NOW MAY 13-19, 1999
NATO using radioactive ammo in Yugoslav war
Returning refugees will breathe the dust of uranium residue
By PATRICK CAIN
A controversial radioactive ammunition NATO is using to destroy Yugoslav
tanks and their crews could end up poisoning civilians returning to
Kosovo and troops sent to protect them, says a Waterloo chemistry
Radiation expert Hari Sharma released a study last week showing that
about 45,000 people affected by the Gulf War -- western soldiers, and
Iraqi soldiers and civilians -- will end up with fatal cancers as a
direct result of the Allied use of depleted uranium, or DU, ammunition
during that war.
Five hundred thousand people are thought to have been exposed to
airborne dust from exploded DU rounds, radioactive traces of which still
show up in urine samples from Allied veterans of the conflict and Iraqi
NATO is now using DU weapons carried by A-10 "Warthog''
tank-killing aircraft to attack Yugoslav armoured vehicles.
Depleted uranium ammunition was born of a grim, sophisticated battle of
wits between designers of weapons to destroy armoured vehicles and
designers of armour.
In our own era, this has reached a point of complexity where the
composition of tank armour is often a state secret, as it is on the
American Abrams main battle tank.
When DU weapons were introduced before the Gulf War, they seemed like a
solution to several problems. The nuclear industry liked them because
they were a way to dispose of otherwise troublesome waste. Armies liked
them because they were cheap and chewed holes in enemy tanks.
During the Gulf War, tank crews liked DU because it made them
unquestioned masters of the battlefield.
But, Sharma argues, exploding DU rounds produce a potent radioactive
aerosol that's inhaled by friend, foe and civilian alike and persists in
the environment for many years.
The key to understanding how that happens is to look at what occurs
after a DU round is fired. Armies chose depleted uranium for anti-tank
rounds because uranium's density, almost twice that of lead, transmits
kinetic energy to an armoured vehicle better than any other substance
that has been used.
If a tank is hit accurately, the impact, intense fire and “spall,” or
fragments of the tank's inner lining flying around inside it, will kill
the crew. While that's true of any successful anti-armour weapon, DU
rounds destroy tanks much more reliably than anything used previously.
“On impact, the temperature goes up as the depleted-uranium penetrator
hits the tank,” Sharma explains.
“Then it catches fire, because uranium is highly pyrophoric, and once it
catches fire it keeps burning till it's all gone. In that process, a
very fine powder is produced, which is uranium dioxide and uranium
trioxide. These particles become aerosols and travel in the air long
distances. If people are around, the particles are inhaled and end up in
Canada's armed forces stopped using DU rounds in 1998, says 2nd
Lieutenant John Price, a military spokesperson. Until January of last
year, Price explains, DU rounds were employed in missile-destroying gun
systems used on warships. During that time, Canadian ships fired 45,000
DU rounds in training, which works out to about 3,200 kg of DU. Canada's
remaining 977 DU rounds are in an ammunition depot awaiting disposal.
The military says those rounds, which were fired off both coasts, on
American naval ranges and in the open ocean, pose no risk to humans or
the environment. All the same, the navy switched to a tungsten-based
ammunition in 1998.
“It provides the same or comparable armour-penetrating capability as the
uranium, but tungsten isn't low-grade radioactive, which depleted
uranium is, so handling and storing it costs less money,'' Price reads
from his briefing sheet.
As well, Canada doesn't allow its allies to use DU ammunition while
training on Canadian ranges.
There is even the possibility that the use of DU violates international
treaties. Says Bev Delong, president of Lawyers for Social
Responsibility, a 1977 protocol to the Geneva Convention prohibits means
of warfare that cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the
“The bits of armament that are lying around Iraq are still presumably
emitting radioactivity; that could be considered long-term,” she says.
Says Sharma, “NATO is trying to save Kosovars, but if they leave Kosovo
filled with depleted uranium, it's not a happy situation. They (would
be) poisoning them. If you are going to use depleted uranium in warfare,
it's better to drop an atom bomb and kill 30,000 people instantaneously
rather than killing them over 20 or 30 years.”