Heavy Metal or Death Metal?
Depleted Uranium Draws Criticism At Home and Abroad
By Lou Nicholas
JULY 3, 2000: There's a byproduct of nuclear weapons manufacturing that has drawn criticism worldwide. But it's not a story just for the foreign news section of the daily paper or the 30-second long TV news "world minute." This metal should concern New Mexico residents as well, since there's tons of it on our enchanted soil. It's called depleted uranium (DU), and it may be time the public became better informed about the DU debate.
Only a few atoms can be easily split for their nuclear energy. One such atom is the uranium isotope, U-235. However, less than one percent of the uranium found in nature is U-235. Most uranium is the less desirable U-238. Depleted uranium is formed once most of the U-235 is extracted from natural uranium to form "enriched" uranium. Depleted uranium is almost pure U-238, which has a half-life of 4.6 billion years and is about 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.
One use for DU is in tank armor and munitions. The U.S. military first used DU weapons during the Gulf War in 1991. Depleted uranium munitions easily went through Iraqi tanks while DU armor protected American tanks. Since then, there has been a growing concern as to the environmental and health effects of DU weapons.
One of the leading activists against DU, Damacio Lopez, is a native of Socorro and executive director of the International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST), a group working towards the banning of DU weapons. IDUST's mission statement includes the following damning assessment of DU: "DU has become internationally recognized as a health hazard. It is a suspected environmental contaminant in more than 50 sites across the U.S. and on battlefields and test sites throughout the world. Affected communities experience health problems similar to those of U.S. Gulf War veterans and Iraqi soldiers and civilians."
While DU opponents warn of dire consequences to the public and the environment, scientists working for the Department of Defense have downplayed these concerns. Dr. George Volez from Los Alamos Labs testified in an Aug. 4, 1996 public hearing on Gulf War Syndrome, saying "Studies of the health effects of workers exposed to uranium are meager and inconsistent. ... At those dose levels (i.e., what Gulf vets received) they provide little epidemiological support for kidney damage or excessive malignant tumors."
The U.S. government has produced more than 1.1 billion pounds of DU in its uranium enrichment facilities located in Ohio and Kentucky. Although DU is a nuclear waste, it has some uses, such as ballast material in some boats and aircraft. On its own, DU can't be made into a nuclear weapon, but DU can enhance the explosive yield of hydrogen bombs by 50 percent. In a breeder nuclear reactor, DU can be converted into plutonium which can be used in nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium has also been used to simulate highly toxic plutonium in nuclear safety tests. The glazing in false teeth and some ceramics contain DU, including the orange-colored dishes of "Fiestaware" manufactured during the 1970s. Despite these various uses, DU didn't get much attention until it was used on the conventional battlefield.
Because DU is hard, nearly twice as dense as lead, and cheap (the U.S. government gives it away), it's a perfect metal for tank warfare. The Germans were the first to experiment with DU munitions in 1943. U.S. munitions experiments began in the 1960s. However, it's been used in other experiments since the late 1940s at Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. Testing of DU munitions has occurred at N.M. Tech and White Sands at least since the early 1970s.
In New Mexico, testing involving DU has occurred at various sites for some 50 years. Should people living near DU contaminated sites be concerned? Many people suspect DU has contaminated communities beyond the testing areas. Upon impact, 10 to 70 percent of a DU penetrator (the tip of the tank shell capable of penetrating armor) can aerosolize into a fine dust which, if at a high enough concentration, is considered toxic if inhaled or ingested.
The amount of precautions used to prevent the dispersion of DU from test sites has varied from none to extensive. Berms and catch boxes have been used to contain DU dust. However, in some tests conducted at Sandia, scientists studied how far DU particles would disperse. The DU simulated highly radioactive plutonium in nuclear safety tests evaluating the survivability of nuclear weapons in collision accidents. In a 1987 Sandia Environmental Restoration Information Sheet, a Sandia official wrote, "Plutonium dispersion was simulated in tests using uranium. Later, during the Vietnam War, some impact tests were conducted using burning uranium. The tests scattered some uranium and started fires in the surrounding area. ... The Page Study, conducted in 1974, involved the volatilization of aluminum, iron, depleted uranium and cerium. ... The study consisted of approximately 18 tests with kilogram quantities of metals used in each test. ... Air samples were collected by samplers suspended from the overhead cables. The metal particle clouds usually blew to the south/southwest." How far the uranium clouds traveled is conspicuously missing from the one-page information sheet.
While Sandia scientists were exploding DU dust into the air, a munitions plant during the 1970s near Albany, N.Y., was releasing trace amounts of DU dust particles detectable up to 26 miles away. N.Y., state eventually shut the plant down in 1983 for exceeding state elimination limits of 372 grams of DU per month.
Depleted uranium opposition increased after the Gulf War, where the United States fired about 340 tons of DU. (Since then, the U.S. has fired DU munitions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia.) Concerned about a future ban on DU weapons, Lt. Col. M.V. Ziehmn wrote in March, 1991, from Los Alamos, "There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. ... If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability." In other words, DU has a public relations problem.
In April, 1991, a classified report by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority warned that the DU used in the Gulf War could enter the food chain and cause more than 500,000 premature deaths in Iraq and Kuwait. The report was leaked to a London newspaper, The Independent, a few months later. Since then, the Iraqi and Kuwaiti governments have reported increases in various diseases in their population. However, the accuracy of these health statistics and their connection to DU is hotly debated.
American Gulf War veterans are also reporting health problems. Some 100,000 out of 700,000 Gulf War vets are inflicted with "Gulf War Syndrome." A Veterans Administration survey of 251 families of Gulf War vets living in Mississippi found that 67 percent of their children conceived and born after the war had severe birth defects. Many veterans believe DU contamination is one of several possible causes for their health problems.
Los Alamos has more than 110 tons of DU scattered about the lab's sites. The exact amount used at Sandia is sketchy. "A few thousand pounds, but not tens of thousands," says Dr. Dann Ward, a Sandia health physicist. Others believe there's a lot more. "Tons of it," says Damacio Lopez of IDUST. Several more tons of DU have been tested at N.M. Tech and White Sands. Does DU create an environmental disaster area? The answers depend on who you ask.
N.M. Tech officials believe that their DU testing has not endangered the community of Socorro. David Collis of EMRTC (Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center) at N.M. Tech said, "There are no risks to the residents of Socorro. All DU has been contained on the range where the testing was conducted. This has been verified on numerous occasions by the New Mexico Environment Department, Hazardous & Radioactive Materials Bureau. ... The area that was used for the testing was bermed and enclosed to prevent any spread of potential contamination." Two of the test ranges were remediated to the state's cleanup standards in 1993. The remaining contaminated range is involved in a DU bio-remediation study using native plants.
Sandia cleaned up several contaminated test sites of DU dust and fragments in 1994-95. The DU survey/clean-up involved mainly the DU within a few inches of the surface. There is still DU buried in the ground that may never be found because of poor record keeping. The buried DU may be mixed in some areas with other more toxic substances such as plutonium. Community activists are concerned that these buried wastes may eventually enter the groundwater.
The people involved with the surface clean-up project at Sandia wore no protective masks or suits. The only protective gear were gloves and rubber "booties" to prevent carrying DU dust off the work site. The low level of protection used by Sandia employees and contractors in the DU survey/clean-up project is in stark contrast to the level of safety measures that the Army used to decontaminate 23 American armored vehicles damaged in the Gulf War from "friendly" fire. The Army shipped the vehicles to a $4 million facility in South Carolina specially built to prevent DU dust from escaping into the environment. In a Dec. 26, 1999 episode of "60 Minutes," Army major Doug Rokke, a health physicist, complained bitterly about how the Army did not provide adequate safety protection against DU dust for the troops. Army Field Manual 3-14 specifies that, "When working within 50 meters of DU-equipped vehicles that have been destroyed by fire or when entering vehicles that have been hit by DU munitions, wear protective mask and clothing." Although he was one of the few soldiers to have such protection, Dr. Rokke is now suffering from kidney problems which he believes is due to his exposure to DU in clean-up operations in the Gulf war.
Were Sandia personnel concerned about inhaling DU dust? "We did start out with higher protection," said Caroline Byrd, an employee at Sandia National Labs in the Environmental Restoration Office. "We wore a breathing zone monitor which indicates how much DU dust is in the surrounding air. We used those for six months, and they were coming up negative. At that point we discontinued the extra controls." They also checked the workers for radiation contamination, but found none. "Depleted uranium powder is extremely heavy, about 18 times heavier than water," said Dr. Ward. "So small particles don't become airborne." Will Keener, Public Participation Task Leader for Sandia said, "We've been monitoring air, soil, and groundwater beyond the testing areas on the base for six years and have found no unusual radiation above background."
If DU does not appear to travel very far from a testing area, what about on a battlefield where just one A-10 aircraft could release a ton of DU rounds per minute over a large area? Is a battlefield permanently radioactive? Dr. Ward said, "DU is less radioactive than the natural uranium in the soil. After a battle, you could find the penetrators themselves and pick them up. The oxide powder, I would think, would be of no risk if you plow the land. ... The uranium uptake by plants is minimal." To the proponents of DU, the radioactivity of DU is too low to be of concern. However, they admit chemically it is toxic because it's a heavy metal which can damage the kidneys. Alternatives to DU such as tungsten and lead are heavy metals, too. "No one is worried about the lead in bullets," says Dr. Ward.
About three years after the war, the Veterans Administration (VA) performed urine samples on 33 Gulf War veterans who had been hit with DU fragments. Although the veterans' urine showed elevated amounts of DU, the amounts were still less than one twentieth what the government considers toxic to the kidneys. The study, published in the November, 1999 issue of Health Physics, found no adverse kidney problems in the veterans. This study is ongoing.
The RAND Corporation, a think tank, did a literature survey for the Pentagon of all the available health studies on uranium. Their 1999 report (www.gulflink.osd.mil/library/randrep/du) concluded that radiological health concerns were not significant. "The body is very effective at eliminating ingested and inhaled natural uranium and ä the low radioactivity per unit mass of natural and depleted uranium means that the mass of uranium needed for significant internal exposure is virtually impossible to obtain."
Of course, the critics of DU are skeptical of these assurances. They first point out that the government has admitted to lying about other nuclear activities which included radiation studies on thousands of people without their knowledge. So why trust them now? Second, DU opponents cite numerous government documents which admit that DU is toxic both chemically and radiologically. For example, a June, 1995 U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) report, entitled Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army, states, "If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological." Third, they ask why the government waited three years to choose to monitor only 35 Gulf War veterans for long-term health effects. Since the level of dissolved DU in the body decreases rapidly a few months after exposure, the urine samples performed some three years after the war are meaningless.
In the report, Don't Look, Don't Find: Gulf War Veterans, the U.S. Government and Depleted Uranium (www.miltoxproj.org/DU/Report.pdf), Dan Fahey of The Military Toxics Project criticizes the RAND report for bias and error. For example, one of the authors of the RAND report, Arlene Hudson, was simultaneously working for the Pentagon, and the RAND authors assumed DU exposure levels that were more than 10 times lower than what was even estimated by the Army.
Community activists in Albuquerque are also not buying assurances by Sandia officials. Damacio Lopez says, "DU can cause serious health problems such as cancer and birth defects when it enters the human body. ... In Kirtland, the DU is in trenches. It's near town. They were real careless. They would conduct aerial bursts to see how far the particulate would go." Lopez believes there's a long history of silence surrounding uranium. "There have been extensive studies on uranium miners and the inhalation of U-238," says Lopez. "And before them, studies on uranium miners in Austria who died in the 1920s and 1930s. Then in the '40s, we sent Navajo miners into open-pit mines, blasting with no respirators, nothing, and handling their food without washing their hands, going home with the stuff [uranium ore/tailings] on their feet, and then actually taking the stuff home. They were told to take it home to get it out of there. And they used it to make their houses. And how many of these people lived through this? Not many." Lopez questions DU's legality as well. "DU is illegal under international human rights and humanitarian laws governing customs of war."
And while Collis claims no DU testing has occurred at N.M. Tech since 1993, Lopez doesn't believe him. He points to a June 1995 AEPI report listing Sandia, N.M. Tech and Los Alamos as DU testing facilities. In a 1992 study conducted by UNM, a biochemistry student, Daniel Cano, found that levels of U-238 in the soil near the Albuquerque Sewer Plant were more than double the amount found at other sites along the Rio Grande: a level of 8 pCi/g (pico-curies/grams of soil) versus 3 pCi/g. However, the levels were still well below the 35 pCi/g level considered safe by government environmental officials.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has done surveys of both Socorro and Albuquerque for possible DU contamination and has found no significant amount of DU. Los Alamos, however, may be another story.
In 1998, Los Alamos environmental officials found uranium in a test well at twice the level being proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a drinking water standard. Also found with the uranium was oxolate acid which is used in uranium processing. The test well was 275 feet below Los Alamos county. The uranium hasn't entered the drinking water, which is located 690 feet below the surface.
According to Pat Longmire, a Los Alamos geochemist, the isotopic distribution of the uranium samples indicate that the uranium is natural rather than DU. However, the 1998 study was preliminary because construction of the test well had not been completed. Further samples are planned to determine whether the uranium is coming from the laboratory or a natural source. The second study was about to begin when the Cerro Grande fire hit.
According to Dennis McQuillin, a geologist for the NMED, natural uranium contamination is a problem is several areas of the state. The state analyzes all municipal wells in the state for uranium every three years. Steve Yanicak, an NMED scientist, believes Los Alamos is the source. "My feeling is that it is from a LANL source ... due to the detection of oxalate and because during the early '40s through the late '50s, TA-1 processed lots of natural uranium near the present Los Alamos Inn." Although uranium hasn't entered the Los Alamos drinking water, in 1999 the NMED found trace amounts of other radioactive contaminants, tritium and strontium-90. The tritium may be naturally occurring but the strontium-90 could only come from the laboratory. The levels found were well below federal health standards, but they serve as evidence that radioactive contaminants from lab activities can enter the county drinking water.
The controversy of DU centers on the question: Is low level radiation dangerous? If it is, the small but steady dose of radiation coming from DU dust trapped in someone's body may cause cancer. Proponents of DU point to studies on normal background radiation. Dr. Ward said, "We know people are getting (annually) 200 to 500 mrem (millirem) from natural background radiation. We notice no difference in cancer rates between low background areas and high background areas. And those differences in radiation dosage are on the order of hundreds of mrems."
Opponents of DU point to studies such as "Petkau effect." While working at a Canadian government laboratory, Dr. Abram Petkau discovered in 1972 that a high-dose radiation (26,000 mrems per minute) required a dose of 3.5 million mrems to destroy a cell membrane, while low-dose radiation (1 mrem per minute) only needed 0.7 mrems. The sparsely populated oxygen-free radicals generated by low-dose radiation have a much higher probability of reacting with a cell than do the densely crowded free radicals produced by high-dose radiation. The Canadian government told Dr. Petkau not to give interviews to the press.
A study of 115,143 nuclear workers by the University of North Carolina released earlier this year found that workers exposed to 5,000 mrem of radiation per year were three and a half times more likely to die from myeloma than workers exposed to only 1,000 mrem per year. The study raises questions as to whether the government radiation occupational limit of 5,000 mrems per year is too high. As a comparison, radiation levels at the surface of an unshielded DU penetrator is 250 mrem/hour. A person sitting in an M1A1 tank with shielded armor receives about 0.13 mrem/hour or about one medical x-ray every 20 to 30 hours.
Los Lunas resident and Gulf War veteran Spc. Jerry Wheat was hit with DU shrapnel from "friendly fire." Upon being reunited with his family, Wheat claims his DU-contaminated uniform triggered a respiratory attack in his baby son Joseph, who had to be hospitalized. Within months, Wheat lost 60 pounds and suffered from sharp abdominal pains. He has periodic outbreaks of unusual blistering. His second son, Derek, born after the war, has the same blisters. A few years later, the VA removed a bone tumor in his left arm. (Inhaled or digested DU tends to concentrate in the bone and kidneys.)
Wheat didn't even know he was hit with DU until his father, Lloyd Wheat, an industrial hygienist technician at Los Alamos, discovered that his son's shrapnel were radioactive. Jerry is sure the government is involved in a cover-up. "The VA said my bone tumor wasn't cancerous, but I had some other medical people from Canada who wanted to study this tumor. So I asked the VA to send them a sample of the tumor so they could study it. They wouldn't do it. ... I've asked for a thorough check-up of my kidneys. They won't do it."
Jerry Wheat isn't the only veteran screaming cover-up. An Army doctor specializing in nuclear medicine, Col. Asaf Durakovic, was in charge of conducting diagnostic tests of 24 DU-contaminated veterans. The records of the tests mysteriously disappeared, and Durakovic was "downsized" out of the army. Dr. Durakovic wrote to President Clinton in February, 1997: "The lost records, lost laboratory specimens and retaliations which are well-documented point to no less than conspiracy to terminate my efforts of proper management of Gulf War veterans." Dr. Durakovik is now studying DU health effects in Canada, a country that does not use DU weapons.
Although at least 17 countries have DU weapons, it's ironic that the country who first produced DU munitions, Germany, currently has none in its own military. Klaus Huesing, a nuclear physicist who works at the German weapons test center at Meppen, explains, "We refuse to use it as an armor or as an ammunition because it's very difficult and toxic to handle." What about being at a disadvantage on the battlefield? Huesing said, "We don't have much concern because we are still pretty good with our munitions, and we have nearly the same effectiveness with tungsten. ... We have reactive armor for our tanks and other new advantages. So we don't need any radioactive materials. But depleted uranium has one advantage: It's cheap!"
Sandia officials admit that they still conduct DU testing. Will Keener said, "However, for the past eight to 10 years, it has been our practice not to test in a way that any of that depleted uranium would be dispersed into the environment. ... If there were an accident and it was dispersed into the environment it would be our practice to immediately clean it up." Oddly enough, when officials in the Environmental Restoration Office at Sandia--the people involved with DU clean-up projects--were asked, they were not sure if DU testing continues at the laboratory.
Depleted uranium experiments also continue in Los Alamos, where more than 100 tons of DU still litter test sites and uranium has entered the local aquifer. The recent Cerro Grande fire has raised questions as to how much radiation was released from the laboratory. Did large amounts of DU dust get swept up by the fire? Leonard Dietz was the scientist who studied the migration of DU dust from the New York munitions plant and is now advisor to the DU Citizens' Network. He says, "Probably not. I'm more worried about the plutonium." Los Alamos geochemist Pat Longmire believes the temperatures of the forest fire were too low to volatize the DU into the air.
Other scientists disagree. Yanicak is concerned about fires releasing DU dust from the S-Site area of Los Alamos. "The fine metal shavings and dust abundant in the soils at these firing sites, from 40-plus years of open detonations of DU-jacketed assemblies, most likely went up--fined-grained DU is also pyrophoric--and was released some undetermined distance in the smoke plume." At various air monitoring stations, radiation levels in the air were at least five to 10 times higher than normal during the fire. Government officials say this increase in radiation is usual during any forest fire. But Los Alamos waited over a month to allow the NMED and EPA on their property to do an environmental assessment--not exactly a move that reassures the public.
Lopez, IDUST and other environmental groups are demanding an independent study to determine the exact source of this radiation. And the worse may come with the summer rains. With the loss of vegetation on the mesa slopes at Los Alamos, soil erosion may increase dramatically. Depleted uranium and other toxins laying on or in the ground may be carried by rain into the Rio Grande. Los Alamos environmental officials believe that water and soil runoff will dilute any contaminants so as not to be a threat to the public. However, no one is certain what exactly will happen. Depleted uranium and the New Mexico connection continues.
Lou Nicholas served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force from 1983 to 1989, working as a mechanical engineer in the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base.
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