Depleted uranium shells controversial in two wars

Stamford Advocate (Connecticut) April 20, 2003
By Louis Porter, Staff Writer

"The Iraqi freedom is the freedom for them to accept our radioactive waste," said Rokke, who himself suffers from symptoms he blames on depleted uranium exposure.

The United States and its allies have used thousands of rounds of depleted uranium shells in the current war against Iraq, according to published reports, despite lingering controversy about the role the shells may have played in the suite of illnesses suffered by veterans of the first Gulf War.

Even those who want to ban depleted uranium, because they believe it causes illness, call the weapons made from it "awesome" and "fantastic."

Soldiers call it the "silver bullet."

During a briefing last month, Col. Jim Naughton, director of munitions for the U.S. Army's Materiel Command, said rounds made of depleted uranium allow U.S. troops to hit Iraqi targets while remaining out of range of the Iraqis.

"That's how much advantage it gives us," Naughton said. "So we don't want to give that up, and that's why we use it."

That advantage is not reason enough to use the shells, said Doug Rokke, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve from Rantoul, Ill., and a veteran of the Vietnam and first Gulf wars. Rokke was a member of the military cleanup crew that went into Iraq 12 years ago, in part to deal with depleted uranium contamination.

Health impacts matter little to defense officials who don't want to give up the extraordinary weapon, Rokke said.

"No matter what, we are going to use this stuff," he said.

Depleted uranium is a heavy metal, so dense that the 320 tons of it used in the first Gulf War could be compressed into a 8-foot cube. It is also tougher than tungsten and penetrates buildings and armor-plated vehicles.

But when it explodes and burns on impact it raises smoke and dust, which some say makes the weapons dangerous to U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

Not only can it cause heavy metal contamination but it is also too radioactive to be safe, they say.

U.S. defense officials said last month it was impossible to use the Abram tank and other vehicles without using depleted uranium shells, and the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have argued that studies show depleted uranium is not a serious hazard to U.S. soldiers or Iraqis.

However, The Royal Society, England's leading scientific institution, last week called on Britain
and the United States to clean up the munitions after the current war.

"A small number of soldiers might suffer kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer if substantial amounts of depleted uranium are breathed in," said Professor Brian Spratt in a statement.

Civilians might also be at risk from depleted uranium entering the water supply, he said.

When a depleted uranium shell explodes in a tank, or a U.S. tank plated with the ultra-hard metal, is hit with a shell it can be filled and covered with dust and smoke from the uranium munitions, which linger for a long time, veterans advocates said.

Rokke doubts whether it is even possible to clean it up after a war, he said.

U.S. Rep Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, said the health effects of depleted uranium have not been proven.

But, he added, "I am concerned about every potential exposure that our troops might have," he said.

A report which came out of Shays' congressional subcommittee in 1997 listed depleted uranium as one potential cause of the illness afflicting veterans of the first Gulf War.

Shays, an advocate of the war against Iraq and veterans' rights, said that any health effects the Iraqis suffer from depleted uranium pale in comparison with the benefits of regime change in the country.

"The Iraqis after the war are going to have something they haven't had in decades, they are going to have peace," Shays said.

Despite his respect for Shays, Rokke disagrees.

"The Iraqi freedom is the freedom for them to accept our radioactive waste," said Rokke, who himself suffers from symptoms he blames on depleted uranium exposure.

Rick Weidman, director of Government Relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, called the dangers of depleted uranium "a no-brainer," saying it is a heavy metal, radioactive and being dispersed into the air, where it can be breathed. email: