By Paul E McGinniss
We all should be aware of the dangers posed by the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons. The eight countries known to possess nuclear weapons have 10,000 plus nuclear warheads. And, especially post-Fukushima, we now understand firsthand the potential danger of nuclear power plants, many which are aging and highly vulnerable to natural disasters. As of August 2012, 30 countries are operating 435 nuclear reactors for electricity generation. Sixty-six new nuclear plants are under construction in 14 countries.
But how many of us know about the current manufacturing and active use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons? DU (Uranium 238) is a radioactive waste by-product of the uranium enrichment process. It results from making fuel for nuclear reactors and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
In a frightening adaptation of the "Cradle to Cradle" philosophy in manufacturing, which seeks to use waste in the manufacturing process to create other "useful" products, militaries around the world have come up with the "brilliant" idea of taking DU and making "conventional" weapons with it.
According to BanDepletedUranium.org, approximately 20 countries are thought to have DU weapons in their arsenals. Nations known to have produced these weapons include UK, U.S., France, Russia, China and Pakistan.
DU is well liked by armed forces because it is twice as dense as lead and when fused with metal alloys it can be made into highly effective armor piercing weapons such as the M242 gun mounted on the U.S. Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle. DU is also used in armor plating to protect vehicles such as the U.S. Army's Abrams Tank.
DU ordnance has been employed in the 1991 Gulf War and in conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a twisted way, use of DU makes perfect sense. After all, DU is plentiful, and with so much radioactive waste stored around the globe, and no safe place to store it, DU is a ready and cheap source of material for the ordnance of war.
The problem is, when DU armor piercing projectiles penetrate their targets, they become incendiary spewing radioactive dust.
The Physicians for Social Responsibility said in a brief about depleted uranium:
"The fact that DU is aerosolized on impact with its target and is transformed into small dust particles capable of being carried by the wind may threaten air, ground and water resources, which all may become long-term repositories for DU. Long term impact is especially important considering the 4.5 billion year half life of DU."
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, an alliance of non-governmental organizations and some countries are seeking a worldwide ban on the production and military use of depleted uranium weapons. But other countries around the world, some of which also have DU weapons in their arsenal, downplay or deny the hazards to DU and claim there is no proven long-term hazard to the use of DU weapons.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Military, just as it did when using Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, has denied that DU weapons pose any significant hazard to civilian populations where they are used or American and allied soldiers who deploy these weapons.
In the 2003 article, The War Against Ourselves, Major Doug Rokke, former director of the U.S. Army's Depleted Uranium Project and active in the Gulf War in 1991, said:
"We didn't know anything about DU when the Gulf War started. As a warrior, you're listening to your leaders, and they're saying there are no health effects from the DU ... The U.S. Army made me their expert. I went into the project with the total intent to ensure they could use uranium munitions in war, because I'm a warrior. What I saw as director of the project, doing the research and working with my own medical conditions and everybody else's, led me to one conclusion: uranium munitions must be banned from the planet, for eternity."
In 2004, Juan Gonzalez reported in his New York Daily News story, The War’s Littlest Victim, that National Guardsman, Gerard Darren Matthew, returned from Iraq suffering from mysterious illnesses and tested positive for uranium contamination. Shortly after his return, his wife, Janice, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl who was missing three fingers on her left hand and most of her right hand.
In 2006, Associated Press documented the case of soldier Herbert Reed who returned from Iraq very ill. As reported in U.S. Soldiers Are Sick of It, since Reed left Iraq, his gums bleed, there is blood in his urine and in his stool. Bright light hurts his eyes. A tumor has been removed from his thyroid. The Associated Press disclosed:
"About 30 percent of the 700,000 men and women who served in the first Gulf War still suffer a baffling array of symptoms very similar to those reported by Reed's unit. Depleted uranium has long been suspected as a possible contributor to Gulf War Syndrome ... "
In Depleted Uranium Weapon Use Persists, Despite Deadly Side Effects, Truthout reported:
"In 2010, a BBC correspondent interviewed medical staff at the new Falluja General Hospital ... Iraqi physicians reported that excess cases of severe birth defects were increasing yearly since the 2004 siege of the town. The reporter visited the pediatric ward and described being stunned by the horrific number of birth defects he witnessed and their shocking severity: children born with multiple heads; others, paralyzed, seriously brain damaged, missing limbs, and with extra fingers and toes."
And if you think the radioactive dust that has poisoned soldiers and populations, and permeated the ecosystems of the war-torn countries far away from America is not your problem, listen up. DU weapons have been tested by U.S. military at proving grounds and firing ranges in Arizona, Maryland, Indiana and Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Disturbingly, in the bucolic town in Concord, Massachusetts—birthplace of the American Revolution, famous for the "shot heard round the world," and home of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond—hosts one of the nastiest Superfund sites in the country. The toxic nightmare resulted from the manufacture of DU weapons.
The Environmental Magazine reported on the Concord Superfund site in 2004:
" ... few know about the nuclear waste dump at 2229 Main Street. But this shady burg of 15,000 residents quietly struggles with its legacy as the maker of depleted uranium slugs for the U.S. military's latest wars. The soil more than a mile from the nuclear dump is radioactive. A 1993 epidemiological study found the town's residents suffered higher rates of cancer than the state average."
As of November 2012, the U.S. EPA reported the Superfund site located in Concord on a 46.4 acre site of the former Nuclear Metals, Inc. (NMI) facility, after almost a decade of clean up efforts, is still not completed. Conveniently, NMI went bankrupt before cleaning up the site, leaving U.S. tax payers responsible for cleaning up the mess.
The radioactive mess in Concord pales in comparison to the horrific radioactive pollution at the 586 square mile, U.S. Department of Energy Hanford Nuclear facility in central Washington State. In August 2102, Environment News Service reported a million gallons of radioactive waste has already leaked into the soil and groundwater, threatening the entire region and nearby Columbia River. In August 2012, a memo from U.S. Department of Energy inspectors to the Washington State Department of Ecology detailed new leaks of radioactive waste coming from double shell storage tanks that were supposed to last another forty years.
The U.S. and the other countries producing nuclear waste have no safe, long-term strategy for dealing with the thousands of tons of radioactive waste accumulating each year. The majority of this dangerous material is stored onsite at nuclear power stations that are vulnerable to hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other potential disasters.
Despite pressure from the highly-subsidized nuclear industry, and the push to build more nuclear plants around the world, there is a growing anti-nuclear movement and support for alternatives to nuclear power. Famous anti-nuclear environmental advocate, Dr Helen Caldicott, said in a May 2012 Huffington Post interview:
"I've got the cure to global warming, which is a study that I commissioned called Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free. Download it at www.ieer.org. You've got enough renewable energy right now, right now—integrated forms supply all the energy you need, right now—well, by 2030—but get going and you'll employ millions of people and it will be terribly exciting. And lead the world towards a carbon-free nuclear-free future."
Paul E McGinniss is The New York Green Advocate. He is a green building consultant and real estate broker in New York. He is pretty much obsessed with all things environment and has lately become a resiliency addict. Follow McGinniss @PaulEMcGinniss.