U.S. Stocking Uranium-Rich Bombs?

Wired Magazine, March 10, 2003 By Elliot Borin

--"Who would want thousands of solid uranium penetrators or pencils of masses between 180 and 4,500 grams lying in your backyard? Who would want any uranium contamination of any type lying in your backyard?"

U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf may be armed with radioactive bombs and missiles hundreds of times more potent than similar weapons used during the Gulf War and the U.N. [that is, NATO] military campaign in Bosnia.

As evidence that the United States is expanding its use of depleted uranium weapons beyond the relatively small 30-millimeter to 120-millimeter armor-piercing bullets and shells used by tanks and tank-killer aircraft in the Gulf and Balkans, weapons watchdogs cite the so-called "bunker-buster" bombs and missiles unleashed on Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has not confirmed the use of uranium or depleted uranium in the bunker-busters, and it has refused to identify the composition of the dense-metal warheads that enable the missiles to penetrate structures deeply buried under earth, steel and reinforced concrete.

But critics such as British researcher Dai Williams contend that only uranium -- in one form or another -- possesses the density and other characteristics necessary to achieve the penetration levels attributed to such weapons as the 2,000-pound AGM 130C air-to-ground cruise missile, and the guided bomb unit, or GBU, series of laser-guided hard-target penetrators intended to pierce bunkers and other reinforced structures.

Williams and others also claim that patents covering conversion or modification of earlier generation bombs for use as bunker-busters indicate that depleted uranium is being used in these weapons.

For example, the patent application for a narrow-profile version of the BLU-109B bomb (which is delivered by a GBU-24) specifically refers to penetrating bodies made of tungsten or depleted uranium.

"If they're really using tungsten, why keep it classified?" Williams said. Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the nuclear fission process that powers both atomic bombs and power-generating plants, is an ideal material for munitions intended to blast holes into armored or otherwise reinforced targets that can only be pierced by projectiles possessing enormous amounts of kinetic energy.

Since the kinetic energy of an object is one half its mass times the square of its speed, the denser the projectile, the higher the kinetic energy. When it comes to density, uranium (2.5 times heavier than iron and 1.7 times heavier than lead) is rivaled only by tungsten, which lacks depleted uranium's intense incendiary properties.

Tungsten has another drawback: It's expensive. Depleted uranium, on the other hand, is dirt cheap. Tons of it, over 500 million pounds the last time anyone counted, is lying around in various states of nuclear "decay" at government repositories throughout the country.

In an attempt to reduce this over-abundance of nuclear waste, the Defense Department provides depleted uranium to munitions makers such as Alliant Techsystems -- the largest maker of depleted uranium projectiles in the world -- at no cost and buys it back as completed weapons.

Depleted uranium has a few drawbacks. It is 40 percent as radioactive as pure uranium and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In addition, the very volatility that makes it blaze like an atomic furnace upon impact converts a large percentage of the spent projectile into microscopic radioactive oxides that, when borne by the wind, may be inhaled by civilians miles from the battlefield.

Despite this, Pentagon and Veterans Administration brass are adamant in insisting that depleted uranium is absolutely harmless to both combatants and non-combatants, and is in no way responsible for any of the symptoms associated with so-called "Gulf War syndrome."

Perhaps the most extraordinary official endorsement of depleted uranium's benign nature came from former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who once deemed it as safe as "leaded paint." Federal law has banned the use of leaded paint in residential structures since 1978 because of its extreme toxicity.

But not everyone connected with the military is convinced that depleted uranium is risk-free.

In early 1991, the Army sent physicist Doug Rokke to Iraq as part of the task force charged with assessing the after-battle effects of the estimated 300 tons of depleted-uranium weapons expended during the Gulf War. In the mid-1990s, he was recalled to active duty and made director of a project intended to develop training and management procedures for handling depleted uranium contamination.

According to Rokke, "we are seeing adverse health effects among the entire group of warriors exposed during combat in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (and) civilians exposed in Iraq" and at U.S. and foreign installations where depleted uranium weapon testing and training has been carried out.

Rokke also said the Pentagon was aware of "the probable hazards" prior to the Gulf War, a contention bolstered by an Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command report -- issued shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait -- that stated that depleted uranium is "linked to cancer when exposures are internal."

Rokke said on-site investigators in Iraq found that 40 percent of the initial mass of the depleted uranium penetrators was converted to radioactive oxide while 60 percent was left on and around the impact area in solid form.

"Equipment contamination included uranium oxides, other hazardous materials, unstable unexploded ordnance and byproducts of exploded ordnance," he said. "In addition, other radioactive materials were detected that could pose a risk through inhalation, ingestion or wound contamination.

"Who would want thousands of solid uranium penetrators or pencils of masses between 180 and 4,500 grams lying in your backyard? Who would want any uranium contamination of any type lying in your backyard?"

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