America’s Dirty Bomb

Uranium-236 (U-236) is a waste product of nuclear reactors and one of the most deadly radioactive substances on earth. It causes cancer and birth defects as well as lung, bone and kidney problems. Considering the serious dangers of this material, which does not occur in nature, the most sensible policy would be to keep it as far away from humans as possible. But, of course, the American military has proven once again that the sensible policy is not always the chosen one.

The U.S. Department of Defense currently uses depleted uranium (DU) in many of its bullets and shells. It is 1.7 times as dense as lead and makes a “perfect” tip for tank-penetrating missiles. Although the military claims that the DU it uses contains only the relatively harmless isotope Uranium-238 (U-238), it in fact also contains the deadly U-236. By continuing the use of DU, the U.S. military is knowingly putting thousands of soldiers and millions of civilians at risk.

When DU-tipped weapons hit their targets, they penetrate and explode, leaving the battlefield with a thin coating of uranium dust. When soldiers and civilians search recently destroyed enemy tanks for intelligence or souvenirs, they disturb this thin coating and inhale the radioactive dust. Over 300 tons of DU were strewn over the desert battlefields during the Gulf War.

In 1992, Dr. Siegwart-Horst Günther, a German epidemiologist found Iraqi children playing with bullets and shells left over from the war. In tests, he found radiation levels 350 times higher than those produced by Uranium-238. Subsequently, one of those children died of leukemia and others suffered kidney failure and lacerations on their skin. Günther was arrested by the German government and jailed for two months for bringing such dangerous material into Germany.


In Iraq itself, medical experts claim that cancer rates have increased ten-fold since 1991, and a 1998 conference in Baghdad highlighted the increasing number of Iraqi babies who have been born with neurological disorders, kidney problems and missing limbs. Even amongst Gulf War veterans in the United States there has been an increased incidence of deformed babies—many with no arms, just hands attached to his shoulders. Yet out of over 135,000 veterans of the Gulf War who are considered disabled by U.S. veterans’ associations only 33 of them are currently being monitored for radiation poisoning by the military.

The military is clearly aware of the dangers associated with DU. Those who handle the DU-tipped ammunition in transportation wear special protective suits, even though the soldiers who actually fire the weapons from their tanks, helicopters and machine guns go unprotected. In the documentary Invisible War, Gulf veteran Carole Picou describes how when Gen. Barry McCaffrey visited her unit in the desert he wore a protective suit. It was only as he was leaving that he told the officers that they were in a “contaminated area” and that the soldiers must wear their protective suits for the drive out. Picou later came down with radiation poisoning, experiencing the classic symptoms including loss of bowel control, joint pain, fatigue and thyroid failure. The Department of Veterans Affairs doctors attributed her sickness to a “change of diet” after returning from Iraq and insisted that her radiation exposure was perfectly normal. They failed to explain how her feet had grown from size seven to size nine.


The radiation levels in the Gulf were so high that the military even organized cleanup efforts for 24 of its own vehicles during and after the war. Capt. Doug Rokke, who headed these operations, said in the same documentary it took three months to prepare them and a full three years to clean them up. Rokke described the “thousands and thousands” of contaminated vehicles all over Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo which have yet to be cleaned. He himself now has lung and kidney problems while he claims that many other members of his clean-up team have subsequently fallen ill or are dying of cancer. Rokke’s conclusion? “If you can’t clean it up, don’t use it.”

But the U.S. military disagrees with and actively disputes any suggestion that anybody has fallen ill because of DU-tipped weapons. In the 1990s, for instance, Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a resident radiation expert at the Pentagon, attempted to study Gulf War veterans with radiation poisoning. He says that his superiors “told me to stop the research…in my best interests and in the interests of my career.” But Durakovic pursued his controversial research and found excessive amounts of U-236 in the body fluids and organs of his patients. Durakovic says that other physicians studying DU patients who spoke about their findings have been fired.

The 44-member Council of Europe, which includes all NATO members except the U.S. and Canada, understands the risk posed by DU. The documentary reports that the Council “called for a ban on the manufacture, testing, use and sale of weapons using depleted uranium and plutonium,” and concluded that the “use of such weapons during the war in Yugoslavia would have ‘long-term effects on health and quality of life...affecting future generations.’” The United States stands alone among its allies in condoning the use of DU-tipped weapons.

If we invade Iraq this winter and the Iraqis shoot radioactive missiles and bullets at us, we would surely accuse them of using dirty bombs or even weapons of mass destruction. This hypocrisy is totally unacceptable. The United States must ban DU-tipped weapons immediately.

Nicholas F.B. Smyth ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Dunster House.