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Boardman writes: "Suppose that for more than 20 years, a nation uses weapons that it knows are not only a threat to its own soldiers, but will cause civilian casualties for at least a generation. Would such a nation be a serial war criminal?"

A uranium mining tower. (photo: flickr/Gael Martin)
A uranium mining tower. (photo: flickr/Gael Martin)

War Crimes Are US

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

25 August 13


Depleted Uranium weapons: Why shouldn’t it be a war crime to poison civilians with radiation?

epleted Uranium [DU] is a very dense, inexpensive, easy-to-shape metal which provides excellent protection against conventional munitions. The same qualities that make depleted Uranium excellent defensive armor turn lethal when used as offensive munitions." - U.S. Army training film

An anonymous phone call to the Florida Dept. of Emergency Management alerted airport officials that there was an open 55-gallon drum full of old airplane parts made with depleted Uranium near a fence in a scrap section of the Opa-locka Executive Airport near Miami, Florida. The first thing everyone did was panic.

They evacuated that part of the airport and established a 150' radius "hot zone" around the suspect drum. They called the local fire and rescue team and called the state and federal environmental protection agencies, and all that calling brought the media in for a one-day story that played on the major TV networks and other media, with headline language like "Uranium scare forces evacuation" and "found exposed" and "hazmat crews on the scene."

"It's a radioactive substance no one wants to be exposed to, radiation it's not something you want to be exposed to, it can affect your bodily functions," Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Arnold Piedrahita told CBS News.

That was July 25, and by the end of the day, the most interesting part of the news was a report, only in USA Today, that from the start the 55-gallon drum was labeled "depleted Uranium" containing U-238 (a radioactive isotope of Uranium that remains radioactive for billions of years). Properly handled and contained, DU is not all that dangerous, as the emergency teams soon concluded. And the DU in the drum was in solid form, which is the safest form - DU is a far greater threat to humans as liquid, dust, or aerosol, forms far more common in combat zones.

The Opa-locka DU turned out to be an integrated element of airplane parts decades old, dating from the time when the heavy metal (about 68% denser than lead) was commonly used in airplanes for counterweights. (Boeing and McDonnell Douglas dropped this practice in the 1980s.)

Once officials understood the problem, they reduced the "hot zone" to a five-foot radius, and pictures show firefighters chatting within arm's length of the drum. And the story dropped out of the news without further clarification.

Only one news report among those sampled, by PressTV, connected the unnecessary American panic over a DU drum in Florida with the equally unnecessary American disregard for its genocidal use of DU weapons in Iraq and elsewhere, poisoning civilian populations for generations to come.

Suppose that for more than 20 years, a nation uses weapons that it knows are not only a threat to its own soldiers, but will cause civilian casualties for at least a generation. Would such a nation be a serial war criminal?

Military experimentation with depleted Uranium began in the 1950s, with the goal of developing an effective anti-tank weapon to use against Soviet tanks. As a dense, heavy metal that sharpens itself as it penetrates a hard surface, DU had the added military virtue of igniting spontaneously and burning at temperatures of 3,000 to 6,000 Degrees C.

In 1991, the United States, the United Kingdom, and likely other allies used DU weapons in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War. This was the first time these weapons had been used extensively in combat (Israeli forces had battle-tested them in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War). The weapons - DU bombs, missiles, shells, and bullets - worked to devastating effect militarily. They also poisoned the ground, water, and air around their targets, most of which were not cleaned up.

"The primary impact that [depleted Uranium] had in the Gulf War was - it's one of the reasons that the war was so short. It's one of the things that helped us win that war so quickly," Col. Eric Daxon, U.S. Army, says in the documentary "Invisible War."

DU weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as defined by international law and the U.S. Code (18 USC, sec. 2332c).

DU weapons are arguably illegal under international law, both as low level nuclear weapons and as indiscriminate civilian-killing weapons. In a July 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice (or World Court) somewhat fudged on the question, ducking on the legality of weapons, but stating that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would likely be contrary to international law.

In June 2000, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia publicly explained its decision not to conduct a criminal investigation of alleged war crimes committed by NATO for killing civilians with depleted Uranium weapons, cluster bombs, and other weapons. There was no need to conduct "an in-depth investigation" into the whole bombing campaign or into specific incidents, the Tribunal explained, because there was "simply no evidence of the necessary crime base for charges of genocide or crimes against humanity." The Tribunal did not add that an in-depth investigation would run the risk of finding such evidence (some of which had already been provided by Amnesty International in a report titled "Collateral Damage").

DU weapons are a low-intensity form of atomic warfare, absent nuclear explosions. The weapons penetrate, explode, and burn on contact. They leave radioactivity behind to kill civilians in much the same way as Robert Oppenheimer proposed, by spreading plutonium on enemies in World War II (a proposal that was apparently not implemented). But they do it with lower intensity.

Since 1991, the United States and other countries have used depleted Uranium WMDs fighting in a number of other countries, reportedly including (but not limited to) Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. American drone strikes presumably use missiles armed with DU penetrators. Israel has used DU WMDs in Gaza.

All the target countries have significant Muslim populations.

The term "Depleted Uranium" is fundamentally Orwellian. Depleted Uranium is NOT depleted in any meaningful sense. DU is natural Uranium (more than 99% U-238) with the fissionable Uranium (less than 1% U-235) removed.

Discovered in 1789, natural Uranium is widely distributed around the world (more common than silver, mercury, or gold in the Earth's crust). Uranium is the source of most of the world's radioactivity and contributes to background levels of radiation everywhere. Natural Uranium comprises three radioactive isotopes: Uranium-238 (99.27%), Uranium-235 (.72%) and Uranium-234 (.005%), all of which remain radioactive for thousands of years (U-238 has a half-life of more than 4.4 billion years). "Natural Uranium" is not "natural," it is not Uranium as found in nature. "Natural Uranium" has been mined, milled, and concentrated for enrichment - it is roughly 1,000 times more radioactive than Uranium in nature.

Natural Uranium can serve as nuclear reactor fuel, but most reactor fuel has been enriched by increasing its percentage of U-235 about five-fold (to 3-4%). To make nuclear weapons grade Uranium, U-238 is usually enriched to 85-90% U-235. The atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima in 1945 used 64 kilograms (about 141 pounds) of 80% enriched Uranium.

Enriching Uranium for reactor fuel and weapons leaves most of the U-238 behind as unenriched waste, or "depleted" Uranium. As nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors have proliferated since 1945, the nuclear nations of the world have accumulated more than a million tons radioactive waste, which seemed at first to have little or no apparent use, but have required continuous care and expense to keep it from endangering the public.

Accurate current figures are hard to get, but generally accepted estimates are that the United States and Russia each have close to 500,000 tons of depleted Uranium (although one estimate by Nukewatch in 2013 puts the U.S. total at 740,000 tons). As many as 15-18 other nations are thought to have another 100,000 tons or more of depleted Uranium, mostly held by the United Kingdom (50,000), France (30,000), Germany (16,000), Japan (10,000), and China (2,000).

Every ounce of that million-plus tons of depleted Uranium is hazardous waste that would need to be safely stored for billions of years - if someone hadn't thought to use it as a weapon. Who cares how lethal the stuff is when you're using it on your enemy?

In the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. used up a mere 400 of its 500,000 tons of depleted Uranium on parts of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, firing thousands of DU bullets, tank shells, and artillery shells, and dropping thousands of bombs.

The U.S. got rid of another 10-20 tons or so in the Balkans during 1994-99, and has used unmeasured amounts on target ranges in Hawaii, Okinawa, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and elsewhere.

At the same time, something unexpected was happening: Depleted Uranium was apparently dangerous to soldiers on the American side as well. Soldiers who handled the munitions got sick. Soldiers who went to depleted Uranium targets got sick. What became known as Gulf War Syndrome was apparently caused, at least in part, by exposure to the low level radioactive debris that could cover the skin or be easily inhaled or swallowed.

When UN investigators inspected depleted Uranium targets in the Balkans, they found that American DU was contaminated with other radioactive elements - including Americium, Neptunium, Technetium, and Plutonium. Americium decays into Plutonium. Plutonium is 200,000 times more radioactive than U-238.

While others countries issued warnings to their troops, the Pentagon's Lt. Col. Victor Warzinski told the Christian Science Monitor, "Residual depleted Uranium from battlefield engagements in Kosovo does not pose a significant risk to human health."

Taking a contrary view, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) studied post-war Balkan ecological conditions and recommended closing contaminated areas to public access and decontaminating the sites as quickly as possible. Noting that DU particles remained in the air two years after the war, UNEP recommended continued monitoring of air and groundwater, where DU is most likely to be ingested into the human body, where its alpha radiation is most dangerous.

"The people responsible for the spreading of 400 tons of DU there [Southern Iraq] in 1991 were conducting a very peculiar sort of experiment - one in which the 'guinea-pigs' were the soldiers and civilians present ... and in which the 'experimenters' did not want to know the results." - Peter Low, introduction "Depleted Uranium" (2003)

Officially, 679,000 American soldiers served in the 1991 Gulf War. More than a third of them, approximately 250,000, have been categorized as suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. Preferring not to use that term, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) describes the same phenomenon as " a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms that can include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, and memory problems ... a chronic multisymptom illness." Symptoms identified by others also include muscle pain, cognitive problems, rashes, diarrhea, and terminal tumors.

The VA could focus on treating soldiers' symptoms without being overly concerned about causality. The stakes are very different for the Pentagon. If depleted Uranium was debilitating a third of their troops, the military might have to give up one of its more effective weapons - one that no enemy had any defense against, and one that no enemy had in its arsenal for retaliation. Sacrificing the health of some soldiers (and maybe enemy civilians) was an easy choice for military leaders. The hard part would be to conceal the starkness of that choice, an effort now in its third decade.

As evidence continues to mount that depleted Uranium in the environment is a lifetime health threat, public awareness has risen only slowly, even among most members of Congress. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon has taken the necessary course to defend its control of a unique weapon - always denying that there's any problem, withholding as much information as possible, stonewalling investigation as long as possible, controlling studies whenever possible, employing misdirection and confusion, and silencing truthtellers within.

At the end of the Gulf War, the Pentagon had some 4,000 Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles that were destroyed by DU weapons. The Pentagon recognized that these radioactive wrecks represented a "substantial risk" to human health, and so they buried as many as they could in Saudi Arabia.

So far the Pentagon has been remarkably effective in burying reality. The effects of depleted Uranium are a war crime being covered up in plain sight.

"Unborn children of the region [are] being asked to pay the highest price, the integrity of their DNA." ­- Ross B. Mirkarimi, The Arms Control Research Centre, from his report: "The Environmental and Human Health Impacts of the Gulf Region with Special Reference to Iraq," May 1992.

In 1991, Dr. Asaf Durakovic, a former U.S. Army colonel, was chief of the Nuclear Sciences Division of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, and worked at the VA hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, treating veterans, including Gulf War veterans. He had served in the Gulf War. In his new job, the government mandated him to test other veterans for radiation exposure.

Educated at the University of Zagreb (MD and PhD) and Oxford University in England, Dr. Durakovic was then 51 and a published poet, with a distinguished academic career in Canada and the U.S. By all accounts, he took his work seriously and soon discovered American veterans suffering from radiation exposure from DU weapons debris. He described his experience in a 2004 interview for

... after Gulf War I, I found that about 75 percent of the patients that were referred to me from the New Jersey veteran's hospital were contaminated with depleted Uranium isotopes. When I started this work, I sent the samples of urine of those patients who showed the symptoms, which I associated with internal contamination of isotopes, to the military radiochemistry lab in Aberdeen, Maryland. And they were never analyzed.

Furthermore, they claimed they never received those urine samples. After pressure was placed on them, after a few months, they said they analyzed them but all of them were negative. But they would not release the results. I repeated the studies of the same soldiers, and I found that many of them were positive. So it was obvious the government lied.

After that time, I received an order by the director of the military hospital, the Veterans Adminstration hospital, in Wilmington, where I was the chief of nuclear medicine. The order was to stop my work on Uranium. I refused, because I was mandated by the government of the United States to do that work.

Since I did not want to stop the work, they put pressure on me. They got my access to the computer for the patient management [files]. They harassed me on a daily basis. And ultimately, they said to me if I don't stop the work, I'll be fired and nobody will ever hire me again.

I still refused, even after calls from the highest levels of the government. They even used my colleagues from the military to call me from different parts of the country to stop the work. Since I continued, they fired me in 1997. And I was the only doctor who was a specialist in nuclear medicine for the state of Delaware, working for the government. So obviously, they had good reason to eliminate me from the health care system.

In February 1997, Durakovic wrote President Clinton on behalf of Gulf War vets asking for an inquiry into DU contamination. There is no record of a response from Clinton. Two months after writing his letter, Durakovic lost his job. A year later, two of his original 24 soldier-subjects were dead and 12 seriously ill.

Fired by the government and blacklisted, Durakovic returned to Canada, where he founded the Uranium Medical Research Centre (UMRC,, whose "mission is to conduct and publish independent, objective, and expert scientific and medical research on the effects of Uranium and transuranic elements." UMRC's current projects include Uranium exposure studies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and Port Hope, Canada, as well as a project titled "Social Geography of Uranium Battlefields."

After tests, Dr. Durakovic found decay products of DU in 14 of the 24 patients. "I only discovered indirectly in September 1991 that depleted Uranium had been used on the battlefield. I was horrified. When scientists conduct experiments using this material, we dress like astronauts. Our soldiers had no protection. And this attack could have potentially exposed the entire population of the Gulf region. Soil samples from Iraq show radiation levels more than 17 times the acceptable level." - Felicity Arbuthnot, New Internationalist, Issue 305 (September 1998).

Mainstream media have not covered depleted Uranium to any significant extent, especially in comparison to such arguably much less dangerous killers as O.J. Simpson (1994) or George Zimmerman (2013). During that same 20-year period, CBS News' "60 Minutes" (for example) has apparently devoted 12 minutes to the issue, in December 1999, when the program focused on the contrast between the protective gear (including gloves and respirators) the Army gave clean-up crews and the absence of any protective gear for soldiers doing clean-up.

This isolated 12-minute segment nevertheless drew a prompt response from the Department of Defense's (DoD's) Undersecretary of the Army Bernard Rostker, head of DoD's Office of Gulf War Illnesses. In a DoD press release, Rostker didn't challenge the accuracy of CBS reporting negligent exposure of U.S. troops to depleted Uranium and other toxins. Instead he complained that CBS "did not focus on whether or not those exposures have proven to be harmful."

The press release went on to quote Rostker saying: "We had an obligation to do the training. We told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in our licensing that we would provide this training. It's something we should have done.... Yes, we didn't do what we should have, but ["60 Minutes"] chose to gloss over the fact that the lack of training did not result in any medically significant consequences for any of the people that were exposed.... The danger of being exposed was known to be so trivial - nonexistent."

According to the press release, "After years of monitoring service members exposed to DU, the VA has determined DU has had no health impact on these service members.... There is no lingering danger in the Gulf from the substance.... Service members deployed there have absolutely nothing to fear...." DU is now part of America's arsenal and it's here to stay, Rostker said, because it gives U.S. forces an important advantage both offensively and defensively.

Rostker touted a Pentagon five-year study of 33 vets who suffered depleted Uranium wounds from friendly fire (since no one else had DU weapons): "Those were the 33 that were most exposed to depleted Uranium. Sixteen of those still have depleted Uranium fragments in their bodies in ways that can't be surgically removed without destroying underlying muscle.... There were some elevated Uranium counts in those who still have fragments, as one would expect, but no radiological impact that could be noted and no impact on the kidneys, which is the organ where one would expect to see damage if there was to be damage."

Take a dim view of Pentagon testing, warned Dr. Durakovic in 2004:

... what they did, they studied only soldiers who were wounded by the shrapnel. And we know very well the shrapnel wounds are not an important contributing factor in contamination with Uranium isotopes. Not many people are wounded by DU shrapnel.

They did not select the proper population, and furthermore, they tested only total Uranium, which was not elevated, even in my patients. They did not test different isotopes of uranium, which would provide an insight into the ratio of the isotopes, which determines what kind of uranium it is. So the Pentagon, their laboratory, measured only total concentration of uranium, which is of no importance.

In 2001 the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. denies accusations that depleted Uranium weapons have been used there. The Germans prepared a training manual for the troops they sent as part of the NATO force in Afghanistan, published in late 2005, that said: "US-aircraft used, amongst others, armour-piercing incendiary munitions with a DU-core" during the invasion and thereafter.

In the spring of 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. and its 47 Nato and other allied countries of using weapons with chemical and nuclear components, apparently a reference to depleted Uranium weapons. A Scientific American review of Karzai's remarks took it for granted that DU weapons have been used in Afghanistan, but minimized their likely scope and danger. Perhaps tellingly, the review noted "the U.S. military's claims that it is no longer using DU weapons in Afghanistan." [emphasis added]

Last year an Afghan researcher, Dr. Mohammad Daud Miraki, said he and others were finding 62.7% o Afghanis showed signs of radiation poisoning, with Uranium isotopes in their urine at 300-2,000% above normal. Miraki criticized both U.S. and Afghan governments for failing to investigate the findings: "We forwarded [our] reports to the US three years ago to the State Department, and from US officials we have gotten only lip service unfortunately. But the Afghan government equally, since it has no control, it's an installed regime."

No such ambiguity exists in Iraq, where the U.S. admittedly used tons of depleted Uranium weapons, starting with the "shock and awe" bombardment even before the invasion of 2003.

"A decade after the night that American bombs first rained down on Baghdad, the president joked about wearing a green tie for a belated St. Patrick's Day celebration. Congress noisily focused on whether spending cuts would force the cancellation of the White House Easter egg roll. Cable news debated whether a show about young women has too much sex in it. But on one topic, there was a conspiracy of silence: Republicans and Democrats agreed that they did not really want to talk about the Iraq war." - N.Y. Times, March 19, 2013

In Baghdad, the anniversary was marked by a dozen of so bombings that killed at least 56 and injured more than 200 Iraqis. And that was the good news.

In a different sort of commemoration of the beginning of the second war on Iraq, a Dutch peace organization funded by the Norwegian government, IKA Pax Christi, published "In a State of Uncertainty," a 52-page book that begins to do what the United States, the United Nations, and most of the rest of the world have failed to do - provide a broad assessment of the use of DU weapons, their location and quantity, their environmental and health consequences, and the means and costs of restoring a devastated country and its people.

That's the bad news: Iraq's two-decade-old health crisis. Iraq is a country that had decent, modern health conditions until the U.S. waged the 1991 Gulf War, then imposed crippling sanctions followed by the 2003 illegal war and occupation. In the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was an American friend against Iran, the CIA judged Iraq to have health facilities that were among the best in the Middle East.

The wars were destructive, but a decade of sanctions, mostly under the Clinton administration, may have been worse. In May 1996, then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright appeared on "60 Minutes." Correspondent Leslie Stahl asked: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And - and you know, is the price worth it?"

"I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it," Albright replied. She later said she regretted the remark, but she never spoke out for a more humane policy. "Half a million dead children," that's when American policy crystallized - half a million dead children, the price is worth it, when it's not our children.

"I have worked in Fallujah as a Pediatrician since 1997 but began to notice something was wrong in 2006 and began logging the cases; we have determined that 144 babies are now born with a deformity for every 1000 live births. We believe it has to be related to contamination caused by the fighting in our city, even now, nearly 10 years later. It is not unique to Fallujah; hospitals throughout the Anbar Governorate and many other regions of Iraq are recording increases. Every day I see the strain this fear puts on expectant mothers and their families. The first question I am asked when a child is born is not 'is it a boy or a girl?' but 'is my child healthy?'" - Dr. Samira Alaani, petition on

Now the country that the U.S. destroyed and abandoned struggles with an epidemic of epidemics - an epidemic of miscarriages, an epidemic of stillbirths, an epidemic of birth deformities, an epidemic of cancers, an epidemic of death and deformity of biblical proportions, largely brought on by attacks by one of the world's newer nations against the Cradle of Civilization.

The catalogue of sufferings is framed this way by Project Censored:

America's Gulf War, intermittent bombings in the 1990s, the 2003 war, and aftermath left a toxic legacy.

Children born with two heads reflect it. Some had only one eye. Missing sockets look like the inside of an oyster. They're milky and shapeless.

Some children had tails like a skinned lamb. One or more had a monkey's face. Girls had their legs grown together. They were half fish, half human.

Miscarriages are frequent. Hundreds of newborns have cleft pallets, elongated heads, overgrown or short limbs, and other malformed body parts. Some are too gruesome to view.

Deformed Iraqi newborns are commonplace. So are virtually every known illness and disease. They're inordinately frequent. They range from severe headaches, muscle pain and debilitating fatigue, to serious infections, cardiovascular disease, brain tumors and numerous type cancers.

They include leukemia, Hodgkin's disease and multiple myeloma. Others affect the bile ducts, bones, brain, breasts, colon, prostate, esophagus, gall bladder, liver, lungs, pancreas, pharynx, ovaries, salivary glands, small intestine, stomach, thyroid, urinary tract, and pelvis.

The United States and some of its allies have poisoned hundred of places in Iraq, mostly populated places. The Iraqis have identified more than 300 DU-contaminated locations, but the U.S. refuses to reveal all the places it used DU WMDs, and it refuses to reveal how much DU it used or when it used it.

The UN Environment Program estimates that the U.S. used 1,000 to 2,000 tons of DU during the 2003 Iraq war and occupation. That's still only a tiny fraction of the U.S. stockpile.

The United States continues to stonewall efforts to study the problem in any responsible way, and the United States continues to refuse to take responsibility for cleaning up any of the places it contaminated in Iraq, or anywhere else outside the U.S. or its possessions (and not always there, as American military posts are some of the most polluted places on the planet).

Viewed from the American perspective, it's all pretty simple.

Nuclear waste is a dangerous problem for which we have no good solution, and any of the more likely solutions would be prohibitively expensive. Containing and protecting radioactive waste for thousands of years, or hundreds, or even a few decades, wouldn't be cheap and seems unfeasible.

But there's that silver lining - nuclear waste, aka depleted Uranium (and assorted other elements) has great military uses. The nuclear-military complex saves money by giving nuclear waste to the combat forces to use as depleted Uranium, and the Pentagon saves money by getting a great weapon for free.

The big problem for the military is that there aren't enough wars to use up depleted Uranium faster than it accumulates. Not yet, anyway. Clearly, what we need is more wars to disperse this lethal material across hostile countries, and if it reduces populations in areas where climate change will make life impossible, isn't that a good thing?

And what about those people whose panic made news for a day at Opa-locka Airport? They may not have understood the situation, but they were right to be afraid. Not only are they safer than anyone in Fallujah, they don't even have to bother themselves worrying about why their country responds so well to a serious non-threat in Florida, and with such genocidal indifference to the lethal threat it left behind in Iraq.

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