Nation Topics - Nuclear Arms and Proliferation
News and Features
Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.
DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.
Keeping the lid on the truth about Kosovo.
George W. Bush's mid-February directive
ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear
arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and
disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it
more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is
pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense
system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully
implemented, Bush's aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided
nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the
cold war era look tame by comparison.
To understand the
danger of Bush's emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine
print. Some elements of his approach--first outlined at a May 23,
2000, speech at the National Press Club--sound sensible. Bush implied
that if elected President, he would reduce the nation's arsenal of
nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads
to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond
anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised
to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert
status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental
So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer
on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, "at the
earliest possible date," a missile defense system capable of
defending "all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed
forces overseas." Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National
Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based
in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush's enthusiasm for a new Star Wars
system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile
interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in
pursuit of continued US military dominance.
announced Rumsfeld's appointment in late December, he acknowledged
that the Pentagon veteran would have a big "selling job" to do on
national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries
alike. But even Washington's closest NATO allies continue to have
grave reservations about Rumsfeld's suggestion that the United States
might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to
pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty
would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into
The cost of Bush's Star Wars vision could be as
much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that's the least
of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a
classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press
last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely
to provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple
effects...that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and
medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the
further spread of military technology in the Middle
Bush's provocative missile defense scheme may not
even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy.
According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush's
renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001
study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed
by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s
essay on nuclear war titled "Victory Is Possible." Bush National
Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were
involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William
Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald
In its most egregious passage, the study
advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear
weapons to be used for both deterrent and "wartime roles," ranging
from "deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional
powers" to "preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,"
from "providing unique targeting capabilities (deep
underground/biological weapons targets)" to "enhancing US
influence in crises." In short, at a time when a number of prominent
military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the
Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear
weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military
purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed
initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for
ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.
The unifying vision
behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that
the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size,
composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference
to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a
disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be
used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful
It's not as if we haven't been down this
road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington
with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star
Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped
roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a
policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will
take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush's
Like much of the Western involvement in the former Yugoslavia, the intense and often heated debate in NATO over the possible ill effects of depleted-uranium ammunition largely ignores the people on whom NATO used these weapons. The debate is focused on higher incidence of cancer and leukemia reported by Western troops who served six-month tours of duty in the Balkans. Six Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, a Portuguese and a Czech have died, while four French soldiers are reported to have developed leukemia.
The former UN administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor and former French health minister, has dismissed the fuss as "a wave of irrationality." But Dr. Zoran Stankovic, a leading Belgrade pathologist who has investigated areas where DU contamination is thought to be most severe (Bosnia, Kosovo and southern Serbia), reports that unexpectedly high cancer rates are appearing in the local population. His main study focused on about 4,000 people who had lived in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadzici, which was heavily exposed to DU shells during the NATO bombing of 1995. "That group developed a large number of malignant diseases," he says. "Four hundred of them have died so far. Our initial suspicion was that there was a link to the effect of depleted uranium."
Stankovic does not claim to have established a link between the malignant illnesses and the use of DU ammunition. But his research adds weight to demands for an international investigation into health risks associated with DU. In Sarajevo, the Bosnian government has formed a working group to investigate what the Europeans call the "Balkan War Syndrome." It has also asked NATO to provide detailed information about the use of DU ammunition.
More than 10,000 rounds were fired in Bosnia and 31,000 in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. Uranium is one of the heaviest metals, which makes it effective in destroying tanks and similar targets.
After retiring from the Senate in 1993, Alan Cranston, who died on New Year's Eve of the new millennium in the home of his son Kim, began a new career that was as important as the one he left behind as a four-term senator from California and majority whip. He embarked on a campaign to seize the opportunity afforded by the end of the cold war to abolish nuclear weapons. His opposition to nuclear weapons was longstanding. He first adopted the cause as president of the United World Federalists in the late 1940s. As a senator, he worked to advance the control and reduction of nuclear arms. In 1984 in a brief run at the presidency, he made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign. After leaving the Senate he worked on the issue first as chairman of the Gorbachev Foundation and then as the president of the Global Security Institute, which he founded. The most important of its accomplishments was to put together, as part of a new coalition of groups called Project Abolition, the Appeal for Responsible Security, Appeal for Responsible Security, which calls for abolition and steps toward that end, and was signed, at Cranston's urging, by such notable people as Paul Nitze, Gen. Charles Horner and President Jimmy Carter. The appeal will be circulated by Project Abolition as the foundation of a wider nuclear abolition campaign in the United States in the months to come.
It was in this work to eliminate nuclear weapons that I got to know him and came to be, I believe I can say, his friend. He possessed a modesty that would have been notable in any human being but was astonishing in an elected politician. On his answering machine he was "Alan," as he was to most who knew him. The human being not only had survived the official, it had come through without any detectable distortion whatever. Self-reference--not to speak of bluster or bragging--was at the zero level, as were all other forms of showmanship. Equally, there was zero variation in his manner toward the small and the great, the scruffy and the expensively suited.
Sometimes I wondered how a four-term senator could have managed this, and in the course of many days of travel and meetings together, I believe I came to understand at least one reason. It wasn't that he underrated himself or failed to appreciate the importance of his position. He had, for instance, a nation-spanning Rolodex and entree at every level of American life, and used these to the hilt in the cause. It was that his concentration, which was intense, was entirely on the work at hand. At every single meeting I attended with him, he made something happen. He passed along news, received news, asked for a further meeting, arranged one for someone else, won support for a project or set a new project in motion--a job for someone, a research organization, an appeal, a television program, a film. He moved as swiftly as he moved quietly. The work was hard, intellectually as well as practically, and there was just no time for wasted motion, blather or nonsense. At meetings he was silent most of the time. He kept so imperturbably still--a gaunt Buddha--that sometimes I thought, "Well, a man of his eminence doesn't have to attend to every last word of every inconsequential meeting"--only to hear him speak up quietly at the end, summing up what had been said, making sense of it and offering suggestions, which usually formed the basis for what was done. Not for nothing had he seven times been elected Senate Democratic whip.
What was true of his manner was true of his mind: It was, even in his 80s, fresh, resilient, receptive, reasonable, sensible, constructive, unburdened by conventional wisdom, unencrusted by habit and crowned with what can only be called wisdom.
The work, which absorbed all his professional life, was reducing nuclear weapons until they were gone. There was never a more practical and effective man than Alan Cranston, and none with a keener or more accurate sense of what was possible in the political world and what was not, yet his opposition to nuclear weapons was above all moral. At an event launching the Appeal for Responsible Security, he said of nuclear deterrence, "This may have been necessary during the cold war; it is not necessary forever. It is not acceptable forever. I say it is unworthy of our nation, unworthy of any nation; it is unworthy of civilization." Rarely in recent American political life have common sense, effectiveness, persistence and vision been combined in one person as they were in him. Nothing can replace him as a friend. As for the work--the force of his example, if we have the strength to follow it, must make good our loss.
Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close.
When the Clinton Administration privatized the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) last year, critics warned that the new company would seek to back out of a historic but unprofitable dea
The Senate Republicans' shameful rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was the work of a core of hard-line conservatives led by Senator Jesse Helms.
When the Republican majority in the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on October 13, President Clinton called their act "partisanship at its worst." The Washington Post a
If the nuclear industry gets its way, thousands of tons of deadly radioactive waste will roll onto public roads and rail lines, bound for a geologically unstable storage site in the Nevada des
Facebook Like Box