U.S. Stocking Uranium-Rich Bombs?
By Elliot Borin
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/conflict/0,2100,57959,00.html
02:00 AM Mar. 10, 2003 PT
U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf may be armed with radioactive bombs and
missiles hundreds of times more potent than similar weapons used during
the Gulf War and the U.N. military campaign in Bosnia.
As evidence that the United States is expanding its use of depleted
uranium weapons beyond the relatively small 30-millimeter to
120-millimeter armor-piercing bullets and shells used by tanks and
tank-killer aircraft in the Gulf and Balkans, weapons watchdogs cite the
so-called "bunker-buster" bombs and missiles unleashed on Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has not confirmed the use of uranium or depleted uranium in
the bunker-busters, and it has refused to identify the composition of the
dense-metal warheads that enable the missiles to penetrate structures
deeply buried under earth, steel and reinforced concrete.
But critics such as British researcher Dai Williams contend that only
uranium -- in one form or another -- possesses the density and other
characteristics necessary to achieve the penetration levels attributed to
such weapons as the 2,000-pound AGM 130C air-to-ground cruise missile, and
the guided bomb unit, or GBU, series of laser-guided hard-target
penetrators intended to pierce bunkers and other reinforced structures.
Williams and others also claim that patents covering conversion or
modification of earlier generation bombs for use as bunker-busters
indicate that depleted uranium is being used in these weapons.
For example, the patent application for a narrow-profile version of the
BLU-109B bomb (which is delivered by a GBU-24) specifically refers to
penetrating bodies made of tungsten or depleted uranium.
"If they're really using tungsten, why keep it classified?" Williams said.
Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the nuclear fission process that powers
both atomic bombs and power-generating plants, is an ideal material for
munitions intended to blast holes into armored or otherwise reinforced
targets that can only be pierced by projectiles possessing enormous
amounts of kinetic energy.
Since the kinetic energy of an object is one half its mass times the
square of its speed, the denser the projectile, the higher the kinetic
energy. When it comes to density, uranium (2.5 times heavier than iron and
1.7 times heavier than lead) is rivaled only by tungsten, which lacks
depleted uranium's intense incendiary properties.
Tungsten has another drawback: It's expensive. Depleted uranium, on the
other hand, is dirt cheap. Tons of it, over 500 million pounds the last
time anyone counted, is lying around in various states of nuclear "decay"
at government repositories throughout the country.
In an attempt to reduce this over-abundance of nuclear waste, the Defense
Department provides depleted uranium to munitions makers such as Alliant
Techsystems -- the largest maker of depleted uranium projectiles in the
world -- at no cost and buys it back as completed weapons.
Depleted uranium has a few drawbacks. It is 40 percent as radioactive as
pure uranium and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In addition, the
very volatility that makes it blaze like an atomic furnace upon impact
converts a large percentage of the spent projectile into microscopic
radioactive oxides that, when borne by the wind, may be inhaled by
civilians miles from the battlefield.
Despite this, Pentagon and Veterans Administration brass are adamant in
insisting that depleted uranium is absolutely harmless to both combatants
and non-combatants, and is in no way responsible for any of the symptoms
associated with so-called "Gulf War syndrome."
Perhaps the most extraordinary official endorsement of depleted uranium's
benign nature came from former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who
once deemed it as safe as "leaded paint." Federal law has banned the use
of leaded paint in residential structures since 1978 because of its
But not everyone connected with the military is convinced that depleted
uranium is risk-free.
In early 1991, the Army sent physicist Doug Rokke to Iraq as part of the
task force charged with assessing the after-battle effects of the
estimated 300 tons of depleted-uranium weapons expended during the Gulf
War. In the mid-1990s, he was recalled to active duty and made director of
a project intended to develop training and management procedures for
handling depleted uranium contamination.
According to Rokke, "we are seeing adverse health effects among the entire
group of warriors exposed during combat in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait
(and) civilians exposed in Iraq" and at U.S. and foreign installations
where depleted uranium weapon testing and training has been carried out.
Rokke also said the Pentagon was aware of "the probable hazards" prior to
the Gulf War, a contention bolstered by an Army Armament, Munitions and
Chemical Command report -- issued shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait --
that stated that depleted uranium is "linked to cancer when exposures are
Rokke said on-site investigators in Iraq found that 40 percent of the
initial mass of the depleted uranium penetrators was converted to
radioactive oxide while 60 percent was left on and around the impact area
in solid form.
"Equipment contamination included uranium oxides, other hazardous
materials, unstable unexploded ordnance and byproducts of exploded
ordnance," he said. "In addition, other radioactive materials were
detected that could pose a risk through inhalation, ingestion or wound
"Who would want thousands of solid uranium penetrators or pencils of
masses between 180 and 4,500 grams lying in your backyard? Who would want
any uranium contamination of any type lying in your backyard?"
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