Nation Topics - Nuclear Arms and Proliferation
News and Features
Focusing on Osama bin Laden obscures the true nature of our position in a dangerous world.
It fails to bring the country to a safer and saner position on nuclear power.
The "war on terror" is causing an escalation of retaliatory thinking.
"Nuclear Safety" by Matt Bivens.
Annihilation and the Ways of Peace
It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.
The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.
The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.
What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.
"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."
So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."
Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.
The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.
But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.
Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."
Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.
The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.
Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.
A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.
"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."
The Gulf War Test
The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.
American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."
The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."
As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.
Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."
But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.
Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.
Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.
At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.
Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.
Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.
Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."
Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."
Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.
Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."
But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.
"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"
In early December, a disconcerting piece of news seeped out of the White House.
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."
The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.
Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.
In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.
What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:
§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.
§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.
§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.
§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.
How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.
Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.
The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.
These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.
Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.
If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.
Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.