21st January 2001

by Jonathon Carr-Brown

SHELLS fired in the Gulf war and Kosovo were made out of material contaminated by a potentially lethal cocktail of nuclear waste, according to a book published this week. The claim, supported by American army and government documents, suggests that the military in Kosovo and Iraq used depleted uranium (DU) shells containing traces of elements that indicate the probable presence of plutonium and other highly toxic nuclear by-products.

The allegations contained in 'Depleted Uranium: The Invisible War' will embarrass the British and American governments, which have consistently denied DU is harmful, and enrage veterans of the Gulf and Kosovo. Martin Messonnier, Frederick Loore and Roger Trilling, the authors of the book, are convinced that the Pentagon has misled the world with claims that its DU is safe.

Until now, the Pentagon has maintained that DU shells are safe because they contain only mildly radioactive uranium. But the authors claim the shells were made with uranium contaminated with more toxic elements. DU was first used in the Gulf war where the dense metal proved deadly against Iraqi tanks. The American army is determined to keep the shells in its arsenal despite the fact the American navy has withdrawn them on health grounds.

The authors’ claims are based on papers that have led them to three nuclear plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee - the main makers of DU. Last January Bill Richardson, the energy secretary, accepted after decades of denials that thousands of workers at Paducah "had been exposed to radiation and chemicals that produced cancer and early death". Most of the victims display symptoms similar to Gulf war veterans -
particularly chronic fatigue and joint pain. The authors claim the workers had been handling uranium contaminated with plutonium, which was
then used to make DU. Documents from August 1999 show that workers at Paducah had been inhaling plutonium as part of a "...flawed government experiment to recycle used nuclear reactor fuel." The first sign was employees with a string of cancers in the 1980s.

In October 1999 the energy department reported that "...during the process of making fuel for nuclear reactors and elements for nuclear weapons, the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant...[...]...created depleted uranium potentially containing neptunium and plutonium." Plutonium can cause cancer if ingested even in minute quantities. What the workers at Paducah and its sister plants were dealing with were recycled uranium stocks already contaminated during the enrichment process at other nuclear plants. The workers, like the soldiers in Iraq and Kosovo, were not equipped to deal with these hazards. Paducah was designed to handle uranium, not plutonium, which is about 100,000 times more radioactive per gram.

Last week United Nations officials investigating the effects of DU in Kosovo confirmed they had found traces of elements indicating plutonium. According to the authors, the only possible source for DU containing plutonium are Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge, which used the contaminated uranium.

23rd January 2001

Plutonium and a highly radioactive isotope, U-236, found in US depleted uranium (DU) munitions has been traced to the use of contaminated equipment at US government plants where the heavy metal was produced during the Cold War, the Pentagon said Tuesday. Pentagon spokesmen said that the amounts found in US stocks of depleted uranium were minute and the risk to health or to the environment was insignificant.

"We have seen nothing in our studies that this would have more than an insignificant impact either on personal health or the environment," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. "It is just incredibly small quantities here that we’re talking about both in the armor and in the munitions themselves," he said. But the disclosure that DU munitions contain even trace amounts of highly toxic plutonium as well as U-236 has outraged Germany, whose defense minister protested the Pentagon’s failure to keep its' allies informed.

NATO has been struggling for weeks to allay fears in some European countries that a rash of reported cancer cases among veterans of Balkans peace keeping missions were linked to exposure to depleted uranium ordnance fired by US forces during conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. Quigley said a NATO committee set up to look into the depleted uranium issue has been informed in recent days about the plutonium found in US DU stocks.

It was detected as early as 1999 in the course of an investigation by the Department of Energy into contamination at its processing plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Piketon, Ohio, defense officials said.

The investigation found that all three plants during the 1950s through the 1970s were contaminated by operations involving recycled uranium that contained plutonium, neptunium and technetium-99, defense officials said. Depleted uranium produced with the contaminated equipment itself became contaminated with plutonium and the other transuranic elements, they said.

Trace elements of U-236, which normally would not be found in depleted uranium, also were noted when depleted uranium stocks were checked in 1999, said Lieutenant Colonel Paul Phillips, a Pentagon spokesman. "The source of the contamination as best we can understand it now was the plant themselves that produced the depleted uranium during the 20 some year time frame when the DU was produced," said Quigley.