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Fig. 8: Destroyed Iraqi tanks rusting in Kuwaiti desert

6.1 DU Ammunition Use in Iraq

The US military used depleted uranium ammunition on the battlefield for the first time during the Gulf War in 1991. The US Air Force A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, the US Army M1A1 Abrams tanks, and the British Army Challenger fired DU rounds with deadly results. DU rounds fired by the US tanks pierced armor of the Soviet made T-72 Iraqi tanks as far as 3 km away [56]. British Challenger tanks were able to destroy Iraqi tanks as far as 5 km away. Unlike the smooth-bore barrel of the US M1A1 Abrams tanks, the British Challenger tanks have a riffled barrel, which causes the sabot to spin, giving the projectile additional stability. Out of 3,700 Iraqi tanks destroyed, more than 1,400 were hit by DU rounds (see Fig. 8). The military depended on DU as a preferred weapons of war, and used it to destroy everything from tanks to light-armored vehicles to bunkers.

Of the 2,058 US tanks used in combat operations during Operation Desert Storm, 654 had depleted uranium heavy armor. During combat, conventional Iraqi rounds hit from a distance as close as 400 m, but did not penetrate the steel that covers the DU armor. However, depleted uranium penetrators were capable of piercing DU armor, as demonstrated by several friendly fire incidents involving Abrams M1A1 tanks.

The amount of DU munitions released in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm are summarized in Table 6 from [75]. In addition, 9,720 DU aircraft rounds and 660 DU tank rounds (14,170 lb. or 6,430 kg of DU) burned as a result of monstrous fire in the ammunition storage area and motor pool of the US Army base at Doha, Kuwait [54], [72].

Slightly higher estimates for expended DU ammunition are found [33]: 940,000 DU aircraft rounds and 14,000 DU tank rounds were expended during the war. Out of the total DU tank rounds, 7,000 were fired during training before the war into sand dunes in Saudi Arabia, 4,000 were fired during combat; and 3,000 were lost due to fires or accidents. Therefore, a total of 670,000 - 750,000 lb. (305 - 340 metric tons) of DU was released, for a total activity of 324 - 361 Ci and a-activity of 119 - 132 Ci.

Table 6: DU munitions released during Operation Desert Storm
Weapons system
Quantity of
DU Weight
US Army M1 Abrams Tanks
M1A1 Abrams Tanks
US Air Force A-10 Warthog Aircraft 30 783,514 514,742
US Navy Phalanx CIWS Missile Defense Gun 20 ? ?
US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier Aircraft
M60A3 Tanks
British Army Challenger Tanks 120 88 1,038
Totals Tanks
. 9,640

6.2 Incidents of Friendly Fire

Incidents of friendly fire were confirmed by radiation survey of the destroyed tanks and other vehicles. At the end of Operation Desert Storm, damaged and destroyed vehicles were collected at Shep's Junkyard in King Khalid Military City (KKMC) in Saudi Arabia. At least 3 weeks (more than 6 weeks according to veterans) after the first vehicles arrived, an Army radiological team in radiation-protection suits and respirators measured the tanks with Geiger counters. They found that 29 out of about 200 vehicles were radioactive, and marked them with radioactive labels (6 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 15 M2/M3 Bradley fighting vehicles destroyed by friendly fire, 6 Abrams M1A1 tanks storing DU munitions burned in combat and accidents, and 2 more Abrams M1A1 tanks destroyed deliberately to avoid capture).

At this time, the army personnel working on the contaminated vehicles (27 veterans) was told to wear protective anti-chemical gear before entering them and not let anyone take pictures of them. The army personnel ignored these instructions, and continued to work without masks as before. Some of the personnel involved developed serious kidney problems about a year later. 6 Bradley fighting vehicles were burried in Saudi Arabia because of substantial radioactive contamination and 16 contaminated vehicles were shipped to a decontamination facility at Snelling, South Carolina. Despite extensive decontamination efforts, 6 vehicles had to be later burried in a low level radioactive waste dump at Barnwell, South Carolina [23], [54], [72], [75], [89].

6.3 A-10 Warthog Aircraft Crash

One A-10 aircraft crashed and burned at King Khalid Military City (KKMC) in Saudi Arabia. For combat missions, the internal GAU-8A cannon on this aircraft is uploaded with 1,174 30 mm mixed DU and HE (high-explosive) rounds in 4 : 1 ratio. Weight of DU penetrators in 940 DU rounds amounts to 280 kg (617 lb.). The crash could have exposed emergency response personnel (firefighters, security policemen, and rescue personnel) to smoke and DU oxides from burning DU rounds. In addition, cleanup crews might have been exposed to DU fragments and residual DU contamination.

6.4 Fire in DU Ammunition Dump

In July 1991, the ammunition storage area and motor pool of the US Army base at Doha, Kuwait, where 3,600 troops were based, caught fire. During 6 hours of severe explosions and 18 additional hours of residual fires, over 14,000 lb. (6,400 kg) of DU penetrators and 102 vehicles were damaged or destroyed, including 1 damaged and 3 completely burned M1A1 Abrams tanks with DU armor and fully loaded with DU ammunition [21], [72]. While the fire was raging, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team explicitly warned commanders about the dangers posed by burning depleted uranium, but the commanders failed to pass the warning to their soldiers and no respiratory masks or protective clothing were used in cleanup operations for a full week, until the Radiation Control (RADCON) teams arrived [54],.[72].

As early as 1980, DU penetrators were subjected to controlled burns at temperatures 500 - 1,000C [5] in order to learn the effects of accidental fires. No self-sustained burning of the penetrators was observed at these temperatures. During the outdoor burns, 42 - 47% of the penetrators oxidized in 3 hours, with the highest oxidation rate between 700 - 800C. The oxidation rate in outdoor burns was substantially higher than under laboratory conditions, probably due to temperature fluctuations disrupting the oxide layers. Between 50 - 62% of the DU dust was respirable (particles less than 10 m in diameter), with air concentration 5 - 780 mg/m3 (a-activity 2 - 300 nCi/m3), depending on the air flow. This DU aerosol was present early in the process, within 6 min at temperatures above 700C. This report also shows several pictures of technicians performing the experiments in protective clothing and wearing respiratory masks.

6.5 Public Disclosure of DU Ammunition Use

The use of DU shells by US forces in the 1991 Gulf War was publicly uncovered by Dr. Siegwart-Horst Guenther, a German scientist and Professor of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology at Baghdad University. In July 1992, Dr. Guenther brought back to Germany a DU shell he had found in Iraq. The projectile was seized by German police in protective clothing and sealed in a lead container. He was charged with illegally releasing ionizing radiation and the Berlin court fined him in 1993 for violating the Atomic Energy Law [24], [55], [77], [88]. The Iraqis learned about the use of depleted uranium from foreign press at the end of 1992 [34].

6.6 Effects of DU Penetrator Impact

When a depleted uranium penetrator impacts armor, 18 - 70% of the penetrator rod will burn and oxidize into dust usually of dull black color [18], [72], though it may also appear blackish-gold or blackish-green [35]. Of the two uranium oxides formed, UO2 is not soluble in water and UO3 is water soluble, forming uranyl (UO2)2+ ions [52], [72], [85]. The DU oxide aerosol formed during the impact has 50 - 96% of respirable size particles (with diameter less than 10 m), and 17 - 48% of those particles are soluble in water. Particles generated from impact of a hard target are virtually all respirable [18]. While the heavier non-respirable particles settle down rapidly, the respirable DU aerosol remains airborne for hours [72].

The solubility of the uranium particles determines the rate at which the uranium moves from the site of internalization (lungs for inhalation, gastrointestinal tract for ingestion, or the injury site for wound contamination) into the blood stream. About 70% of the soluble uranium in the blood stream is excreted in urine within 24 hours without being deposited in any organ and the remainder primarily depositing in the kidneys and bones. The kidney is the organ most sensitive to depleted uranium toxicity [72], [85], [86]. When DU particles of respirable size are inhaled, roughly 25% of the particles become trapped in the lungs, where the insoluble particles can remain for years. Approximately 25% of the inhaled DU is exhaled and the remaining 50% is subsequently swallowed [13].

6.7 US Army Field Manuals

Occupational workers who work with depleted uranium, such as workers who make DU penetrators, are classified as radiation workers. They are provided with annual refresher training about DU and routinely monitored for DU exposure by means of personal radiation dosimeters and urinalysis [13].

On the other hand, military personnel using DU munitions are not classified as radiation workers unless their duties require exposure to radioactivity, such as cleanup of contaminated equipment [54]. According to the US Army field manuals [35], [42], individuals must wear protective clothing that prevents skin exposure to DU dust and a respiratory mask to prevent inhalation when working within 50 m (164 ft.) of DU equipped vehicles that have been destroyed by fire or when entering vehicles that have been hit by DU munitions. Personnel should stay upwind of any smoke from burning vehicles that were carrying or were hit by DU munitions. While fighting tank fires, water runoff and the surrounding soil which may be contaminated with depleted uranium should be scraped up into containers for removal as radioactive waste [15]. Radiation detector should be used to check out the equipment. Contaminated equipment should be placed away from water sources, roads, or trails to avoid spreading the contamination. Decontamination should be conducted downwind from support sites such as bivouac, feeding, sleeping, maintenance, or medical areas. Personal protective measures should be taken when handling spent DU penetrators.

The following procedures for emergency first aid of DU-contaminated individuals should have been followed in Operation Desert Storm: When removing injured soldiers from a damaged or burning vehicle contaminated with DU, put on respiratory protection and gloves, check for immediate ordnance or fire hazards, and then remove the casualty. Use radiometers to check each wound for radiological contamination if the soldier was injured around DU or other radioactive materials. Wash out all minor cuts to hands, arms, or legs in which you verify or suspect radioactive or heavy metal contamination to remove any loose contamination as soon as possible. Mark the field medical card to indicate radioactive or heavy metal contamination.

The Department of Defense (DoD) calls its own regulations [15] - based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidelines, which require respiratory masks and protective suits when dealing with DU contamination - "total overkill" [89]. DoD is actively pursuing ways to drop these requirements [72], because they create heat stress and degrade personnel performance. A more likely reason for this effort, in our view, is to obscure the true nature of DU weapons.

6.8 Amsterdam Airplane Crash

On October 4, 1992, an Israeli El Al cargo jet crashed in a fireball in Amsterdam, in which 43 people were killed. A year later, the LAKA Foundation in Amsterdam revealed that the plane contained counterweights made of depleted uranium. This news considerably upset residents of Bijlmer (an Amsterdam suburb). Each Boeing 747 contains 1,500 kg of counterweights made of tungsten or DU. Boeing and El Al spokesmen claimed that the crashed plane contained only 380 kg of DU in the tail rudder. About 150 kg of DU was recovered and transported to COVRA, the Dutch national agency for radioactive waste management. Surface soil layer of 40 cm had been removed from the crash area [48], [55].

In a hypothetical worst-case scenario involving the crash of a Boeing 747 with 450 kg of DU, about 250,000 people could run health risks as a result of inhalation or swallowing uranium oxide particles [8].

6.9 DU Ammunition Use in Yugoslavia

30 mm DU rounds were fired from A-10 Warthog aircraft during the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1995 [88] and during the "Operation Balkan Storm" in Yugoslavia in 1999 [91]. Out of almost 400 NATO aircraft reportedly hit [96] and more than 100 shot down by the Yugoslav air defense [97], 9 planes were identified as A-10 Warthogs. 30 mm DU rounds were found in the remains of the shot down A-10 Warthog plane (see the remains). Penetrators from spent 30 mm aircraft rounds have been also found on the ground in Yugoslavia and positively identified as depleted uranium penetrators by their weight, density, and by spectrometry of the emitted radiation. As the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to reject all inquiries, no information about the number of expended DU rounds is available at the present time.

Reports from Yugoslavia indicate that the area of so-called Djavolnje Stene (Devils Walls) in the vicinity of town Vranje, wild and absolutely without ground approach, was heavily and repeatedly hit during the entire 1999 NATO intervention [98]. Since no civilian or military targets were located in this area, it appears that the US Air Force seized the opportunity and used this wildlife preserve as a proving ground for DU ammunition without being pestered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The only remaining air-to-ground firing range in the United States licensed for DU ammunition use (19 training missions per year) is the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, with the temporary permit due to expire at the end of 1999 [57].

Tomahawk cruise missiles with the new WDU-36 warhead were used for the first time in 1995 in Bosnia and Hercegovina a year later against Iraq. Over 1,500 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been launched in 1999 against Yugoslavia, some probably containing 3 kg (6.6 lb.) of depeleted uranium in their tips [92]. DU from the cruise missiles alone would amount up to 4,500 kg, for a total activity 1.6 Ci and a-activity 0.6 Ci.

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