in Z magazine, July/August 2005


Opponents Prevail Over U.S. Gene-Busting Dirty Bombs

"Depleted" Uranium Munitions Get Third Legal Black Eye in 15 Months


By John M. LaForge

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota -- In the span of five days, separate juries found two groups of anti-war activists "not-guilty" of trespass last December.* Such verdicts are extremely rare, but four different juries have now sided with peace activists who have refused to leave the premises of the biggest arms merchant in Minnesota -- Alliant Techsystems, Inc. -- before getting an appointment. After refusing to talk with us last July, the company's managers had us arrested. But who's guilty of a crime?

Along with an identical acquittal in October 2003, and a similar one in 1997, the politically-charged trials -- all conducted by different judges in Hennepin County District courts -- have vindicated a total of 106 people. The 1997 group -- 79 protesters in all -- won a "not guilty" verdict after showing that the outlaw status of land mines excused what otherwise appears to be trespassing.

Alliant Tech’, a $2.4 billion weapons giant headquartered in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, or "ATK" as it calls itself, is one of the nation's foremost producers of "depleted" uranium munitions or DU. The armor-piercing shells are made of radioactive waste uranium-238 left over after uranium-235 has been removed for use in reactor fuel and H-bombs.(1) The misnomer "depleted" is a soothing Pentagon distraction, since DU is "depleted" only of uranium-235. The shells are solid radioactive waste and turn into chemically toxic and carcinogenic dust when they smash and burn through hard targets.

This past January and May, three other groups of alleged trespassers had their charges dropped just prior to trial. Another group of 34 civil resistors arrested March 14  had charges dismissed on a technicality: A hastily-enacted Edina city ordinance had not been officially published, i.e. enacted, before it was charged against the protesters.

The December acquittals turned the tables on ordinary "trespass" allegations and put ATK (a Honeywell Corporation spin-off) in the hot seat.

Three of the defendants in the Dec. 14 acquittal had visited Iraq themselves and had seen firsthand the consequences of using nuclear waste as a weapon of war. Jane Hosking, John Heid and Mike Miles, all of Anathoth Community Farm -- an intentional anti-war community -- near Luck, Wisconsin, testified as eye witnesses to the documented increases in cancer and leukemia in southern Iraq that have occurred since the U.S.'s 1991 bombardment.


Hundreds of tons of the waste uranium shells have been used by the U.S. against Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. The U.S. military fired at least 340 tons of DU into Iraq in 1991(2), from 176 to 200 tons during its March 2003 bombardment (3); five tons into Bosnia in 1994-'95 (4); and between 10 and 12 tons into Kosovo in 1999 (5). Estimates of how much was used in the 2001 bombardment of Afghanistan vary widely, but the Uranium Medical Research Center ( claims 2,000 tons. In November 2004, Iraq's U.S.-picked provisional government had the nerve to ask the UN for help in cleaning up the uranium dust spread across the country by U.S. and British forces during the 1991 and 2003 attacks. The UN declined, saying the U.S. has not provided it with maps of where its DU was used.

The use of DU created a European uproar in January 2001 (6), when pollution left from the bombing of Kosovo was found to contain plutonium and other highly radioactive fission products created inside reactors. (7) The Pentagon's Kenneth Bacon had to acknowledge then that, "We discovered some stray elements ... in depleted uranium. They consisted of plutonium, neptunium and americium."(8) Since then, Italy, Germany, Norway, Greece and other NATO allies have called for a moratorium on the use of DU, hundreds of protests have taken place across Europe and, closer to home, scores of civil resistance arrests have taken place at ATK and other DU manufacturers in the U.S. (9)

The Pentagon calls its DU shells "tank busters." In fact, they don't always work as such because the angle of impact must be within a small range to avoid ricochets or duds. When they do make a hit, uranium shells are more properly called "gene busters," because the pulverized uranium-238 can be inhaled or ingested.(10) Inside human bodies, DU attacks the gene pool, bombarding surrounding tissues and damaging chromosomes in successive generations -- for eons. Uranium-238 is a heavy metal toxin, like lead or mercury, with a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years.(11)

About 700,000 tons of DU was produced at government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah. Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio.(12) The government gives this waste uranium metal free to weapons merchants.(13) The sharks then turn around and sell the shells to the government. Even the small caliber (30mm) shells bring $21.50 a piece, according to the Wall Street Journal quoting the Air Force.(14) The Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt -- sometimes called the "Warthog" -- fires 30mm DU shells at a rate of 3,600 shells per minute, or 60 rounds/second. The war profiteering is almost boggling. (ATK is also the country's top bullet maker. The company announced last April that its Lake City, Missouri plant had produced 1.2 billion bullets for the U.S. Army in a period of 12 months. Over the next 12 it plans to make another 1.5 billion bullets.)(15)

According to its own promotional materials, ATK has made over 18 million of the shells -- 16 million 30mm, and 2 million 120mm "anti-tank" rounds. The uranium "penetrators" as the company calls them are "pyrophoric" -- they burn through tank armor and, astoundingly, they self-sharpen as they punch through. (Tungsten works to smash through tank armor, but its importation is expensive.)


For over nine years, ATK has been the target of relentless protest. The company is a natural focus of anti-war work because of its sales of land mines, cluster bombs, rocket motors, machine guns and DU.

The six-person jury in our case, and in similar trials Dec. 10, 2004, and Oct. 18, 2003, decided that the defendants' argument is reasonable even if technically "mistaken." As the judge told the jury, "If defendants acted in good faith under claim of right, even if reasonably mistaken as to this right, you must find the defendants not guilty."

We testified that weapons being made with radioactive waste are illegal and that international law provided us a legitimate "claim of right" in acting to prevent war crimes. In his instructions to the jury, Hennepin County District Judge Jack Nordby explained that "claim of right" is, "A good faith claim by defendants that permission was given to them to be upon the premises by a statute, rule, regulation or other law..." and "is not limited to a claim of title or ownership." Finally, "other law" the judge instructed, "means any law enacted by the federal or state government, any treaty to which the United States is a party, or any binding rule of international law.

ATK's uranium munitions can't be squared with the Geneva Conventions which require protection of civilians and which forbid long-term environmental destruction; and DU also violates the 1907 Hague Regulations' prohibition of poisoned weapons.

With the law on our side -- although we had to risk a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail to prove it -- we put ATK in the hot seat. Thanks to the protests, ATK's management and board of directors knows its land mines and uranium weapons have been condemned internationally -- by treaty law in the case of land mines and by a UN Sub-Commission and the European Parliament in the case of depleted uranium.

Because of the uranium pollution found in Bosnia and Kosovo, governments and NGOs around the world have pressed for independent studies of DU's effects and have recommended a halt to its use until its dangers are better understood.(16) International efforts to rid the world of uranium weapons appear the strongest in Europe, a place that knows something about being bombed in wartime. The legal victories in Minnesota will put the United States' anti-DU movement on the map.

• The October 2003 trial ended in acquittal just as an international uranium weapons conference in Hamburg, Germany ( was wrapping up its work. Two-hundred delegates from 23 countries resolved that the U.S. and the U.K. must: 1) provide medical treatment and compensation to DU-contaminated troops and civilians; 2) clean-up and decontaminate DU-targeted areas in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq; and 3) join in efforts to prohibit the manufacture, sale, stockpiling or use of DU.

• The UN Environment Program has recommended that, "Continued monitoring is clearly needed, and the local [Kosovo] population should be informed about DU issues." (17)

• The UN Sub-Commission On Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has resolved that "all states ... need to curb the production and spread of weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate effect, in particular... weaponry containing depleted uranium ..."(18)

• The European Parliament, in its "resolution on the consequences of using depleted uranium munitions," called upon member states that are also in NATO "to propose that a moratorium be placed on the use of depleted uranium weapons..." The resolution also called for "measures to provide assistance to civilian victims and to protect the environment" in Bosnia and Kosovo.(19)


Back in Minneapolis, we explained to the jury that after World War II, the laws of war changed in two monumental ways. First, prior to the Holocaust, acts of mass destruction were outlawed but prosecutions were possible only after-the-fact. At Nuremberg, German judges, military officers and private industrialists were tried, and the "planning and preparation" of illegal warfare was criminalized. Nuremberg's purpose in punishing "inchoate crimes" or crimes-in-the-making -- by outlawing production of weapons that can't be used legally -- is to insure that ordinary citizens can act to prevent wartime atrocities.

Second, the Nuremberg Tribunal held individuals individually responsible for their actions even if they were fulfilling government contracts or just "following orders." The prosecution, led by a U.S. Supreme Court justice, demanded then that if mass destruction is made legal by the state, then the state must be disobeyed.

The Nuremberg Tribunal declared, "International law, as such, binds every citizen, just as does ordinary municipal law. The fact that a person acts pursuant to his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law provided a moral choice was in fact available."

The cumulative effect of Nuremberg, the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations is that citizens are rightfully allowed to interfere with the government's criminal acts. In Minnesota law, juries don't have to agree with this analysis. They only have to find that it is legally reasonable.

As we explained in our closing argument at trial, "In a nutshell, the law says: It is forbidden to use poison or poisoned weapons; to use weapons that do severe, long-term damage to the environment; to use weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and soldiers, or to use materials or devices that are similar to gas; the planning or preparation of wars that would violate binding treaties is itself a crime; individuals are personally responsible for their participation in these crimes –- which is to say that we must all avoid such participation; finally, binding treaties and agreements are officially elevated to the position of 'the Supreme Law of the Land' by the Constitution of the United States."

To date, four ordinary juries have recognized the citizen's right to nonviolent obstinacy in the face of official wrongdoing. In the case of refusing to leave ATK's "dirty bomb" headquarters until we were granted a meeting, we merely attempted an act of crime prevention.

Not only did we beat the wrap, but government prosecutors can now consider bringing charges against the real criminals. (1,958 words)




-- John M. LaForge lives at the Anathoth Community Farm where he works on the staff of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental action group based in Wisconsin. <>



* State of Minnesota vs. John Heid, et al, County of Hennepin, 4 th Judicial Dist., File No. 04 051661


(1) Hampton Roads Daily Press, December 12, 2004; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2003; Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 22, 2003


(2) The Royal Society, UK, "The health effects of depleted uranium munitions," Summary, March 2002, Document 6/02, p.2, found at <>; Chicago Tribune, March 2, 2003; Seattle Post Intelligencer, Nov. 12, 2002; The Nation, May 26, 1997


(3) Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 22, 2003; "Is the Pentagon Giving Our Soldiers Cancer?" by Hillary Johnson, Rolling Stone, October 2, 2003, p.77


(4) Chicago Tribune, January 9, 2001, p.A14; The New York Times, January 6, 2001, p.A6; Agence France-Presse, January 5, 2001


(5) The New York Times, January 9, 2001, pA8, & January 12, 2001; Knight-Ridder, January 2, 2001; San Francisco Examiner, March 22, 2000; NATO Press Advisory, February 7, 2000


(6) The New York Times, January 11, 2001, p. A10


(7) Institute for Environmental And Energy Research (IEER), Science for Democratic Action, Vol. 2, No. 2, Feb. 2003, p. 4, note 1; Peter Eisler, "Military study finds fouled weapons safe," USA Today, June 25, 2001; The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2001, "Europe to Investigate Uranium-Tipped Arms"; Seattle Times, January 9, 2003; AP, Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.), Feb. 3, 2001, "Pentagon admits plutonium exposure: NATO shells used radioactive metals"; Douglas Hamilton, "Plutonium Row Set to Rock Bush Debut with Europe,” Reuters, January 21, 2001; David Michaels, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, Letter to Military Toxics Project, January 20, 2000.


(8) Reuters, January 21, 2001, "Plutonium Row Set to Rock Bush Debut with Europe," by Douglas Hamilton


(9) The New York Times, January 11, 2001, p.A10


(10) Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2003


(11) Seattle Times, Sept. 9, 2003; San Francisco Examiner, March 22, 2000; Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1999


(12) The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2005; Helen Caldicott, The New Nuclear Danger, The New Press, 2002, p.146; Robert Alvarez, "DU at Home," The Nation, April 9, 2001


(13) Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1999


(14) The Wall Street Journal, January 30. 2001, "Can Tungsten Breach Fortress Uranium, Dense but Non-radioactive, It Might Soothe Fears, But Pentagon Hesitates," by Christopher Cooper, p.A14.


(15) Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 13, 2005


(16) The New York Times, January 11, 2001, p.A10


(17) United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Media Release, March 27, 2002, Geneva/Nairobi.


(18) UN Sub-Commission On Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities Resolution 1996/16, Adopted August 29, 1996; 15 yes, 1 no (the United States) and 8 abstentions.


(19) Texts Adopted by [European] Parliament, Provisional Edition: January 17, 2001, “Use of depleted uranium in Bosnia and Kosovo, Balkan syndrome,” B5-0047, 0049, 0050, 0051 and 0054/200.







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