Navy's ammo has environmentalists, others up in arms

The Seattle Times, January 9, 2003
By Ray Rivera and Craig Welch, Times staff reporters

-A United Nations subcommission has asked for a ban on DU weapons, claiming they're inhumane. The World Health Organization in January 2001 recommended further health-risk studies. In January 2001, NATO declined to ban depleted-uranium weapons as requested by Italy, Germany, Norway and Greece — primarily under pressure from the U.S.

U.S. Navy exercises that fire depleted-uranium rounds off the coast of Washington have raised concerns among environmentalists, but Navy officials say the deep-ocean operations pose no danger.

The controversial munitions are used by all the services for their armor-piercing capabilities. They are largely credited for the swift and one-sided tank clashes in the 1991 Gulf War, where they were first used in combat.

But for years, soldiers and civilians in several countries have feared ill health effects from the toxic metal, which is a byproduct of natural uranium when it's turned into nuclear fuel for reactors. Iraqi doctors have blamed the material for a sharp increase in cancer and birth defects following the war. U.S. veterans groups also believe it may be linked to the mysterious Gulf War syndrome. And countries in Europe have complained that the United States hasn't always been forthright about its health risks.

The Navy uses the munitions in its Phalanx anti-missile-defense system that sends thousands of 20mm depleted-uranium (DU) rounds into the air to knock down incoming missiles. Essentially a large Gatling gun, Phalanx serves as a "last ditch" defense if missile-to-missile systems fail to hit their target. The guns fire 80 rounds a second, 3,000 rounds a minute.

The guns are required to be certified quarterly, which requires firing up to 300 rounds per gun over sea ranges, including a range about 40 miles west of Neah Bay. That range is from 800 to 1,400 fathoms deep and abuts the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
The rounds are 40 percent less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium found in seawater, the Navy says. But Navy officials say that as the rounds dissolve, they can't be distinguished from background radiation.

The weapons are found on all surface ships, but the Navy has been slowly phasing out DU rounds in favor of tungsten munitions, said Cmdr. Karen Sellers, spokeswoman for the Navy's Pacific Northwest Region. She could not say why the Navy was switching rounds.
Navy officials could not say yesterday how often the Washington range is used, but Sellers said most tests are done off the coast of California or in the open sea.

Local peace activist Glen Milner learned of the tests after obtaining an internal Navy memo dated June 25, 2001, giving the Everett-based destroyer USS Fife the green light to conduct gunnery operations.

" How can the Navy fire depleted-uranium rounds and spread radioactive material into prime fishing areas off our coast?" asked Dave Mann, a Seattle environmental attorney. A coalition of peace and environmental groups is considering filing an injunction to stop future DU operations off the coast.

The Department of Defense has sent mixed signals. In 1993, the military required all soldiers participating in exercises involving DU to be tested for DU and related oxide particles in the feces, said Dr. Doug Rokke, a former Army health physicist and opponent of DU use. At the same time, the military says there is no evidence showing the material is dangerous.

" First off, when you fire the Navy Phalanx, you're going to have DU contamination on the end of the barrel and on the ship where they're fired," Rokke said. "These things are fired thousands of rounds a minute, and if you're near any sanctuary that's simply irresponsible, you simply don't take solid radioactive waste and throw it in somebody's back yard."

DU is only mildly radioactive, but it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. And the Pentagon revealed two years ago that some DU munitions were contaminated with more highly radioactive substances, such as plutonium.

Defense analysts also question whether the munitions are toxic.

" The science is not clear here," said Patrick Garrett, an associate analyst with GlobalSecurity.Org, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. "The military tells you these things are OK unless you're on the receiving end of this weapon, but civilians and other doctors and scientists have been looking at this issue and screaming bloody murder about it for a long time, and it's not readily apparent what the long-term health impacts are."

A United Nations subcommission has asked for a ban on DU weapons, claiming they're inhumane. The World Health Organization in January 2001 recommended further health-risk studies. In January 2001, NATO declined to ban depleted-uranium weapons as requested by Italy, Germany, Norway and Greece — primarily under pressure from the U.S.

In 1999, Canadian fishermen were outraged to learn the Canadian navy had left several tons of depleted uranium on the ocean floor off the coast of Nova Scotia. The radioactive rounds were fired from ships with Phalanx weapons systems. The navy insisted there was no danger.



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