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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Uranium Bullets in Kosovo

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Gulf War veteran Dan Fahey about the U.S. military’s use of ammunition made from depleted uranium. The bullets can penetrate tank armor, but they leave behind a fine dust which has been shown to have health effects on both soldiers and local populations.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the conflict in Yugoslavia the US military's arsenal includes some controversial weapons. One such armament is radioactive ammunition made with depleted uranium. Super-dense uranium rounds are highly effective at penetrating armor and are known for stopping tanks in their tracks. The US military used them in the Gulf War in 1991 and again in Bosnia in the mid-90s. But veterans groups say as a result, they and local civilians were put at risk, and hundreds of square miles of Iraq and Kuwait were likely contaminated. Dan Fahey is a veteran of the Gulf War who works with Swords to Ploughshares, a San Francisco-based veterans rights group. He says the weapon compounds the horror of war.

FAHEY: The danger with depleted uranium is, after the round has been shot and it impacts a target, we know that US Army testing has found that 18 to 70% of that round will burn up into extremely fine uranium dust that's scattered in and around the target, mostly within 50 meters. But it can also, this dust can also be carried downwind. So the real danger here is not the existence of the bullet itself, but the contamination that it creates. And if local populations or soldiers and marines come across these vehicles that are contaminated, that if they inhale or ingest the dust they can suffer health problems, including respiratory problems, kidney problems. And in addition to that, we know the longer-term effects include cancers of the lung and bone.

CURWOOD: Okay, it's eight years after the Gulf War. Are there signs of any health effects from that war on either US troops or the civilian population there?

FAHEY: Yeah, there have been signs for several years among US and British troops. In some cases, people who the US Department of Defense acknowledges had heavy exposures to depleted uranium, who've developed kidney problems and respiratory problems. But the Department of Defense continues to today to deny that even one American veteran could be sick from this exposure. We have also heard from Iraq of increased rates of cancers and leukemias in southern Iraq, where literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of depleted uranium remains on the battlefield.

CURWOOD: Let me see if I've got this right. If people use depleted uranium ammunition on a battlefield area, they're throwing large amounts of a highly toxic metal that is going to get into the food chain and the water and people in the area are going to suffer for, what? Generations afterwards?

FAHEY: Yeah, unless it's cleaned up. But it has a radioactive half-life of four and a half billion years, which means on the one hand that its radioactivity is relatively low, but it also means that the danger persists for literally generations after it's used. And in the Persian Gulf you can say, well most of it was shot in the desert so the risk is less. But in a place like Kosovo, where you do have farm land, you do have animals grazing, where it's far more lush, the danger for contamination and the spread of the contamination is much greater there.

CURWOOD: Now, what does the Pentagon tell its soldiers about the danger that uranium bullets could cause?

FAHEY: Well, it's interesting. Before Operation Desert Storm, there is expressed in several Army reports the need to inform soldiers so that they can take protective measures such as donning mop gear, protective suits, to avoid exposure. But in the Gulf War, for reasons we still don't know, there was no training provided to the ground troops who were sent out into these contaminated area. The Pentagon has acknowledged that thousands of people were unnecessarily exposed. We believe that number to be up into the hundreds of thousands.

CURWOOD: Are civilians being warned about the use of this weaponry?

FAHEY: To the best of our knowledge, they're not. We haven't received confirmation either way about that. But I doubt it would happen, because they are concerned about the Serbs using this against the United States, to say look, you know, here we are, the victims. They're releasing a radioactive and toxic waste on our land, you know, as part of their combat operations. And so, it's a very sensitive political issue.

CURWOOD: Dan Fahey, what do you see down the road here? Is the Pentagon likely to move away from reliance on depleted uranium?

FAHEY: Not in the foreseeable future. It proved its effectiveness during the Gulf War. And despite the health and environmental dangers that it presents, the Department of Defense has expressed that they plan to continue to use it, and they've expanded the use of it within our own arsenal. But I need to just state, too, that the Pentagon continues to assert that if we were shooting anything but depleted uranium, the rounds would be bouncing off of the enemy's tanks. And we want to see some independent analysis of that assessment, because there are statements in various Army reports contradicting the -- basically stating that there are alternatives to the use of depleted uranium.

CURWOOD: Dan Fahey is an outreach worker at Swords to Ploughshares, a San Francisco-based veterans rights group and a veteran of the Gulf War. Thank you, sir.

FAHEY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: The US Defense Department says Air Force A-10 tank killer jets flying combat missions in the Balkans are loaded with depleted uranium rounds. But Air Force officials won't confirm or deny whether or not they're being used.



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