LANL is Sending Deadly Depleted
Uranium into the Air We Breathe
A Special Report for Sun Monthly by Marilyn Gayle Hoff
Back in 1943, a memo to Manhattan Project’s General Leslie Groves from Drs. Conant, Compton and Urey extolled the lethal possibilities of radioactive materials “as a Gas Warfare Instrument. The material . . . ground into particles of microscopic size and . . . distributed in the form of a dust or smoke or dissolved in liquid, by ground-fired projectiles, land vehicles, airplanes, or aerial bombs . . . would be inhaled by personnel. The amounts necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small.”
Incubating well before the first nuclear weapon exploded, this old dream of radiological weapons — weapons that kill or harm by means of radiation — is now a full-blown reality wherever munitions made of depleted uranium (DU) catch fire. DU munitions now proliferate in the U.S. arsenal. Bullets or bombs made of DU range in size from 20 millimeters (7/8-inch diameter) to 120 millimeters (10-inch diameter), a variety obviously intended for diverse ends.
“Depleted uranium has contaminated the Earth and global atmosphere,” said Leuren Moret, a whistle-blower formerly of Laurence Livermore National Laboratory. She added up 340 tons of DU exploded in the first Gulf War; an undisclosed amount reducing targets in Bosnia and Kosovo to radioactive rubble; 1,000 tons bestowed upon Afghanistan; and as of 2004, before U.S. bombing intensified and vastly ballooned the total, well over 2,000 tons decimating Iraq.
But on its way to nailing U.S. ambitions abroad, DU needs to be stored, designed, manufactured, and tested here at home. Discounted Casualties, a book by Japanese journalist Akira Tashiro, listed 26 American states housing DU firing ranges, DU weapon factories and/or DU storage facilities. Three in New Mexico — Sandia Lab in Albuquerque, the Energetic Metals Research Test Center (EMRTC) three kilometers from Socorro, and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) within sight of Santa Fe — were listed as research-and-development and test-firing sites for DU weapons, exploded in the open air. The EMRTC at Socorro admitted it used about 40 tons of DU between 1972 (the start of DU testing) and 1993. Until very recently the uses of DU at Los Alamos have escaped public notice.
DU Is an Extremely Effective Weapon
After the first Gulf War, Doug Rokke, with 35 years of military experience and a PhD in health physics, was dispatched to the Middle East as a U.S. army contamination expert in charge of Gulf War I uranium cleanup. He spoke of his tour of duty in an interview titled “The War Against Ourselves”:“DU is an extremely effective weapon. Each tank round is 10 pounds of solid uranium-238 contaminated with plutonium, neptunium, americium . . . generating intense heat on impact. When uranium munitions hit, it’s like a firestorm inside any vehicle or structure, and so we saw tremendous burns, tremendous injuries. It was devastating.”
If contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and americium, the uranium in munitions is not technically DU. Transuranic elements like plutonium occur almost never in nature and are born chiefly in nuclear reactors. From this deadly radioactive spent reactor fuel also comes uranium for munitions, flavored with its extreme contaminants. Straight from the mines, natural uranium has likewise gone into munitions. Public-relations-minded military brass nonetheless call all uranium munitions “depleted.”
DU consists entirely of uranium, chiefly the isotope U-238. It is “depleted” during a process called “enrichment,” which extracts traces of the more fissile isotope U-235 to make nuclear fuel rods and, originally, A-bombs. The DU remainder is 99.8 percent U-238. Natural uranium is 99.3 percent, half of a percent difference. The United States stores a million unquiet tons of DU “waste,” gives it away free to U.S. munitions makers, and peddles it around the world.
Uranium is pyrophoric, meaning spontaneously combustible. Put pure uranium powder on a sunny Phoenix pavement some July afternoon and it will burst into flames. It is 1.7 times denser than lead. Its zero-sum price tag and self-sharpening combustibility persuaded the generals to choose depleted uranium over equally dense tungsten for munitions purportedly limited to penetrating tank and bunker armor. At this task DU artillery fire has no peers, burning neat holes through tank armor and incinerating all within.
DU is shot from the 120 millimeter barrels of tank guns, from A-10 Warthog airplanes and from unrevealed smaller weapons. The munitions are shaped like bottles, the shell fatter than the bullet, to keep the DU from touching the barrel as it shoots out. Friction of a DU bullet against its barrel could explode the weapon.
Fine aerosols of uranium oxides and nitrides form when DU weapons ignite, since flaming uranium also bonds with atmospheric nitrogen. About 33 percent of DU dust is soluble. What becomes of these incinerated aerosols indefinitely suspended in the atmosphere, spread by wind or, if precipitated, borne by water, sunk to groundwater, or stirred up again by wind, footsteps and wheels? Asaf Durakovic, of the Uranium Medical Research Center in Canada, wrote: “There is no existing study measuring the distance traveled by such particles.” To avoid studies, which would provide real answers to these questions, nuclear promoters embrace “models.”
Last summer a report in the July 15 Taos Horsefly stated that Los Alamos National Laboratory is permitted to burn, per year, three-fourths ton of depleted uranium (DU) in the open air and tempered this shocking news with the soothing information, based on a model, that smoke from such conflagrations would travel only 50 meters.
Models are computer programs, built within parameters that reflect the careful choosing of which data to consider or stress and which to ignore or downplay. Model makers who wish to lullaby the populace can select their parameters accordingly, like the model that reckoned the deaths and illnesses caused by Chernobyl to be statistically insignificant when seen as a percentage of the total world population.
Thus a postfire risk-assessment model professed to study the distance smoke would travel from a fire, while its parameters excluded how the fierce, shifty, spring winds whipping the Cerro Grande forest fire through Los Alamos in 2000 actually did blow smoke, pollutants and particulates 55 miles northeast to Taos — one of many affected communities snubbed by its calculations. Models can disregard how residents of LANL’s neighbor San Ildefonso Pueblo are forbidden to cut their own contaminated timber. And stressing that an atom of uranium, a heavy metal, has the world’s biggest naturally occurring nucleus, a model can conclude that particles of DU smoke are too weighty to travel any farther than the length of my driveway.
According to whistle-blower Leuren Moret, “There are too many variables to consider in a model. It’s like statistics — you can make it say anything you want.”
Such DU dispersion models, said Moret, are “not considering particle size.” Flaming DU burns at 3,000 to 6,000 degrees Centigrade, producing “a large number of extremely small particles in the nanoparticle range.” A nanoparticle is 0.001 microns, or a billionth of a meter. In the pull of gravity, a particle so minute is as light as air. The particle remains “suspended as atmospheric dust [unless] it is rained out, snowed out or removed by moisture such as fog and deposited in the environment,” said Moret. “This contaminates air, water, soil and food with ionizing radiation, internally exposing all living things.”
To avoid litigation and bad-for-business publicity, the U.S. nuclear industry dresses its activities up pretty, a strategy called “greenwash.” Nuke promoters tout DU cooking utensils and convert the badly contaminated, decommissioned Rocky Flats plutonium processing site in Colorado into a wildlife refuge playground. Even while generals deny carpeting Iraq and Afghanistan with fine uranium dust, they rationalize that uranium is barely radioactive and claim that its alpha radiation cannot harm us internally because it can’t penetrate skin — which means, explained retired Manhattan Project and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Marion Fulk, each alpha particle dumps its intense energy all at once into a tiny area, making it “very wicked.” Here the parameters of the generals’ model exclude wounds and the human need to eat, drink and breathe. “1.3 billion people have been killed, maimed and diseased globally from the nuclear weapons and nuclear power projects,” said Moret.
The orchestrated campaign to downplay depleted uranium comes with shifting themes: don’t mention depleted uranium; don’t acknowledge using depleted uranium; acknowledge using it only to penetrate the armor of tanks and bunkers; assert that the dust from exploded uranium falls down and goes nowhere; imply that the “depletion” of uranium renders it harmless; never mention that not all uranium munitions are depleted; stress that depleted uranium, no big deal, is the least radioactive of all radioactive elements; argue that since alpha radiation from DU can’t penetrate the skin, it can’t harm the body; claim that any radioactive particles that do enter the body will be swiftly expelled; never admit to any connection between exposure to DU and illness, birth defects, death or Gulf War Syndrome, the infamous malady afflicting veterans of Gulf War I.
“There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment,” reads a post–Gulf War I report by LANL. “Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence . . . through Service/DoD proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability.”
British environmental writer Keith Parkins commented, “It is not in the interests of the military-industrial-complex to admit the link between Gulf War Syndrome and depleted uranium, or to admit that those who were on the battlefield will suffer long-term health effects, as to do so would be to deny the use of the latest military toy.” Such an admission would also throw open a floodgate of litigation.
I asked David Fuehne of LANL’s Environmental Stewardship Division if it was true that LANL considers DU nonhazardous. On behalf of LANL he replied, “A given mass of DU is less radioactive than a similar mass of most radioactive materials. The hazards of exposure of DU are primarily due to its chemical toxicity. All heavy and dense materials, such as lead and uranium, can be harmful if inhaled or ingested in significant quantities.”
Marion Fulk countered, “U-238 radiates 12,600 disintegrations per second per gram. Do you consider that safe? I don’t.” Beyond DU’s chemical and radiological toxicity, Fulk said, “the finely divided nanoparticles can breech the cells, and when they enter the cell they will act as catalysts for any reaction thermodynamically available to go downhill toward entropy. It’s like putting the cells in a Waring blender — you get the same chemical composition, but no life.”
Depleted Uranium and Gulf War Syndrome
What else do the Americans want?” spoke Sayed Gharib from Tora Bora, Afghanistan. “They killed us, they turned our newborns into horrific deformations, and they turned our farm lands into graveyards, and destroyed our homes. . . . we have nothing to lose.”
When asked if the United States and Britain were using DU in the post-9/11 war on Afghanistan, United Kingdom Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon told the UK Parliament, “It is not being used at present.” But a recent random sampling of 17 geographically scattered Afghans by Dr. Asaf Durakovic disputed this denial.
Durakovic is a former U.S. Army medical advisor, fired after he found uranium in the urine of U.S. and Canadian Gulf War I veterans in 1999, seven to nine years after exposure. In his recent study, the uranium he found in Afghan subjects closely matched uranium from Afghan War bomb-attack craters. He reported, “The results were astounding: the [Afghan] donors presented concentrations of toxic and radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400 times greater than in the Gulf veterans tested in 1999.”
Symptoms suffered by these irradiated Afghans — fatigue, serious immunodeficiencies, kidney damage, leukemia, cancer, and on and on — closely paralleled the so-called Gulf War Syndrome, a catastrophe that the Pentagon strives to blame on oil fires, vaccinations, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chemical and biological weapon releases, never mentioning DU. In the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fewer scapegoats compete with DU for the toxic blame. And uranium in the urine nine years beyond exposure disputes the mollifying claims by nuclear apologists that radionuclides (radioactive substances) are swiftly expelled by the body.
As U.S. Army contamination expert Doug Rokke, who now battles serious health problems, described his uranium cleanup operation, “When we first got assigned to clean up the DU and arrived in northern Saudi Arabia, we started getting sick within 72 hours. Respiratory problems, rashes, bleeding, open sores started almost immediately.” Nobody warned soldiers fighting in U.S. invasions about the toxicity of DU weapons, and nobody warned or shielded New Mexico village volunteer firefighters, who battled the Cerro Grande forest fire close by LANL’s blazing DU firing ranges, even while the ranges’ extreme contamination went up in smoke.
Of the 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War I, where only 148 died in combat, 11,000 are now dead. “By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on Permanent Medical Disability,” stated Arthur N. Bernklau, executive director of Veterans for Constitutional Law in New York. Compare this 56 percent disability rate with the 10 percent disability rate for Vietnam veterans poisoned by Agent Orange. Boosted by our present wars, the number keeps growing. Terry Jamison from the Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that “Gulf Era veterans” on medical disability since 1991 number 518,739. Bernklau said, “The long-term effects have revealed that DU is a virtual death sentence.”
Depleted Uranium: There Is No Safe Dose
Depleted uranium” is a handy moniker, useful for masking its ecocidal talents, which the generals have always known full well. Witness this 1995 U.S. Army technical report: “If depleted uranium enters the body, it has the potentiality of causing serious medical consequences. The associated risk is both chemical and radiological.”
The half-life of U-238 is the current age of Earth — 4.5 billion years. Half of what now exists will still be around 4.5 billion years hence. Compared to its deadly radioactive offspring, some with half-lives of mere minutes, it decays very slowly and transforms, element by element, through many lethal radioactive steps before settling down as lead. Citing this poky rate of decay, the generals publicly dismiss DU as nontoxic, even as they downplay how much they use it.
But its virtual immortality means that once its particles camp out inside your body, they and their radioactive decay progeny will steadily bombard your cells with radiation forever. Doug Rokke said, “A portion of this stuff is soluble, which means it goes into the bloodstream and all of your organs. The insoluble fraction stays — in the lungs, for example. The radiation damage and the particulates destroy the lungs.”
Consider a nanoparticle of insoluble uranium oxide, 1/10,000 the diameter of a red blood cell. Small enough to elude the filtering celia in your air passages, it can lodge in your deepest lung sacs. According to physicist Marion Fulk, an average man inhales at least 100 billion nanoparticles per day. The likelihood keeps growing that several or multitudes of those particles will be uranium.
Scientist and radiation expert Dr. Rosalie Bertell testified, “DU is a very powerful alpha particle emitter, with each particle carrying a force of about 4.2 MeV (million electron volts). It requires only 6 to 10 eV (electron volts) to break the DNA or other large molecules in the body.”
“If you damage a cell, you’d better kill it,” Fulk said to me. For if just one alpha particle merely manages to deform just one cell still able to reproduce, that cell could quit your body’s team, aspire to untrammeled growth and become instead your parasite, your cancer. Such cell damage arises from what the nuclear industry shrugs off as “low level” radiation.
Nuclear power opponent Dr. Judith Johnsrud wrote me, “I am appalled that DU would be incinerated anywhere. . . . Despite DOE and DoD attempts to claim that depleted uranium is not hazardous to human health, I would have to conclude that any alpha emitter which is inhaled (or ingested) and thus becomes an internal emitter cannot help but pose a hazard. . . . Recent research in the field of radiation microbiology has quite clearly established that a single radiation track through a cell is enough to cause a subsequent damage, including but not limited to cancer.”
“By any reasonable standard of biomedical proof,” asserted molecular biologist Dr. John W. Gofman, formerly of Lawrence Livermore Lab, “there is no safe dose.”
Uranium in your gonads can distort your genetic heritage, and in semen it can contaminate sexual partners. “The military admitted that they were finding uranium excreted in the semen of the soldiers,” said Doug Rokke. “If you’ve got uranium in the semen, the genetics are messed up.” In a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study of 251 families in Mississippi, 67 percent of soldiers came back from the first Gulf War to beget children with serious illnesses or deformities.
Dr. Jannan Ghalib described photos of Iraqi babies born after Gulf War I: “This one, no head. This one, legs fused together. Another, no limbs and tiny buds on the misshapen chest. Then a face with no eyes, just flaps of skin over the empty sockets. Another with a huge water swollen head with no brain.”
Carol H. Picou, a military nurse deployed to the battle zone of the first Gulf War, has tested positive for uranium poisoning. “I have long term/short term memory deficit. I have toxic encephalopathy — a disease of the brain. I have developed thyroid deterioration. I have developed suspicious squamous cancerous cells of the uterus. My muscles have deteriorated. I have no control over my bowels or my bladder at all anymore. I had my tubes tied. I was afraid I would have a child born with birth defects. This baby [she referred to a photo of a Gulf War I veteran’s child] is missing his ear and his eye, and his heart is on the wrong side. What happened over there?”
LANL explodes depleted uranium at test sites 11, 15 and 36. Its deadly particulate matter rides the wind in all directions, as well as settling on the ground and into the water. This poses serious health risks to the people and environs of Los Alamos, White Rock, Taos, Embudo Valley, Española and Santa Fe — as well as to those who live