LAT A Dark Magic in America's Silver Bullets
LOS ANGELES TIMES
A Dark Magic in America's Silver Bullets
Depleted uranium helps the U.S. win wars. But it's sowing profound fear.
By Deborah Blum
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author
of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection."
June 1, 2003
MADISON, Wis. - Early this spring, the U.S. Department of Defense held a
barely noticed briefing on America's use of radioactive weaponry in the
Iraq war. The weapons in question are called "depleted uranium" bullets
and - as military officials proudly say - they may be the best
tank-busting weapons ever made.
From his Pentagon podium, Army Col. James Naughton expressed unreserved
admiration for the big silver-colored bullets. Or at least for their
ability to take out the enemy. In our battles with the Iraqis, their
traditional ordnance bounced off American tanks. By contrast, U.S.
uranium-enhanced ammunition took their armored vehicles apart. Or as
Naughton said smugly, "The result was Iraqi tanks destroyed, U.S. tanks
with scrape marks."
You might think of this as just another chest-beating exercise by us
American warrior types. But Naughton and his colleagues in the U.S.
military have a particular need to praise - or rather defend - depleted
uranium bullets. The real purpose of the recent briefing was to counter
"misinformation." Translated, that means other people don't like our
choice of tank-killer devices.
The critics, ranging from environmentalists in Europe to scientists in
the Middle East, say that in all our recent engagements - the 1991
Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia and now the latest Iraqi conflict - we
left our poisonous, uranium-dusted footprints all over other people's
homelands. They worry that the chunks of radioactive litter scattered
across former battlefields have already caused a variety of illnesses.
They worry, too, about the potential for future harm.
This image of the U.S. as a major military polluter is not the one we
want to cultivate abroad. And the Pentagon doesn't seem to like making
nice in response. Naughton, for instance, snappily suggested that Iraqi
critics are merely political subversives: "They want it to go away
because last time we kicked the crap out of them. I mean, there's no
doubt that DU gave us a huge advantage so wouldn't it be great if we
[the Iraqis] could convince the world to make the U.S. give up DU?"
It strikes me that there's no need to be quite so defensive. There's no
real pressure on the U.S. to stop using the bullets, and there's no real
national debate over DU munitions. If Americans are aware of the issue
at all, they mostly regard it as a mess in someone else's backyard. A
few U.S. veterans and antiwar protesters have railed against
uranium-based weapons, but they haven't been able to excite much
There's a different level of anger and frustration in Europe, where our
peacekeeping forces fired some 13 tons of DU bullets during missions in
Bosnia and Kosovo. The complaints are even louder in Iraq, where
physicians have blamed what they claim is an increasing rate of birth
defects on the United States. The Pentagon estimates that the 1991 Gulf
War left behind about 320 tons of DU debris. It hasn't calculated the
tonnage from the recent conflict - "We're busy with other issues," said
Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner - but the numbers are expected
to be higher.
As always, it's a mistake to think of a battleground as something that
can just be tidied up. What conflict hasn't produced decades' worth of
hazardous war souvenirs? You can still occasionally dig up the rusting
bullets of our 19th century Civil War in the mountains of the Southeast.
There remain regions in France still marked by the chemical poisons of
World War I. The land mines placed in wars, small and large, continue to
maim the innocent in Asia and Africa. And in Japan, the destructive
effects of World War II's ultimate radioactive weapon may be repaired,
but they have certainly not been forgotten.
Should DU bullets be classed in this company? Rationally, of course,
there's no comparing antitank munitions with the legacy of the two
atomic bombs dropped on Japan, "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." Some remnant
tons of slightly radioactive metal should barely flicker on the
environmental threat meter. If the rest of the world would just be more
rational, we wouldn't be having this discussion.
That kind of exasperated reasoning approaches the position of the
Pentagon and, in fact, many independent scientists. Robert L. Park of
the American Physical Society is downright sarcastic on the question: "I
always figured it would be a lot better to be shot with a uranium bullet
than a dum-dum - it should make a good clean hole. Physicists don't
spend much time worrying about natural uranium, and DU is even less
radioactive by about 40%."
There's another way to look at depleted uranium, and that's as a problem
that can really, really linger. Uranium 238, the primary heavy metal in
DU bullets, has a radioactive half-life of 109 years. Wimp radiation or
not, the fragments and shells and uranium-loaded bits and pieces are the
kind of war souvenirs that can bother people for a long time, making
them edgy about us, our battle tactics, and what we casually leave
So what is it about DU bullets that makes our military swoon? Depleted
uranium is a byproduct of weapons processing. Remove the lighter, more
radioactive isotopes for bomb production and you're left with something
like the world's heaviest rock. DU is almost twice as dense as lead. It
was this big-bad-stone-in-a-slingshot potential that first attracted
But then they discovered something even better. Other metals, from
tungsten to steel, flatten on impact. But the uranium heats, peeling
back from the bullet's point. In effect, it self-sharpens, meaning that
it can tear into armored tanks with unparalleled force. As Naughton
said: "We don't want to fight even. Nobody goes into a war and wants to
be even with the enemy. We want to be ahead, and DU gives us that
It also means we can end battles quickly, surely a good thing. If by
doing that DU bullets save lives, and if the radiation is a minor issue,
it's fair to ask why other people dislike them so much. For one thing,
radiation is only part of the problem. Like other heavy metals, such as
lead, depleted uranium is chemically toxic. Absorbed by the body, heavy
metals can damage kidneys, break down nerves and cause chemically
induced cancers. The Pentagon actually considers this a greater risk.
Military doctors have been watching Gulf War veterans, braced for those
illnesses. But they haven't uncovered such signs of evil.
In the 12 years of testing, they've found no such poisoning, no
radiation-linked cancers, no patterns of uranium-sparked disease. United
Nations studies conducted in Kosovo and Bosnia came up similarly empty
on health effects. That doesn't mean these are benign materials. Studies
in cell cultures and microorganisms show even low-level toxicity does
harm at the cellular level, that even wimp radiation kills and deforms
cells. A few studies have suggested DU might be worse than passive
metals like lead, that the radiation and toxicity could work together to
cause genetic damage. Perhaps. So far, though, only the Iraqis have
noted severe effects in humans, from birth defects to cancers, but they
have also refused to allow the United Nations to independently verify
So give us some credit here. One of the reasons this hasn't been a
high-profile issue in this country is that no one has produced
consistently convincing reasons for worry. And then take some credit
away - we haven't responded to the real issue behind the criticism. The
rest of the world doesn't trust us on this one. Not even our allies:
"But what if they [the Americans] are wrong?" the British science
magazine New Scientist asked in April.
Ask yourself this: Would you trust an invading nation that left its
toxic weaponry all over your country and responded to complaints by
saying that it was only a little poisonous? Or that these were terrific
tank-busters? We should remember that being a good winner involves a lot
more than the victory dance itself.
When it comes to depleted uranium weapons, I vote for the high moral
ground. Let's acknowledge that perception of risk can sometimes be as
frightening as risk itself. Let's invite U.N. environmental inspectors
to do an independent assessment in Iraq. And as a matter of principle,
let's clean up our mess. It may look like it's someone else's problem.
But it's really ours.