The US Army has awarded General Dynamics a $12 million contract to deconstruct and dispose of 78,000 depleted uranium anti-tank shells. The Pentagon’s May 6 announcement calls for “demilitarization” of the aging shells, as newer depleted uranium rounds are added to the US arsenal.
In the perpetually profitable business of war production, General Dynamics originally produced and sold some of the 120-millimeter anti-tank rounds to the Army. One of the richest weapons builders on earth, General Dynamics has 95,000 employees and sells its wares in 40 countries on six continents.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons in Manchester, England, reports the armor-piercing shells to be disassembled are thought to be the large 105-millimeter and 120-millimeter anti-tank rounds.
Depleted uranium, or DU, weapons are made of extremely dense uranium-238. More than 700,000 tons of DU has been left as waste in the US alone from the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor fuel rods. The urankum-238 is left when fissionable uranium-235 is separated for H-bombs and reactor fuel. DU is only ‘depleted’ of this U-235. It is still a radioactive and toxic heavy metal. A tax and ecological liability, DU is given away free to weapons builders.
The Pentagon is replacing older DU shells in spite of international appeals for a moratorium on their use. The military is set to buy 2,500 large anti-tank rounds just this year at a cost of $30 million or over $10,000 each from Alliant Tech Systems, formerly of Minneapolis.
In 1991, during its 40-day, 1,000-sorties-per-day bombardment, between 300 and 800 tons of DU was blasted into Iraq by US forces. Another estimated 170 tons were used in the 2003 bombing and annexation. Toxic, radioactive contamination left from the use of these weapons (the DU burns and turns to dusty aerosol on impact) has been linked to the skyrocketing incidence of birth abnormalities in southern Iraq and to the Gulf War Syndrome among tens of thousands of US combat veterans.
After the US/NATO bombardment of Kosovo in 1999, our DU weapons were discovered to be spiked with plutonium and other isotopes. This news created a political uproar in Europe and led to the admission by the US Energy Department that “the entire US stock of depleted uranium was contaminated” with plutonium, americium, neptunium and technetium. United Nations investigators in Kosovo found sites hit with DU to be poisoned with all four isotopes. The Nation magazine reported that about 150,000 tons uranium-238 was dirtied with plutonium-239 and neptunium-237 and that “some apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans battlefields.” (Robert Alvarez, “DU at Home,” The Nation, April 9, 2001, p. 24)
European papers shouting “Plutonium!” in headlines saw US and NATO officials rushing to microphones to claim with straight faces that their shells contained “mere traces of plutonium, not enough to cause harm,” and that the highly radioactive materials “were not relevant to soldiers’ health because of their minute quantities.” But plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than U-238 and ingesting less than 27 micrograms of plutonium-239 a millionth of an ounce — will cause lung cancer.
(One indication of just how poisonous these weapons are is that in 30 years of resisting nuclear weapons and the war system, the only ‘not guilty of trespass’ verdict I ever won from a jury followed a protest at Alliant Tech over its DU program. The jury agreed with four of us that since poison weapons are banned by the Geneva and Hague Conventions our action was an attempt at crime prevention.)
Long-term disposal plans for the uranium from 78,000 shells were not outlined by the Army. Uranium in the shells is often alloyed with titanium or molybdenum, and if these metals are not recycled, they could become part of our vast stockpile of DU, requiring indefinite storage as intermediate-level radioactive waste. Other parts of the munitions are currently disposed of as low-level rad’ waste in spite of the plutonium content.
John LaForge works for Nukewatch, edits its Quarterly, and lives at the Plowshares Land Trust out of Luck, Wisconsin.