Just outside the town of Paducah, KY, a sprawling fenced-off yard holds tens of thousands of large metal cylinders. Each weighs fourteen tons, and each is filled with depleted uranium hexafluoride. They contain the waste products of decades of uranium enrichment at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. They are rusting, and the corrosive nature of their contents means that they have to be constantly checked and maintained. But they are also potentially worth billions of dollars, and their fate has been hotly debated by the Environmental Protection Authority, by private firms, and by Congress.
Over 6,000 miles away, in Fallujah, Iraq, doctors at the local hospital are alarmed by an apparent increase in cancer and congenital birth defects. In 2004, Iraqi insurgents holed up in city’s densely-built center, and US and Coalition forces fought them using thousands of shells tipped with depleted uranium (DU). Now, the doctors fear the residue from US weapons is behind the latest health crisis.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, uranium has aroused intense scrutiny and inflamed passions. The age of the nuclear arms race has largely passed, but the legacy of seventy years of enrichment is the vast stockpile of DU that has accumulated worldwide. As of 2008, over 600,000 tons were stored in the US alone.
The fate of DU, however, is strongly determined by geography, economics, and politics. Sometimes, it is a waste product that can easily be snapped up by eager buyers such as the military; other times, it is a billion-dollar bonanza that Capitol Hill and corporations tussle over. According to some, it is a toxic material that must be cleaned up to protect the public; according to others, it has no adverse health effects and is merely a source of hysteria.
Uranium actually comes in several different naturally-occurring atomic forms. Though every atom of uranium contains 92 protons, some have different numbers of neutrons, granting them important nuclear properties. These different “flavors” are known as isotopes. The most common isotope of uranium, U-238, contains 146 neutrons per atom and makes up over 99% of the uranium in the earth’s crust. However, U-238 is a very stable isotope and is useless in nuclear reactions.
A very small percentage of naturally-occurring uranium atoms have three fewer neutrons. This U-235 is the driver of nuclear chain reactions in fuel rods and bomb cores. Unfortunately, only about 0.7% of uranium in the earth’s crust is U-235. In order to be useful as nuclear fuel, uranium must consist of at least 3% U-235. Medical and research applications require around 12-20% U-235, and “weapons-grade” uranium consists of over 80% U-235.
The vast majority of depleted uranium comes from the waste products of the enrichment process, and the enrichment process produces a lot of waste. By weight, over 80% of uranium ends up as “depleted” waste when enriched to fuel-grade 3.5% U-235, and “weapons-grade” enrichment wastes over 99%.
Uranium became a popular material in munitions because its physical and chemical properties make it ideal for destroying things. Its high density means it packs a bigger punch than lead or nickel traveling at the same speed. It also tends to stay sharp after hitting a solid object, in contrast to other metals, which tend to “blob” into a mushroom shape on impact. This property makes uranium rounds ideal for penetrating thick metal armor. Finally, uranium is pyrophoric, meaning that it ignites on impact. All of these properties give it the making of the ideal munitions metal.
Moreover, there was a lot of DU lying around at Paducah that had no clear value. Any potential buyers of DU would have had a receptive ear in the Department of Energy. It had to both maintain the storage facility and to pay for an ongoing cleanup of radioactive material around the Paducah site.
Cleanup at the Paducah site had begun in 1988 when a groundwater sample from a well near the plant showed trace amounts of technetium-99, a radioactive element not found in nature. The Department of Energy, knowing that even a tiny amount of radioactivity in a public water supply would be politically unacceptable, immediately provided an alternate water supply for those households in the affected area. Around an area known as the “Uranium Burial Grounds,” where DU had been interred underground in sludge form, the DOE conducted a barrage of tests and found no radiological risk to the public. Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, the area was roped off, signs were posted warning of a “radiation area,” and permits were required to enter the grounds.
These safety standards were on par with others practiced by federal agencies in the US and around the world. The EPA limits uranium content in drinking water to 0.03 parts per million and has a goal of zero. The Occupational Hazards and Safety Administration requires workplaces to maintain soluble uranium concentrations in the air at or below 0.05 grams per cubic meter. At the Olympic Dam mine in Australia, the world’s largest uranium mine by a factor of six, a 63-page booklet of safety procedures protects workers from radiation and heavy metal contamination. Handling, storage, and disposal of uranium products is carefully documented, and radiation levels are measured frequently. Other uranium-contaminated sites around the US have undergone extensive cleanup operations supervised by the EPA, including sites in New York, Massachusetts, and California.
This same high standard of caution was not applied to the DU munitions that were developed for use outside the United States. In the hands of the military and arms manufacturers, the metal was fashioned into shells and bullets for weapons systems such as the cannons on the M1 Abrams tank, the A10 Thunderbolt II and AV-8B Harrier II aircraft, and the machine guns on the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle.
The US military first deployed DU on a large scale at a time when US military might and technological superiority was on international display: the US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991. Journalists and commentators such as Michael Kelly called it the “hundred-hour war,” and by that measure, US troops used weapons containing a total of 6,800 pounds of DU every hour. The city of Basra and its road to Baghdad were especially heavily hit, with shells of burnt-out tanks lining the way.
The next time the US invaded Iraq, it increased its usage of DU by an order of magnitude. The Dutch NGO Pax released a report last month detailing the results of their long-running investigation into DU contamination in Iraq. The results brought a sobering new level of specificity to an already massive tragedy: even according to the most conservative estimates, American and British military forces fired over 440 tons of depleted uranium munitions at 300 locations in Iraq during the 1991 and 2003 wars. Other estimates have put the total between 1,000 and 2,000 tons for 2003 alone.
The military, over time, learned about the health risks posed by DU. In a 2003 training manual, service members were warned not to approach within 75 meters of a blown-up tank without respirators and skin protection. Another safety manual published by the US Army recommends the use of a “protective mask” and a radiometer to measure radiation levels.
Safety procedures also took the form of anecdotes and common sense among Coalition service members. After all, in the 1991 war, many soliders had returned to the US and subsequently suffered from debilitating renal complications. These symptoms, consistent with radioactive and heavy metal contamination, were collectively called “Gulf War Syndrome,” and no official cause has ever been found. In a 2003 article in The Christian Science Monitor, journalist Scott Peterson quoted an American soldier who described how his unit avoided DU contamination:
“After we shoot something with DU, we’re not supposed to go around it, due to the fact that it could cause cancer,” says a sergeant in Baghdad from New York, assigned to a Bradley, who asked not to be further identified.
“We don’t know the effects of what it could do,” says the sergeant. “If one of our vehicles burnt with a DU round inside, or an ammo truck, we wouldn’t go near it, even if it had important documents inside. We play it safe.”
The amount and extent of the DU munitions used by the US in Iraq meant that the civilian population never had the option of playing it safe.
When the military is called to answer for its DU contamination in Iraq, however, it presents a different story. In this story, DU is safe and the health concerns around it amount to a lot of hysteria. on its website, points to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Toxicological Profile, which states unambiguously that there is “no evidence” that DU causes cancer. The Department of Defense site reproduces this claim in boldface type. Furthermore, the US Department of Veteran Affairs makes the claim that, “so far no health problems associated with DU exposure have been found in Veterans exposed to DU.”
These findings are in stark opposition to the conclusions of doctors at Fallujah General Hospital, where years of soaring congenital birth defects and birth-sex ratio anomalies have alarmed Dr. Entesar Ariabi. She conducted a study in 2010 with British researcher Chris Busby that documented an unusual shift in birth-sex ratio in Fallujah in the years after 2005. Journalist Robert Fisk travelled to Fallujah in 2012 to witness the epidemic of congenital birth defects firsthand. He wrote:
I asked to see these photographs, to ensure that the stillborn children, the deformities, were real. There’s always a reader or a viewer who will mutter the word “propaganda” under their breath.
But the photographs are a damning, ghastly reward for such doubts. January 7, 2010: a baby with faded, yellow skin and misshapen arms. April 26, 2010: a grey mass on the side of the baby’s head. A doctor beside me speaks of “Tetralogy of Fallot”, a transposition of the great blood vessels. May 3, 2010: a frog-like creature in which — the Fallujah doctor who came into the room says this — “all the abdominal organs are trying to get outside the body.”
This is too much. These photographs are too awful, the pain and emotion of them — for the poor parents, at least — impossible to contemplate. They simply cannot be published.
Another important weapon at the disposal of the US Army was doubt. Doubt was everywhere in Iraq. A traumatic and destructive event such as a war unleashes a witches’ brew of toxins on the environment: heavy metals, oil, fumes, and a dazzling variety of pathogens, to name a few. Iraq’s sewage and water treatment infrastructure experienced a near-total collapse in the aftermath of the invasion and in some cities was still nonfunctional years later. In such an environment, it would be impossible to trace a disease to a single contaminant.
Even DU itself has diverse and complicated health effects. In the popular consciousness, uranium is associated with radioactivity, which is associated with cancer and radiation poisioning. Certainly, DU emits radiation, but the overall emission level of DU metal is relatively low. But the radiation dose a person receives depends on both the radioactivity of the material and the way it is administered. For example, fine dust formed in explosions can travel further and expose internal organs such as lungs.
Moreover, uranium is a heavy metal (like lead) and is highly toxic to the renal system and other organs. According to a review of uranium toxicity studies published in 2004, ingesting or breathing uranium can lead to kidney damage, immune system collapse, and decreased cognitive performance.
Additionally, it was nearly impossible to conduct a scientifically rigorous study in Iraq after the US invasion. The lack of a well-defined “control group” that escaped exposure, the dearth of reliable data from Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, and public suspicion of anyone perceived to be involved with the government meant that little work could be done that rose to rigorous scientific standards. It was easy to criticize any finding as “bad science.” In response to allegations that the cancer rate in the southern Iraqi town of Basra was soaring, Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Deployment Health services, suggested that it was because more Iraqis were seeking medical treatment.
Regardless of whether every birth defect in Fallujah or cancer case in Basra can be traced to DU, however, the fact remains that the US takes a markedly different approach to DU contamination on its own soil than it does to contamination it inflicts upon Iraqis. In the US at sites such as the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, cleaning up DU and other radioactive material is seen as a political imperative, and the EPA and the Department of Energy are happy to assuage local concerns about contaminated soil and groundwater even at minuscule levels. In Iraq, officials and official documents from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs deny the toxicity of the thousands of tons of DU still littering the landscape. Meanwhile, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issues the following recommendations on how to lower one’s exposure to uranium:
Avoid eating root vegetables grown in soils with high levels of uranium. Consider washing fruits and vegetables grown in that soil and discard the outside portion of root vegetables.
Consider having your water tested if you suspect that your drinking water might have elevated levels of uranium. If elevated levels are found, consider using bottled water.
If you live near a hazardous waste site with high amounts of uranium that are not controlled, do not let your children play outside in the dirt. Children put dirt in their mouths, and uranium is in this dirt. Also, make sure your children wash their hands often, especially before eating.
The PAX report on DU munitions use in Iraq was especially notable for one detail: for the first time, an admission of the use of DU munitions was paired with targeting data. At least some of the locations where US forces fired DU rounds are now known. Though the report does not name all (or maybe even the majority) of the locations where DU munitions were used, it points to some locations that could undergo cleanup the same way Paducah and other sites in the US did. The window of opportunity, however, may be closing: the PAX report notes that many DU fragments are being collected by scrap metal dealers in Iraq and are melted down, recast, and exported across the region; soon its effects may become impossible to trace.