: "I always figured it would be a lot better to be shot with a uranium bullet than a dum-dum -- it should make a good clean hole. Physicists don't spend much time worrying about natural uranium, and DU is even less radioactive by about 40%."

There's another way to look at depleted uranium, and that's as a problem that can really, really linger. Uranium 238, the primary heavy metal in DU bullets, has a radioactive half-life of 109 years. Wimp radiation or not, the fragments and shells and uranium-loaded bits and pieces are the kind of war souvenirs that can bother people for a long time, making them edgy about us, our battle tactics, and what we casually leave behind.

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