22| Depleted Uranium Shells Make the Desert Glow (excerpt)

The Pentagon insists that depleted uranium is "very, very mildly radioactive" and that the shells are not radioactive enough to be classified as a "radiological weapon."

Eric Hoskins

The Gulf War lives on, as this week's air strikes against Iraq have proved (January 21, 1993). But the conflict goes beyond Iraqi missile batteries in forbidden places. It extends, frighteningly, to radioactive artillery shells used by coalition forces in early 1991. The spent rounds may be the cause of fatal illnesses, including cancer and mysterious new stomach ailments, showing up in Iraqi children. Because of sanctions and war, the death rate of children under five has tripled. In the first eight months of 1991 alone, fifty thousand children died.

Known as depleted uranium penetrators, the shells were developed by the Pentagon in the late 1970s as anti-tank, armor-piercing projectiles. DU, which makes up the shell's core, is a radioactive byproduct of the enrichment process used to make atomic bombs and nuclear fuel rods. The material is extremely hard and abundant, and provided free to weapons manufacturers by the nuclear industry.

When fired, the core bursts into a searing flame that helps it pierce the armor of tanks and other military targets. Diesel vapors inside the tank are ignited, and the crew is burned alive.

In the six-week air and land war against Iraq, U.S. and allied coalition tanks, artillery and attack planes fired at least ten thousand of the six-inch, six-to-eight pound shells. A confidential report by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, written in April 1991 and leaked to The Independent newspaper of London in November of that year, estimates that at least forty tons of depleted uranium were dispersed in Iraq and Kuwait during the war.

Among other things, the depleted uranium rounds forced the Pentagon to concede additional friendly-fire casualties when traces of radioactivity were found on destroyed coalition military vehicles. Iraqi forces did not have uranium penetrators.

While it's too early to prove a link, many health experts suspect that the postwar increase in childhood cancer and mysterious swollen abdomens is at least in part due to the radioactive shells. UN personnel and aid workers have seen children playing with empty shells, abandoned weapons and destroyed tanks. In Basra, a foreign doctor saw a child using depleted uranium shells as hand puppets.


The full text of this chapter is available in the book, Metal of Dishonor. Link here for order information.




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