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10. CONCLUSIONS

10.1 Depleted Uranium as Radioactive Waste

Depleted uranium produced as a by-product of uranium enrichment is classified as radioactive and toxic waste and it is subjected to numerous regulations for handling and disposal. From the existence of these regulations and their enforcement by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, etc., from the commenced or proposed remedial actions at both past and present DU manufacturing sites and proving grounds, and from the recent limitations on DU ammunition testing, it is evident that the US Government and military authorities are aware that the spread of depleted uranium is harmful both to humans and to the environment. They are also aware of the fact that radioactivity of depleted uranium is sufficient to warrant disposal of contaminated objects, including soil from DU manufacturing sites and proving grounds, to (low-level) radioactive waste dumps.

Yet the US regulatory limits for general public exposure are exceeded up to 5 orders of magnitude for airborne radioactive emissions and the up to 3 orders of magnitude for residual radioactive contamination (see paragraph 7.5) when DU ammunition is used on the battlefield.

10.2 Before and After the Gulf War

Prior to the Gulf War, the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) report [13] warned that following combat, the condition of the battlefield, and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU for military applications. The report also noted that assuming the US regulatory standards and health physics practices are followed, it is likely some form of remedial action will be required in a DU post-combat environment.

Yet after the Operation Desert Storm, when approximately 700,000 lb. of depleted uranium was scattered over a large area, the Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) report [33] claimed that no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the United States to remediate Persian Gulf War battlefields. Since the cost of such cleanup can be estimated to tens of billions of dollars and since any cleanup would imply an official acknowledgment of the dangers of DU, it is unlikely that the cleanup will be attempted. The AEPI report also noted that if DU was indicted as a causative agent for the Gulf War Illness, the financial implications of long-term disability payments and health-care costs would be excessive.

10.3 Non-publicity and Proliferation

Various high-tech weapons such as stealth fighters, precision bombs, and Patriot missiles received much public attention during the Gulf War. The use of DU ammunition, perhaps the most effective new weapon, was not publicly revealed until a year later [24], [55], [77], [88]. A Los Alamos National Laboratory memorandum [19] noted the effectiveness of DU penetrators against Iraqi armored targets. The memo also suggested that public concern about the environmental effects of depleted uranium could make DU rounds politically unacceptable and result in a ban on DU penetrators.

The rapid proliferation of DU weapons after the Gulf War, prompted in large part by the Department of Defense, can be looked upon as a successful effort to prevent any such outcome. Yet exactly this proliferation ensures that any present-day military advantage due to DU weapons will not last for long [72], while the health and environmental consequences of the present-day battles will last for centuries. The proliferation is not necessarily limited to the nuclear powers who possess depleted uranium, because similar weapons could be made using natural uranium as well.

10.4 United Nations Resolution

In 1996, the UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution [44] in which they "urged all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb production and spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry, and weaponry containing depleted uranium" (emphasis added).

However, the United States used the DU weapons again during the recent "Operation Balkan Storm" in 1999. In an obvious attempt to turn away the public attention, DoD spokesman portrayed these weapons as being around for a long time and therefore not newsworthy [91].

10.5 Recommendations

The House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight paid considerable attention, in their report on the "Gulf War Syndrome" [59], to possible exposures to chemical warfare agents. On the other hand, exposure of the Gulf War veterans to depleted uranium dust was mentioned almost in passing (see paragraph 9.4). This attitude is understandable. While Iraq can be blamed for manufacturing and stockpiling chemical weapons, if not for using them, the United States are responsibile for the use of depleted uranium ammunition from A to Z (with 0.14% British involvement). It requires far more soul-searching to admit the indiscriminate adverse health effects of these weapons.

Yet the matter of depleted uranium is more urgent than the possible exposures to chemical weapons, for two reasons. While no treatment is available for delayed neurotoxicity [59], most cancers can be cured when detected early. Cancer is the expected long-term consequence of both the radiological and toxic effects of depleted uranium exposure. The second reason is the post-battlefield contamination. While most organic compounds produced for use as chemical warfare agents, including mustard gas and nerve gas, decay within days or weeks after their release, depleted uranium does not decay that fast. On the contrary, its radioactivity is slowly increasing due to the secular equilibrium build-up of the the uranium decay series. Unless some cleanup is organized soon, the contamination will plague natives of the war affected areas for centuries to come.

  • The health issues associated with the use of DU munitions, particularly exposure to DU aerosol by inhallation, should be publicly admitted by the US Government authorities and evaluated by medical and scientific experts with at least the same (or more) vigor as the health issues associated with possible exposures to chemical warfare agents.
  • The Veterans Administration should conducts a statistical cancer study in Gulf War veterans. If any excess lymphomas, leukemias, or other organ specific cancers are found, all Gulf War veterans potentially exposed to depleted uranium should be long-term or permanently monitored.
  • Economic sanctions on Iraq and Yugoslavia should be immediately lifted in order to enable these countries to effectively deal with the war inflicted health and environmental catastrophes.
  • Qualified organizations in Iraq and Yugoslavia trying to address or remedy the DU contamination, including government organizations in these countries, should be offered cooperation and material help.
  • Testing of the DU weapons in the United States should be completely banned as a sound environmental policy and as the first step in curbing unlimited use of these radioactive and toxic weapons.


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