Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
By John LaForge
The US Army has awarded General Dynamics a $12 million contract to deconstruct and dispose of 78,000 so-called “depleted” uranium anti-tank shells. The Pentagon’s May 6 announcement calls for “demilitarization” of the aging shells, as newer depleted uranium rounds are added to the US arsenal.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) in Manchester, England, reports that the armor-piercing shells to be disassembled are thought to be the large 105-millimeter and 120-millimeter anti-tank rounds.
General Dynamics Corp. originally produced and sold some of the very same 120-millimeter anti-tank rounds to the Army. One of the largest weapons builders on earth, General Dynamics has 95,000 employees and sells its wares in 40 countries on six continents.
Depleted uranium, or DU, weapons are made of extremely dense uranium-238. More than 700,000 tons of DU has been left as waste in the US from the production of nuclear weapons and fuel rods for power reactors. Uranium-238 is left over when the fissionable uranium-235 is separated from natural ore. DU is only “depleted” of most of this uranium- 235. It is still a toxic heavy metal and an alpha-particle-emitting radioactive waste. Because DU is such an expensive government liability and an environmental nightmare, it is given away free to weapons builders like General Dynamics, Aerojet, Alliant Techsystems and others.
The Pentagon is replacing some older DU shells in spite of international appeals for a global moratorium on their use. According to ICBUW, the military is set to buy 2,500 of the large anti-tank rounds just this year at a cost of $30 million or over $10,000 each from Alliant Techsystems, formerly headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Army’s long-term disposal plans for the uranium from 78,000 shells were not outlined in its May 6 statement. Uranium in the shells is often alloyed with titanium or molybdenum, and if these metals are not recycled, they could become part of the government’s vast stockpile, requiring indefinite storage as intermediate-level radioactive waste. Other parts of the munitions are currently disposed of as low-level waste in spite of its plutonium content.
In 1991, during the 40-day, 1,000-sorties-per-day bombardment of Iraq, US forces used between 300 and 800 tons of DU. Another estimated 170 tons were used in the 2003 US bombing and takeover. The toxic, radioactive contamination left from the use of these weapons (on impact, DU burns and turns to aerosolized metallic fumes or dust) has been linked to the skyrocketing incidence of birth abnormalities in southern Iraq and to Gulf War Syndrome among tens of thousands of US combat veterans.
After the US/NATO bombardment of Kosovo in 1999, our DU weapons were discovered to be spiked with plutonium and other isotopes, and the Energy Department admitted that the entire US stock of depleted uranium was contaminated with plutonium, americium, neptunium and technetium. UN investigators in Kosovo found sites hit with DU to be poisoned with all four isotopes. The Nation reported in April 2001 that about 150,000 tons uranium-238 was dirtied with plutonium-239 and neptunium-237 and that “some apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans battlefields.”
Plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than uranium-238 and ingesting less than 27 micrograms of plutonium-239 — a millionth of an ounce — will cause lung cancer.