Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons
With Professor Steve Fetter
School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park
Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2000; 11 a.m. EST
Professor Steve Fetter of the School of Public Affairs at University of Maryland was online to discuss the use of depleted uranium weapons.
Several European nations have raised questions about the possible connection between the use of depleted uranium munitions by NATO forces in Bosnia and Kosovo and illnesses suffered by peace keepers serving there. The European Union has called for an investigation and several countries including France, Sweden and Italy have called for similar probes or have launched their own. Recently, a U.N. team detected low levels of radiation at airstrike sites in Kosovo. The U.S. denies that DU munitions represent significant health risks to peace keepers but NATO has agreed to participate fully in any investigations.
A physicist by training, Professor Fetter's research interests include arms control and nonproliferation, nuclear power and the health effects of radiation, and climate change and energy supply.
In the November/December 1999 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Fetter co-authored an article, After the Dust Settles, with Frank von Hippelin in which they argue that "the health risks associated with radiation from exposures to depleted uranium are relatively low-so low as to be statistically undetectable." The exception being "embedded fragments of depleted uranium" which may cause problems.
In 1993-94, Fetter was special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. He has been a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at the State Department and a visiting fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control, Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs, MIT's Plasma Fusion Center, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He received a Ph.D. in energy and resources from the University of California, Berkeley, and a S.B. in physics from MIT.
The transcript follows.
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Welcome to today's discussion with Professor Steve Fetter on the use of depleted uranium weapons. You may submit questions for Prof. Fetter anytime during the discussion.
Has the US government, or any other official/unofficial organization, ever tested thoroughly the effects of DU in Gulf War or Balkans soldiers and civilians? If not, why not? Was DU presumed safe for NATO to deploy without any such testing?
Steve Fetter: Before the use of depleted uranium in the Gulf War, there was extensive experience with handling uranium in the nuclear industry. Many studies were done of these workers, some of whom were exposed to very high levels of uranium dust--much higher than any soldier was likely exposed to. These studies were reviewed by the National Institute of Medicine, in a report on Gulf War Illness released last year; this report is available at http://stills.nap.edu/html/gulf_war. The report concluded that there was no evidence of a link between exposure to depleted uranium and cancer of any kind, or any other illness.
There also is an on-going study of 31 Gulf War veterans who were exposed to high levels of depleted uranium in "friendly war" incidents; half of these soldiers still have depleted uranium shrapnel in their bodies. Fortunately, no health effects have been observed that could be associated with exposure to depleted uranium.
1.How long does uranium stay in the environment and can it still cause health problems today?
Steve Fetter: Uranium will stay in the environment essentially forever, because the half-life of U-238 is 4.5 billion years. Half of the uranium that was present when the Earth was formed is still here.
Uranium is a relatively common element. There is about 1 ton of natural uranium (which is more radioactive than DU) in the top 10 centimeters of soil. For comparison, a total of 10 tons of DU was used in Kosovo.
Any discussion of the dangers of DU use has to include a cost-benefit analysis. For example, it is dangerous for the army to constantly fly helicopters around at night, but presumably less dangerous than giving up the military advantages this offers...
What are the advantages of DU munitions over alternatives, and what would be given up if they were to be replaced?
Steve Fetter: I agree about the need for an overall cost-benefit analysis, but I am not a military expert and so I cannot speak knowledgeably about the advantages of DU munitions over alternatives.
Military experts tell me that, in certain types of combat, DU rounds are much more effective than alternatives. If this is true, and if, as I believe, the health risks of DU are very small except in very special circumstances, then one can make a case for retaining these weapons in our arsenal.
Dear Dr. Fetter:
Could you explain to us what, exactly, depleted uranium is? My memory (quite possibly faulty)is that it is uranium that has somehow had its radioactivity removed. Is this true? If so (and if this is an artificial process), is it possible that some depleted uranium may still be dangerously radioactive due to poor quality control?
Steve Fetter: Natural uranium contains two isotopes: U-235 (0.7%) and
U-238 (99.3%). U-235 is useful in nuclear reactor fuel, but most
reactors require "enriched uranium" that is 4% U-235. If 7 kg of
natural uranium is fed into an enrichment plant, about 1 kg of enriched
uranium (4% U-235) and 6 kg of depleted uranium (0.2% U-235) come out
the other end.
Depleted uranium is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.
I feel that the media and antimilitary crowd has locked onto this particular substance because "uranium" is something of a radioactive boogyman (to the point of calling DU shells "nuclear weapons"). Isn't it true that any number of materials used in military operations and equipment can be considered dangerous (through toxicity, mainly), especially in a battlefield environment where gases and particulates are released through fire, impact and spillage? Do you expect this will become a wider focus, and if so, will the ultimate response from the military-industrial complex be a (well-deserved) "well, DUH, this has always been dangerous stuff, because of what it has to do"?
Steve Fetter: Combat does involve handling many hazardous substances. I have not looked into other possible causes of the illnesses reported by soldiers returning from Iraq and Kosovo, so I can't really comment on whether something else might be causing them. But I'm confident that DU isn't the cause.
What happens when DU is ingested or inhaled? How much remains in the body for how long?
Steve Fetter: DU is not very soluble, so almost all ingested uranium is excreted very quickly.
DU is more hazardous when its inhaled, but how much more depends on the size of the particles. Large particles (dust) are trapped in nasal passages and are blown back out; these do no harm; very small particles (gases) are exhaled and do no harm. But particles with a diameter of about 1 millionth of a meter are trapped in the lung. How quickly they are removed depends on the chemical form of the uranium. If the uranium is fairly insoluble, it can remain in the lung for years.
I have read that the "DU" can be transported by sand storms, 100s of miles, does that mean that Kuwait, SaudiArabia, and all the population centers inside and outside Iraq are in danger of exposure to DU in the future? If so who is responsible for the clean up?
Steve Fetter: DU can be transported long distances, but the concentrations of DU in the air would be so small that it would not cause any health effects. Even in battlefield areas in Iraq, when DU rounds were being fired, the dose a few miles downwind would be hundreds of times less than doses that might be of concern. The dose afterward, due to resuspended dust, would be much, much less. The dose hundreds of miles downwind is insignificant.
Do you conclude, then, that DU caused no health hazard in the Bosnia War or in Kosovo?
Steve Fetter: Because no NATO soldiers were on the ground when DU was used, I don't see how it is possible for NATO soldiers to have received significant exposure to DU. Significant exposure would be theoretically possible if soldiers crawled around inside DU-contaminated vehicles, but my understanding is that there were only about a dozen such vehicles.
Might some of the health problems in Iraq, attributed to Depleted Uranium, be caused by "waste" from their own development of chemical and biological weapons?
Steve Fetter: The Pentagon's Office of Gulf War Illnesses has been investigating other possible causes of Gulf War Syndrome, including possible exposure to chemical and biological agents. I'm not an expert on this; you could take a look at their web page at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil.
How do you evaluate the Canadian research about the uranium poisoning among the Gulf veterans conducted by Dr.Sharma and supported by Dr.Horan of the Memorial University? Jatinder jolly jjolly-powersurfr.com
Steve Fetter: I have looked at this research. I believe that it is seriously flawed, for reasons I have communicated to Dr. Sharma. The arguments are fairly technical however, and I don't have time right now, but perhaps I could follow up later.
What if any studies have been done on exposures to military personnel (either operators or maintenance personnel) from DU in tank armor and if there have been studies, what do the studies show?
Steve Fetter: The U.S. uses DU in tank armor. DU is weakly radioactive, and the dose from external exposure to DU armor would be very small. I believe that the dose that would result from being close to a DU-armored tank and much less than the dose from natural radiation. The dose to operators is about 0.2 millirem per hour, which can be compared to the background dose of 300 millirem per year.
Ottawa, Ontario Canada:
In the Ottawa Citizen today, there was an article that Canadian troops were exposed to radiation as a result from a blast of depleted uranium munitions (as I understand it). Here's the interesting part:
Canada is not going to test the troops for radiation because the military medics said that it would cause undue stress to the soldiers.
Eventhough the US says that it will cooperate with any investigation. Do you think they are pressuring their allies like Canada, to not investigate in the first place?
Steve Fetter: A simple urine test could determine whether a soldier had inhaled a significant amount of DU. If one is fairly certain that soldiers had not been exposed to DU, then these tests are unnecessary. But if soldiers fear that they may have been exposed, then a urine test could lay these fears to rest. I believe that any concerned soldier should be offered such a test.
Juncos, Puerto Rico:
What about the use of DU in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico? Vieques has been the "conejillo de indias" for the US Navy for 60 years since 1941.
Steve Fetter: As long as civilians are kept out of test ranges, DU should not be a concern to people outside the ranges.
We received this message from a reader:
Washington, D.C.:For two years you have refused to submit any questions on DU to any of the various guests you've had who
may have been able to comment on it (Congressmen, military experts, Dana Priest, et. al.). Now, you're refusing to submit any critical questions during this discussion. What is up with you folks?
The editors reply: Your assertion is false. We welcome critical questions. Please submit one now.
In that case, what do you make of the reports that NATO peacekeepers are suffering from DU effects, in some cases developing leukemia? Couldn't the particles you described as damaging have lodged in their lungs?
Steve Fetter: First, it is not clear whether the illnesses that have been reported are unexpected. For example, a certain number of leukemia cases would be expected in a given population. To my knowledge it has not yet been determined whether there is an excess of any particular illness among the soldiers returning from Kosovo.
Second, the illnesses that have been reported are not those that one would expect or associate with exposure--even severe exposure--to DU. One would expect kidney or possibly neurological problems. Among cancers, one would expect lung cancer, not leukemia.
Third, studies of uranium workers, some exposure to very high levels of uranium, have not shown evidence of a link between exposure to DU and these diseases.
I find your claim that the "health risks of handling DU munitions are low" to be extremely misleading. If you have studied this problem then you know that the issue isn't handling the munitions - the issue is what happens after they're used. DU rounds burn on impact, creating uranium oxide dust. When this dust is inhaled or ingested it causes severe health problems, possibly due to its radioactivity - but more significantly due to its high chemical toxicity. Over 120,000 U.S. veterans of the Gulf War are receiving compensation for physical illnesses stemming from their service. Birth defects and cancer rates in Southern Iraq have increased 10-fold over the last decade.
Why have you decided to become an apologist for this dishonorable weapon?
Steve Fetter: I did not decide to be an apologist for DU. I am simply reporting the facts as I understand them.
My comments about the hazards of DU have referred to inhaled the aerosols that are created by the impact of DU on tanks. If one is inside a tank when it is hit, or if one crawls inside a tank after it is hit, it is possible to inhale enough DU for it to be a concern. But soldiers and civilians downwind could not possibly have inhaled enough DU for DU to be the cause of the reported health problems.
I would also refer you to the Institute of Medicine report, which concluded that, even in cases of high exposure (as might have been the case inside struck vehicles), there is no evidence for a link between exposure to DU and any health effects.
In general, when a DU round hits something, what happens to the DU? Do we know how much is vaporized or atomized, how much burns, and how much gets buried or ends up sitting on the ground in pieces?
Steve Fetter: If DU hits a hard target, perhaps 10 percent is converted into very particles that could lodge in the lung if inhaled.
Does DU effect the environment where it has been used, such as water, air, vegetation, etc?
Steve Fetter: In very high concentrations, DU might affect plants and animals. But uranium is not very soluble and does not concentrate in food chains, and most of the DU is in the form of large pieces that are not readily assimilated. A point of comparison: uranium is naturally present in soils; the top foot of soil contains, on average, nearly 10 tons of uranium per square mile. NATO fired a total of 10 tons of DU, which is less radioactive than natural uranium.
In your opinion, whose research into the health effects of exposure to DU is the most credible?
Steve Fetter: I believe that the Institute of Medicine report I referred to in an earlier message is very credible, as is the study done by colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine on Gulf War Veterans that were exposed to DU. (You can find a reference to this in the IOM report.)
What actually happens when a DU round 'hits' something? I assumed that it acts like a large bullet... a penetrating round that may or may not melt itself through the armor plate. Whence commeth that 'dust'? and just what amounts of it are there?
What was the threat that caused the US Navy to replace DU with titanium? I'd also assumed that part of the caution with DU was the possibility of burning a whole magazine of weapons in a closed space(A La Falklands)...
Steve Fetter: The dust is generated by the energy released in the impact.
The Navy is planning to replace DU rounds with rounds using tungsten, which is more dense even than DU, and may be nearly as effective in penetrating armor.
New York NY:
First, an observation. You are maintaining that there has been no observable health response to DU. But you have also said that it can remain in the lungs for years, and the DoD study you cited to acknowledges that "radiation science predicts that some risk of cancer exits regardless of dose." I don't see how those pieces fit together.
Also, today's New York Times says that a Swedish lab has found traces of U-236 in DU recently found in Kosovo. How does that affect the health risk equation?
Steve Fetter: The traces of U-236 (and any other actinides) do not affect my estimate of the risk, because these are present at very low concentrations. For example, the presence of these isotopes increases the radioactivity by less than 1 percent.
The most common assumption is that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, carries with it some risk of cancer. There is no evidence for this; it is a conservative assumption for the protection of public health. But it doesn't follow that any dose of radiation is dangerous, or could result in many cancers. In this case, the doses to soldiers are so small that the corresponding risks are small compared to ordinary risks, and are insignificant compared with the other risks of peacekeeping. Based on what we know, it is extremely unlikely that DU would cause even one cancer among the NATO soldiers.
Earlier in the discussion, you pointed out that there is about one ton of naturally occurring DU in the top 10 centimeters of soil. However, you did not indicate a surface area to which that estimate applies. Is it one ton per square mile? Per acre? Other? Thanks!
Steve Fetter: Ooops--the average concentration in U.S. soils is 2 parts per million; about 0.6 tons per square kilometer in the top 10 centimeters, or about 5 tons per square mile in the top foot. There are areas with 10 ppm U in the soil.
How much DU is "manufactured" from just plain U each year by the nuclear power industry? Or is DU something that's found in the soil just like U?
Steve Fetter: The U.S. has about 100 nuclear reactors, each reactor requires about 25 tons of fuel per year, and about 6 tons of DU are produced per ton of fuel--15,000 tons per year.
Six Italian peacekeepers are diagnosed with leukemia. One already died. Is that an "expected" ratio? And if DU is so safe, why is lung cancer predictable and "expected?"
Steve Fetter: I don't know how many leukemia deaths are expected and whether six is an unusually high number, because I don't know what type of leukemia, whether these soldiers were in areas where DU was used, the total number of soldiers in these areas, and their ages. Ordinarily, one does this calculation first, before raising alarms about a possible health problem (much less attributing the potential problem to a particular cause). Presumably the Italian government is now doing this.
As you know, cancers have other causes, and one must account for this before concluding that there is a problem.
Dr. Fetter, I realize you are a physicist by training and vocation, but my question is more related to sociology/psychology or group politics, which I hope you could respond to seeing as you are currently with a school of public affairs. The scientifically-measurable risk of DU weapons seems objectively understood to be negligible, yet the public reaction by the Italians et al. persists. Do you think that what we are seeing is something approaching mass hysteria, where rumours and unfounded suppositions are reaching a 'critical mass'(to borrow a nuclear analogy)? Is the current DU scare part of a larger pattern of emerging European anti-scientific paranoia, to be filed along with "Frankenfoods", the reaction to mad-cow disease (BSE), etc.?
Steve Fetter: I don't know why there is so much concern about DU. Even though the main concern with DU is its chemical toxicity, public concern seems to be centered on its radioactivity. The Chernobyl experience may have had a powerful effect on European attitudes toward radioactive releases. Also, it is my understanding that there has been in Europe a combination of poor and informed reporting, reliance on the opinion of "experts" well outside the scientific mainstream, and a completely inadequate response by government authorities to objectively evaluate the risk and disseminate this information.
Thanks for a wonderful, rational discussion of an emotional topic.
Steve Fetter: Thank you!
Dear Dr. Fetter,
Somewhat off topic, but how effective do you feel are the U.S. DOE's programs to upgrade security at nuclear installations in Russia? These programs, involving several national laboratories (including LLNL) have been heavily funded for several years without providing evidence that nuclear material and weapons in Russia are more secure. How can the U.S. being to withdraw from these programs without causing a huge lapse in security at Russian nuclear facilities? Also, how do you feel about the programs (Nuclear Cities Initiative, Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention)attempting to transform Russia's nuclear scientists into commercial scientists?
Thanks for your insights.
Steve Fetter: I am a strong supporter of U.S. efforts to assist Russia in safeguarding its nuclear materials, and to move weapon scientists into civilian work. The "loose nukes" problem may be the most serious security problem facing the United States.
New York, NY:
From a public health standpoint, does it concern you to learn that UNEP has found that families in Kosovo are living among DU fragments and debris a year and a half after the conflict? NATO has begun to cordon some these areas off. If there is no risk to these civilians, is NATO wasting time and resources? If there is a risk to civilians, however small, do you believe that the responsible course for the US would be to commence a cleanup?
Steve Fetter: The risk is low, but public concern is very high and risks should be kept as low as possible. Struck vehicles should be removed and the immediate area should be decontaminated, and soldiers and civilians should be instructed not to handle pieces of DU. But the risk from a pieces of DU laying in fields and forests is nill.
Voorhees, New Jersey:
I recently returned from serving as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia. I was curious to know the specific areas in question? I worked in eastern Bosnia and would like to know if the soldiers diagnosed with cancer served recently or during the bombing campaign in 1999?
Steve Fetter: I'm sorry--I don't have that information. I would contact the Pentagon Office of Gulf War Illnesses or the VA for information.
That's all the time we have for today. Many thanks to Prof. Fetter and everyone who submitted questions. To keep up with the depleted uranium story and other world news, bookmark washingtonpost.com's World News Section.
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