Most of the world knows of the horrors of depleted uranium (DU), especially the people of Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq, who have all experienced first hand the eerie blaze, the charred remains of incinerated soldiers, the cancers, the gruesome birth defects. Yet the Pentagon continues to insist that DU is "only slightly radioactive", the mainstream media has buried the story, and Americans remain largely unaware of the pernicious damage of this sophisticated weaponry.
Thousands of sick vets (war veterans) tell a different story. Thanks to determined activists and alternative periodicals, the truth is coming out, and peace organizations are beginning to take a stand.
On February 11, 2005, Melissa Sterry, a vet from the second Gulf War, testified at a hearing before Connecticut legislators that her crippling symptoms are due to radiation from depleted uranium weapons. Under consideration is a bill (introduced by Patricia Dillon) that would require that Connecticut National Guard troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan be properly screened and treated for depleted uranium contamination.
Like most vets suffering from the devastating symptoms of so-called "Gulf War Syndrome," Sterry stated that she has received no help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, because the government insists that its studies show depleted uranium "won't cause any long-term health risks". More than half the vets from the first Gulf War are disabled; Sterry testified that exposure during the second war was even worse.
On February 12, Veterans for Peace, a UN-recognized non-governmental organization and a veterans' advocacy group, called for Dr Howard Dean to use his professional responsibility as a physician, and his influence in the Democratic National Committee to end the use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions.
With threats of an American attack on Iran looming, this call for a halt cannot come too soon.
Depleted uranium or U-238 is a waste product from the uranium enrichment process used to extract the tiny amount of highly radioactive U-235 used in nuclear reactors from natural uranium. U-238 is at least 60 per cent as radioactive as the raw uranium.
But DU is pyroforic, which means it ignites spontaneously, releasing a cloud of radioactive alpha particles in a 25-mile radius. The particles have a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
When a highly charged alpha particle enters the body through inhalation or ingestion, it behaves like a tiny bomb lodged in the tissues. DU is also chemically toxic, causing kidney damage.
DU is used in shells, tanks, armor, and some warheads. Its value to the Pentagon lies in its superior penetration capability. It is also almost free to the industry because the Department of Energy has nearly a million tons of it in expensive storage facilities. Some of this waste is contaminated with other transuranics, including plutonium, the most deadly substance known to humans.
According to unofficial estimates, between 1000 and 4000 tons of DU have been used since the first Gulf War. San Francisco-based human rights lawyer Karen Parker charges that DU is illegal according to the Geneva Convention because it is indiscriminate, it spreads beyond the field of battle, it damages the surrounding environment, and its effects continue long after the battle has ended. Parker has filed a suit against the US through the Organization of American States, accusing it of war crimes.
Two international citizens' tribunals, one for Afghanistan and another for Iraq, found George W Bush guilty of war crimes - both cited the use of depleted uranium in their judgments. The tribunals, modeled on those designed by the United Nations to try Slobodan Milosevic, were not reported in the American press.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Afghanistan (ICTA), was held December 12-13, 2003 in Tokyo after 16 public hearings in various countries. Niloufer Bhagwat was one of five judges who agreed unanimously that Bush is guilty. A Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Jurisprudence in India, Bhagwat said in an e-mail interview, "The People's Tribunal was a reaction to the failure of all national and international legal systems and institutions."
Although the decision is not binding, "historically it was necessary for us to be even more exacting with the evidence than in a normal trial, as the Judgment has to stand the test of history."
Bhagwat considers "the use of Depleted Uranium a crime against humanity and a war crime, as the nature and property of these weapons has resulted in a creeping genocide in Afghanistan and Iraq caused by widespread cancer in particular among children, serious fetal abnormalities and alteration of the genetic code of all living species or 'omnicide', caused by the unacceptably high levels of radioactive count spread from particles of these weapons in the affected areas."
Omnicide is a term used by Canadian epidemiologist Rosalie Bertell to describe species annihilation. She calls it the "ultimate human rejection of the gift of life...more akin to suicide or murder than to a natural death process." Likening these war crimes to Hitler's, Bhagwat concludes that, "It is the Constitution of the United States which provides the stark answer as to how this tyranny is to be changed."
The Tribunal held for Iraq in December 2004 came to the same conclusions.
Geoscientist Leuren Moret, a whistleblower who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, California has travelled all over the world speaking about the horrible effects of uranium weapons. She testified at the Tribunal for Afghanistan.
Moret has said that the radioactive uranium dust will affect areas within a 1000-mile radius of the explosion. That means the entire area from the Balkans to India is contaminated. The dust, Moret says, will travel all around the globe in the course of a year due to high desert winds and the global wind pattern. "We are turning the planet into a death star," she says.
The European Parliament called for a moratorium on the use of DU in 2001. The British Navy has discontinued its use. Yet, DU weapons remain standard in the US arsenal. Asked by American Free Press journalist Christopher Bollyn whether the United States is using DU weapons in Iraq, principal spokesman Lt Col Joe Yoswa replied, "DU is the standard round on the M-1 Abraham Tanks".