Radioactive Recycling, the Army Way

On occasional Fridays from July 1991 through December 1992, Deborah Edwards' boss handed out one-gallon pails to her and her co-workers at Vitro Corporation, which tested bullets and other ammunition at Eglin Air Force Base's Teefax facility in the Florida Panhandle. The workers were told to urinate in the buckets all weekend and return the samples to the company."Dummy me thought it was drug testing," she says.More likely they were testing for radiation.Today Edwards is disabled, having had, she says, three knee operations, two tumors removed from her foot, chronic asthma and peripheral sensory neuropathy -- nerve and muscle deterioration in her back and legs. Vitro has given way to a new contractor, which continues the "advanced warhead experimentation" while Edwards collects $471 a month in Social Security disability benefits. Until last month, Edwards never associated her ailments with the job she held five years ago. Then Christina Larson, a psychologist at the University of West Florida, told her about depleted uranium.It is far from certain that Edwards' disability is related to her work at Vitro with DU, but, having learned only recently of the material's hazards, Edwards grows more certain each day that she was poisoned be her former employer. Her realization matches that of thousands of others across the country who either made, tested, or used the weapons in battle. Their experience presents a growing challenge to DU manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Pentagon.Since 1938, the U.S. government has had this problem: after extracting U-235 to make bombs, what to do with the leftover U-238, the 99.8 percent of the uranium ore that is not explosive? Depleted uranium still contains about .2 percent U-235. It is still radioactive. And, if one were industrious, one could soup it up to make Plutonium 239, also a prime bomb material. For 50 years, uncharitable folks have suggested the stuff be disposed of with extraordinary care -- or left in the ground -- the better to protect the Deborah Edwardses of the planet. But the U.S. military has mostly been more creative and industrious. Like the native Americans who used every part of the buffalo, the Pentagon's best minds have been fashioning all manner of neat stuff from it.They began by using it for cladding and ram devices inside the first two atomic bombs. They have ended up by cladding soldiers and making bullets with it. Call it recycling, the Army way.During the Gulf War, DU was used for the first time on the battlefield and dubbed a "conventional" weapon. More than twice as dense as lead, DU is the world's most impenetrable armor plating, used in the skin of the Army's M1A1 Abrams battle tank. In fact, just about the only thing that can stop a tank shrouded in DU is a bullet made of DU -- the bullets Edwards helped test as an electronics technician. Like Edwards, the soldiers who used and handled these shells were mostly not told what they were handling -- many didn't find out the stuff was radioactive until years later after they began getting sick and having babies with birth defects. A fire at an ammunition depot at the Doha Army base in Kuwait may have contaminated 3,000 U.S. soldiers with uranium oxide dust and uranium hexafluoride. Depleted uranium is only slightly radioactive, but as a heavy metal, it is extremely toxic, causing cancer, birth defects and serious kidney ailments. The 60,000 or so veterans now claiming various ailments associated with "Gulf War Syndrome" have pointed to DU as a potential culprit, a theory the U.S. government has gone to great pains to ignore. The Army has done almost no testing to determine how dangerous DU is when used as directed -- that is, as an armor-piercing shell that explodes on contact.This pyrophoric property makes depleted uranium both a fearsome weapon and unaccountably dangerous to the soldiers and civilians who work with it. DU is what made the Army's A-10 "Warthog" attack plane so devastating during the Gulf War. Its comparatively small, 30 mm cannon shells destroyed Iraqi tanks by burning through their steel armor instantly and cooking everyone inside the tank to cinders. Gulf war soldiers say they could recognize tanks hit with DU because the shells left neat, round holes that appeared to have been made with a torch.The United States fired 350 tons of DU projectiles during the Gulf War. According to an Army report, as much as 70 percent of a DU projectile is "aerosolized" when it hits its target. These tiny particles of uranium are breathed by anybody in the area -- be they survivors of the blast, rescuers or folks who happen along days or weeks later to survey damage. About 80 percent of U.S. soldiers in the Gulf climbed in or on destroyed Iraqi vehicles; most were thus exposed to DU dust.According to Leonard A. Dietz, a former Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory scientist, a 5 micron particle of uranium oxide can travel miles from its source and lodge in the lungs permanently, where it would expose surrounding tissue to a level of contamination whose dosage is 8,000 times the amount considered acceptable by federal regulations.After the Gulf War, Congress asked the Army Environmental Policy Institute to answer four questions about DU:1. What are the health and environmental consequences of using DU on the battlefield?2. How can one clean up battlefields and test sites contaminated with DU?3. How can DU's toxicity be reduced?4. How can the environment best be protected from the long- term consequences of DU?Completed in June 1994, the report was not released to the public until this year. But a high-ranking Army official had leaked it last year to a North Florida woman working with an environmental group called The Military Toxics Project, which analyzed it.They found that although the report tries to justify the continued use of DU and presumes that it's here to stay -- it is by far the cheapest and most effective armor a thrifty military can use, and has been sold already to at least nine countries including Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Thailand -- the military's own research makes clear that DU should be banned by international treaty.For example, the report's forward answers question three: "No available technology can significantly change the inherent chemical and radiological toxicity of DU. These are intrinsic properties of uranium." And in answer to question four, it states: "DU is a low level radioactive waste and, therefore, must be disposed in a licensed repository."This seems obvious. But the U.S. government has 500,000 tons of DU stockpiled or dumped in more than 50 installations in the U.S. The Department of Energy alone has more than 1 billion pounds of it.The disposal costs of this cache are incalculable. To take one small example, the Jefferson Proving Ground in southern Indiana includes several thousand acres contaminated with DU shells. The estimated cost of cleanup is now $10 to $12 billion, and would include excavation down to 25 feet. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a wildlife refuge for the site this year -- sans decontamination. Talks stalled in part because the Army wanted to shift all liability -- from unexploded ordinance to ground water contamination -- to the wildlife agency.The Army has never been made accountable for its waste, as the Army report explains, and "has never decontaminated or decommissioned soft target impact areas at its test centers." The Nuclear Regulatory Commission "allows the Army to bury low concentrations of DU with no restrictions on burial method." Depleted uranium is water soluble.Larson, the University of West Florida psychologist, says she first became interested in DU after speaking to a lieutenant in Eglin's public relations office several years ago. "He took me in a room and said I had no right to ask about DU," Larson says. "He told me if, as a citizen, I wanted to ask about windows rattling because of sonic boom, that was fine, but DU, no. When he was telling me this, his hands were shaking." Indeed, the military's policy on DU information appears to have changed in 1993, right after the Military Toxics Project held a Washington press conference criticizing the Pentagon.The question of what to do with DU remains open, and the military seems determined to make the decision with as little public input -- and public knowledge -- as possible. A newly patented process by a Tennessee company called M4, a limited partnership between Lockheed Martin and Molten Metal Technology, allegedly breaks down anything you like -- nerve gas or DU -- into basic elements which are then recycled into fuel and ceramics. So foolproof is this method that Tennessee has not required a hazardous waste permit for M4. The company made a persuasive case that what it did was strictly recycling and exempt from hazardous waste oversight. It has received similar approvals in California, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas, either with recycling certifications or other state reviews of the process defining it as "non-combustion" technology. The Army is studying it.Whether this method of recycling becomes standard will turn on financial considerations. Watch for weapons to win. Woody Cunningham, technical director for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch last March that the long-term solution is to convert the DOE's 46,000 rusting steel cylinders of uranium in Pikton, Ohio; Oakridge, Tenn., and Paducah, Ky., into some usable form for manufacturing. So far, only a small amount of DU has been converted into munitions.Last August Olin Corp.'s St. Petersburg-based Ordnance Division was awarded a $367 million contract to produce a next-generation depleted uranium antitank cartridge for the M1A1 Abrams Tank. The shells will be tested at, among other places, Eglin Air Force Base.And in November, the U.S. granted the right to purchase DU and other advanced munitions to Jordan -- a status previously granted to Japan, Egypt, Israel, Australia and South Korea.For information on the Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network, contact Dolly Lymburner, Military Toxics Project, PO Box 246, Norway, ME 04268; (207) 783-5091.

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