America’s Dirty Bombs


The Pentagon has announced plans to send several thousand specialists into Iraq to join the search for those “weapons of mass destruction” of Saddam Hussein’s–remember the ones that Iraq was supposedly brimming over with, and which were the stated reason for America’s invasion? But while it is stepping up that effort, the Pentagon says it has no intention to do anything about the consequences of America’s own “dirty bomb” campaign against Iraq. Although the U.S. and Britain reportedly dropped as much as 2000 tons of depleted uranium weapons on Iraq, including in the center of densely populated Baghdad, a Pentagon spokesman last month told the BBC that it has “no plans to do a DU clean-up in Iraq.”

Nor is the U.S. allowing inspectors from the U.N. environmental Program into Iraq to look for signs of DU contamination. It seems that just as the U.S. government doesn’t want U.N. weapons inspectors to come into Iraq where they might undermine any U.S. claims to have found evidence of Saddam’s WMDs, they don’t want any U.N. environmental inspectors to come in and find evidence of U.S. use of a weapon that the U.N. has condemned as a weapon of mass destruction.

If U.N. estimates of the quantity of depleted uranium ordinance used in the current war in Iraq are correct, it would mean six times as much of the super-toxic and carcinogenic substance was used this time as in 1991, and already there are disturbing reports of dramatically higher incidences of cancer and birth defects in Southern Iraq following the 1991 war. But at least in that war, virtually all the DU ammo was used against Iraqi armor out in the desert. This time, bunker busting bombs and anti-tank weapons were used in Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, putting in jeopardy tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians who might come in contact with the radioactive dust from those explosions. Of course, U.S. troops, now playing the role of an occupying army in those bombed cities, are also at risk. Many veterans of the last Iraq war suspect that the notorious “Gulf War Syndrome” that many came home with was the result of their having breathed in or injested uranium dust from the weapons used in that war.

The U.S. has been firing off “dirty bombs” in the form of depleted uranium (DU) weapons now since the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Depleted uranium, a radioactive metal that is part of the waste stream from nuclear weapons, turns out to be a highly effective armor-piercing material. 1.7 times as dense as lead, it also has the unusual property of self-sharpening: as a rod of the stuff slams into a sheet of steel or a wall of reinforced concrete, instead of mushrooming into a flat, broad projectile that then is slowed or stopped by the obstacle, uranium sheds its exterior layers and becomes sharper as it is propelled by momentum deeper and deeper into its target. Uranium is also highly flammable at the kinds of high temperature generated by a high-velocity collision, and so it incinerates whatever target it hits.

In the 1991 Gulf War, depleted uranium was used extensively in two types of weapons–the 120 mm anti-tank shells fired by Abrams tanks and other anti-tank cannons, and the 30 mm anti-armor guns on the A-10 Warthog ground attack jets. An estimated 300 tons of the stuff was fired off in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti desert during that war. In Kosovo, the same weapons were used, this time reportedly a total of about 12 tons, mostly in the form of small 30 mm projectiles fired by aircraft.

In Afghanistan, in addition to those two kinds of shells, the Pentagon introduced a third category of uranium weapon–the so-called bunker-busting bomb–a depleted uranium “smart bomb” or missile that can burrow deep into the ground or through thick concrete walls to hit heavily shielded shelters or cave hideouts. The Petagon has not released information about how much depleted uranium was used in weapons in Afghanistan, but estimates have ranged from several hundred tons to as much as 1000 tons–and this was in conflict that was tiny compared to the likely war in Iraq.

Critics of depleted uranium weapons–and these run the gamut from the U.N. World Health Organization to Gulf War veterans groups–note that the new use of uranium bunker buster bombs raises the danger of radioactive contamination dramatically, because of where such bombs get used.

For the most part, anti-tank weapons, at least to date, have been used where tanks are generally deployed, which is out in the open, where population density is low. Although when a depleted uranium round explodes, the uranium is incinerated, becoming a dangerous aerosol of minute inhalable particles of uranium oxide, out in the desert the risks are relatively low of many people becoming contaminated. Absent a wind, most of that radioactive residue settles within 50-100 yards of the target.

Even so, there are reports from both the Basra area of Southern Iraq, where use of depleted uranium shells by British and U.S. forces in 1991 was heavy, and in Afghanistan, of higher than anticipated cancer rates and birth defects. There is also some suspicion that at least some of the cases of what has become known as Gulf War Syndrome among returned U.S. Gulf War veterans is the result of their having inhaled the residue of uranium weapons. Researchers from a British non-profit organization, the Uranium Medical Research Center, for example, claim that during an investigation of bombed areas in Kabul and especially Jalalabad, Afghanistan, they encountered widespread evidence of illnesses and birth defects which they said were consistent with uranium poisoning and radioactive contamination. They also reported finding elevated levels of uranium in the vicinity. They called their findings “shocking”. Similar findings have been claimed in the area around southern Iraq where uranium anti-tank weapons were widely used.

But these reports of dirty bomb aftereffects could be dwarfed once reports start coming in of the effects of DU contamination in urban areas of Iraq. For one thing, the amount of uranium vaporized in an explosion of one bunker busting bomb would be vastly greater than any anti-tank shell. There are, for example, only about three kilograms of uranium in 120mm anti-tank round.

But the DU explosive charges in the guided bomb systems used in Afghanistan and now Iraq (for example Raytheon’s Bunker Buster – GBU-28) reportedly can weigh as much as one and a half metric tons. Besides, U.S. troops, which had to fight their way into Baghdad and other heavily fortified Iraqi cities, made use of their uranium anti-tank weapons there too, not just out in the desert approaches to urban centers.

The notion of Baghdad, a city of five million, being dusted with uranium oxide, is grim, as it will likely produce widespread injuries and death, particularly among children, who are closer to the ground and who routinely play in the dirt.

No wonder the U.S. government is so anxious to keep U.N. environmental experts at bay. The risks of uranium weapons to soldiers and civilians is a topic of some controversy, even among critics, though no one except the Pentagon and NATO disputes that it is a health threat.

Indeed, the Royal Society, whose studies the Pentagon spokesman cited in saying that fears of DU health threats have been debunked since 1991, pointedly disagreed, saying that in the society’s view, DU poses both short and long-term risks in Iraq.

A government study prepared for Congress in the mid 1990s offered the following assessment of the dangers of the radioactive weapons: “As much as 70 percent of a DU penetrator can be aerosolized when it strikes a tank. Aerosols containing DU oxides may contaminate the area downwind. DU fragments may also contaminate the soil around the struck vehicle.” It adds that there are many paths by which the resulting particles may enter the body – by inhalation, ingestion, or through open wounds. The report then 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.”

Once inside the lungs or kidneys, uranium particles tend to stay, causing illnesses such as lung cancer and kidney disease that may take decades to show up. According to Dr. J. W. Gofman, a leading expert and critic of low-level radiation risks, particles of uranium smaller than 5 micron in diameter can become permanently trapped in the lungs. By one estimate, a trapped, single uranium oxide particle of this size could expose the adjacent lung tissue to approximately 1,360 rem per year–about 8,000 times the annual radiation dosage considered safe by federal regulations for whole body exposure.

Uranium, which besides being carcinogenic is also highly toxic chemically (like lead or mercury), also concentrates in the kidneys and reproductive organs if ingested orally. Even Dan Fahey, of the Persian Gulf War Veterans Resource Center, a Navy veteran who has criticized some anti-war organizations’ charges concerning the dangers of uranium weapons, says that they were “probably a contributor to Gulf War Syndrome” among returning U.S. Gulf War veterans. Although he debunks as “propaganda and science fiction,” a report by the Uranium Medical Research Center, a U.K.-based organization which claims to have found uranium contamination and signs of radiation-sickness and radiation-induced birth defects in people who live around suspected uranium weapon targets in Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Fahey himself is critical of the U.S. military’s ever-expanding use of these weapons. In one article he wrote on the subject, he quotes a 1990 Pentagon memo on the health risks of exploded uranium ordinance which concludes that, in order to avoid criticism of the weapons’ battlefield use, “we should keep this sensitive issue at mind when after action reports are written.”

His conclusion, “The military’s view is that unless you can prove something is dangerous, we’ll keep using it. My view is that given the known health concerns about depleted uranium weapons, unless you can prove it’s safe,don’t use it.”

There is no question about whether or not the US and British are using uranium weapons in the current war against Iraq. Robert Fisk quoted a U.S. general on the eve of battle as saying, “We have already begun to unwrap our depleted uranium anti-tank shells.” (In the 1991 Gulf War, one in seven Iraqi tanks destroyed by the U.S. was hit by a uranium projectile. This time, the percentage of Iraq’s 1800 tanks hit by uranium weapons was clearly far higher. As for the more serious use of uranium-tipped missiles and bombs in urban settings, the best evidence that they were used is that the Pentagon, absent rules that limit its behavior, uses whatever it has in its arsenal that the generals think works best–and clearly uranium-tipped weapons outperform any alternative in terms of their ability to penetrate armor and other heavy shielding. According to Pentagon studies, uranium projectiles are at least 10 percent more effective at penetrating shielded bunkers and armor than the next-best alternative–tungsten clad weapons. That alone was a powerful incentive to use them.

The Center for Defense Information reports that the patents for America’s bunker-busting bombs include both tungsten and uranium-cladded versions, making it clear that these weapons exist in the U.S. military arsenal.

Given the Pentagon’s public stance that uranium weapons pose no appreciable health risk, there is no reason to believe that these dangerous weapons of mass destruction were not used. Moreover, given the controversy surrounding DU, it seems likely that if the Pentagon had decided not to use DU weapons inside Iraqi cities, it would have trumpeted that fact. No such disavowal was made.

Civilians in the future “liberated” Iraq will likely be paying the price for years–maybe generations–to come. Meanwhile, after they’re through watching their president play soldier on an aircraft carrier, American veterans of the Iraq war might want to consider the fate of those soldiers whom the Pentagon sent to participate in early nuclear weapons tests. Fifty years later, after most of those soldier/guinea pigs have died, many of them from suspicious cancers, the government is finally admitting that they received far larger radiation doses than it ever was willing to acknowledge.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here:


CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.