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November 2004



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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

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Disinformation about Depleted Uranium

Jack Cohen-Joppa has co-edited The Nuclear Resister since 1980, after participating in the 1979-80 civil disobedience campaign at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. For the original (longer) version of this article and for the sources cited herein, contact the author directly at nukeresister@igc.org.

In September 2004, Project Censored published its annual list of "The Ten Most Censored Stories of the Year." Project Censored, based at Sonoma State University, honors journalists and publications for publishing important news that has been otherwise ignored in the mainstream US media. This year, number four on the list is "High Uranium Levels Found in Troops and Civilians," and the following articles are selected for notice:

  • "Uranium Medical Research Center's Preliminary Findings from Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom" and "Afghan Field Trip #2 Report: Precision Destruction -- Indiscriminate Effects" both by Tedd Weyman, UMRC Research Team;
  • "Scientists Uncover Radioactive Trail in Afghanistan" by Stephanie Hiller, Awakened Woman 1/04
  • "There are No Words…Radiation in Iraq Equals 250,000 Nagasaki Bombs" by Bob Nichols, Dissident Voice 3/04
  • "Poisoned?" by Juan Gonzalez,
    New York Daily News 4/5/04
  • "International Criminal Tribune for Afghanistan at Tokyo, the People vs. George Bush" by Niloufer Bhagwat, Information Clearing House 3/04

But I believe the story of depleted uranium, however underreported, is in these stories misreported.

It's like confusing a dime for a dollar. That's the difference between the amount of depleted uranium in weapons the US is known to have used in Iraq since the invasion of March, 2003 -- bad enough at almost 200 tons -- and 2,000 tons, a grossly exaggerated estimate accepted as fact by some writers, and now also by Project Censored.

So what's the harm if the numbers are off by ten times? Isn't the message -- that troops and civilians are being harmed by this new generation of radioactive warfare -- important enough?

The answer depends upon whether you'd like to see a policy change that stops the use of depleted uranium weapons. That's what I'd like to see, because the limited scientific evidence available plus common sense lead me to conclude that adding more ionizing radiation into the environment in the form of highly refined, breathable, and ingestible uranium oxides is a bad idea. I believe DU contamination is a factor in Gulf War Syndrome and the reported increases in birth defects, leukemia, and other diseases seen particularly in Iraq since 1991. But it's a killer sometimes lost in the crowd of many other toxins produced by modern warfare.

As a long-time anti-nuclear activist, I've learned that outsiders seeking justice can only hope to change government policy by having truth on our side. Even then, success is not guaranteed. But we abandon credibility and will be dismissed in the halls of power when we present unsupported speculation as scientific fact. The case against any hazard is best made by presenting proven numbers, along with evidence of any adverse effects. If we claim it takes a dollar to do a dime's worth of damage, we're conceding a big point on dosage.

Project Censored presented its own summary of the articles it cites. Drawing from the article by Bob Nichols, this summary asserts that "Four million pounds of radioactive uranium were dropped on Iraq in 2003 alone."

I have repeatedly asked Nichols and others making this claim, including the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC), to name their Pentagon or UN sources. None have.

A UMRC report not cited by Project Censored offers a hint at the source. A November 2003 UMRC paper, Abu Khasib to Al Ah'qaf: Iraq Gulf War II Field Investigations Report, notes five "published estimates of quantities of uranium munitions." By far the largest of these estimates is attributed to "Associated Press article, UNEP [United Nations Environmental Program] Environmental Press Release Reports... April 2003." These reports are assembled from UNEP news releases and articles collected from the world press.

A review of these press release reports from UNEP reveals that a 1,000-2,200 ton estimate is credited to "independent" analysts in some of the stories, and in others, to "UN and independent" analysts, and eventually, in Nichols, "to the Pentagon and United Nations." But never is a UN document or named UN source quoted to give credence to such an estimate. Follow-up with several of the journalists revealed the not-uncommon practice of simply citing the work of other journalists without further fact-checking for themselves.

And of course, no Pentagon source has ever offered such an estimate.

The most comprehensive estimate to date of DU use in Iraq, based on known DU weapons systems and Pentagon and other government statements, is less than 200 tons (400,000 lbs, or one-tenth the inflated claim endorsed by Project Censored.)

Which weapons contain depleted uranium?

This ten-fold greater number would seem credible if you accepted Project Censored's claim (in the same summary) that "Most American weapons (missiles, smart bombs, dumb bombs, bullets, tank shells, cruise missiles, etc.) contain high amounts of uranium..."

But there is simply no forensic or documentary evidence that uranium is used in "high" amounts, or even at all, in "most American weapon systems." Apart from its less problematic use in armor plating and as counterweights in some aircraft, the only known uses of uranium in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is in armor-piercing bullets and tank shells.

The amount known to be fired from tanks and aircraft cannon just can't approach such a quantity. To believe the hyperbole, you have to believe, as Bob Nichols writes, that you'll find, "...In the case of a cruise missile, as much as 800 pounds of the stuff..."

The belief that cruise missiles have depleted uranium in their warheads has its genesis in the misunderstanding of a 1984 Navy memo about Tomahawk Cruise missile test flights. This misunderstanding was compounded by the work of Dai Williams, a British industrial psychologist and independent researcher. Williams hypothesizes that many warheads on bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles include a very dense metal penetrator, and concludes that DU may be what he dubs the "mystery metal." Among the stories cited by Project Censored, Stephanie Hiller's article, UMRC's reports, and the Tokyo tribunal all construe Williams' misleading conflation of facts and speculation as evidence these weapons all contain massive amounts of DU.

A cornerstone of Williams' hypothesis is a handful of US warhead patents that mention depleted uranium. This circumstantial piece of evidence has, for some readers, constituted further proof.

But I have read these patents, and in all the cases Williams cites, DU is mentioned not as the primary material for the patented warhead shroud or penetrator, but only as another suitably dense material, after the mention of tungsten or similarly dense alloys. Following up on this, I telephoned two of the named patent holders. Neither had knowledge of any production of such warheads with DU instead of non-radioactive metals; both expressed doubt that such production would have proceeded without their knowledge and confirmed that the patents noted DU as an alternate material simply to protect the innovations of the patented designs, regardless of which available dense metal is used.

The oft-repeated Tomahawk-DU myth is refuted by several government documents that specifically deny the use of DU in conventionally armed (i.e., non-nuclear) Tomahawk cruise missiles.

To quote just one, G.A. Higgins, Executive Secretary of the Naval Radi-ation Safety Committee responded in 1999 to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Military Toxics Project. Higgins' letter reads, in part...

"Responding to your second request for information under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to the amount of depleted uranium in Navy munitions, counterweights, and specifically the Tomahawk cruise missile, as noted above, the only Navy weapons system using depleted uranium ammunition is the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System…Regarding the Tomahawk missile system, there is no depleted uranium used in or on the deployed version of this weapons system. An unspecified quantity of depleted uranium is used as mass for test and evaluation purposes within the United States and is owned by the Department of Energy..."

That last sentence refers to the same circumstance that is the subject of the misunderstood 1984 Navy memo: a flight test model of the nuclear-capable Tomahawk. The DU used in such tests provides a suitably heavy replacement for the intended nuclear warhead, so as to produce comparable flight dynamics. Other US military documents also confirm that DU is not used in operational Tomahawk cruise missiles, Air Launched Cruise Missiles, Advanced Cruise Missiles, or Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles.

I am not saying, nor do I believe, that one must accept all government documents as truth. But when establishing facts in dispute, more compelling evidence must be presented to refute government claims.

If it were true, as UMRC claims in Afghan Field Trip #2 Report (absent any reference), that "the United States and its weapons contractors acknowledge the development, expansion and deployment of weapons and delivery systems that use low, medium and high altitude, air-to-surface and ship-launched uranium alloyed munitions," what other evidence should exist? I can think of:

* Handling protocol for ordnance specialists (such protocol exists for the A-10's DU ammo and the tank rounds);

* DU licenses for production, and production records from the factories making the warheads.

But significantly, no documents other than the patents already discussed have been put forward as evidence that uranium of any sort is used in such a wide spectrum of missiles and bombs.

There are other unsubstantiated claims made by the authors of Project Censored's selections, too many to examine as thoroughly as the claim of DU in cruise missiles, but also important enough to warrant scrutiny. For example:

  • The New York Daily News article reports that data collected by the UMRC shows "high" levels of uranium contamination in US soldiers' urine. But the respected uranium information site maintained by the international anti-nuclear watchdog World Information Service on Energy (WISE) has reviewed the data, and concluded that where DU is present, the relative levels found are anything but "high" compared to the range of levels normally found in humans.
  • From the very title of Bob Nichols' article, the hyperbole endorsed by Project Censored is apparent: "...Radiation in Iraq equals 250,000 Nagasaki Bombs." Further study about the source of this extreme comparison reveals that the unit measured is "atomicity," an intellectual construct coined by a Japanese scientist. "Atomicity" is simply the calculated number of radioactive atoms involved, with no regard for the type of radiation present, its relative biological impact, method of dispersal, etc. Such comparison is meaningless at least, misleading at worst.

While Project Censored has brought attention to an important story, they did so by endorsing unsubstantiated and alarmist views.

That's my ten cents' worth.

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