UNITED STATES: Expert: 'Depleted uranium use is a war crime'

Issue 

BY JAMES PATTON

Major Douglas Rokke joined the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam. In 1986. he became a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare instructor. After 1990, Rokke worked extensively with depleted-uranium (uranium-238) weapons, becoming one of the Pentagon's foremost experts in the field.

In 1991, Rokke received a US Army Commendation Medal Citation for outstanding work as a health physicist in the area of uranium contamination clean up and medical care to Gulf War veterans. In 1995, the US Army highly praised Rokke's work as director of the Depleted Uranium Project, commending him as the army's "expert on the effects of depleted uranium on the battlefield". Rokke was praised as an "outstanding officer" and its recommendation was to "promote him immediately".

Rokke is now one of the world's most outspoken critics of the dangers of depleted uranium (DU) munitions, and some in the US military have now tried to discredit him. He has suffered threats and intimidation for his courageous stance. Rokke recently toured Australia to explain the dangers.

Rokke labels the use of DU weapons as a war crime and a crime against humanity. During his Australian lectures he passionately argued that the health and environmental consequences of DU weapons are so great that they should be banned from being used anywhere, and he believes that Australians must insist that US warships never enter our territorial waters.

Internal documents show that the US Department of Defense (DoD) has known about the harmful environmental and health consequences of radioactive weapons since 1943. Despite this, the DoD has denied medical care to people exposed to DU, refused to clean up the environmental mess left behind by the weapons and has continued to lie about the adverse health effects for people exposed to depleted uranium.

The purpose of this cover-up is to ensure the continued use of uranium munitions in combat and during training and testing, and to escape legal liability for the damage caused. Rokke warns that Australian personnel involved in combat during the 1991 Gulf War (where it was first used on a large scale by the US military), the Balkans conflicts during the 1990s and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, may already be sick.

The harmful effects of DU exposure include respiratory and neurological problems, rashes, cancers, kidney and lung damage, joint and muscle pain, fibromyalgia, cataracts, memory loss, changes in the RNA in DNA, causing genetic birth defects, and a host of other conditions associated with exposure to heavy metal toxicity and radiation.

Potentially, hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and other places are already sick or will become sick due to exposure to DU contamination.

Rokke himself is on a 40% disability pension and has been diagnosed as having "reactive airways disease due to his occupational exposure to U-238". Tests showed that he has 5000 times the normal level of radiation in his body; he also has problems with his breathing, immune system and one eye. He has had 15 surgical operations to his liver. Thirty members of his DU clean-up team have died.

Rokke emphasised that the purpose of war is to kill and destroy enemies, with little regard for long-term environmental or health consequences. DU munitions use a solid rod of uranium-238 as a high velocity, kinetic energy penetrator. They can pierce tank armour "like a hot knife through butter". The DU ignites upon impact, resulting in a shower of burning DU which causes secondary explosions, fires, injuries and death; 60% of the U-238 penetrator remains as a solid piece of uranium which can be picked up by children or adults.

In the 1950s, the US DoD became interested in using DU metal in weapons because of its extreme density. The US military uses DU in M-16 machine gun rounds, cluster bombs, tank shells and even in the huge "bunker-buster" bombs. DU weapons are also contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and americium. An A-10 "tank buster" aircraft can fire over one tonne of deadly DU into its targets every minute.

Depleted uranium is the by-product of the uranium enrichment process during which fissionable U-235 is removed from natural uranium to make nuclear bombs and reactor fuel. The remaining uranium waste is 99.8% uranium-238.

While the term "depleted" implies it isn't particularly dangerous, in fact it is a chemically toxic heavy metal (like lead or mercury) and is also radiologically hazardous, as it burns on impact, creating tiny aerosolised particles that emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. These particles can be so tiny that even the most modern gas masks cannot prevent them from entering a victim's lungs. They can be carried by the prevailing winds over long distances, have a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years, and pose a long-term threat to human health and the environment by contaminating air, soil and water.

More than 15 countries are known to have DU weapons in their military arsenals, including Britain, USA, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq and Taiwan. DU weapons are rapidly spreading to other countries.

Rokke revealed that DU weapons have also been used on training ranges in Vieques (Puerto Rico), Okinawa (Japan), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, within the US, and now may be being used on the training range in Lancelin, Western Australia.

Rokke was tasked to head a team to clean up the contamination left behind by depleted uranium during the 1991 Gulf War. What he found was a toxicological and radiological mess beyond comprehension. He discovered that doctors and nurses didn't know how to handle the medical cases they were seeing, and there simply was no way to treat all the victims or to clean up the mess left behind. "How do you bury all of Iraq in a hole?", he asked. "How do you bury all of Afghanistan in a hole?"

Of the 700,000 US troops who were in the Gulf during 1991 war, more than 200,000 are disabled from effects of Gulf War Syndrome, a condition believed to be caused by exposure to DU radiation, as well as factors including exposure to chemical agents, biological agents, pesticides, immunisations against anthrax and other diseases, and exposure to pollutants from oil-well fires.

During the 1991 war, US forces blew up Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, which, according to Rokke, was like "smashing an ice cube with a hammer". Deadly nerve agents blew back over the US troops and anyone who had the misfortune to be in the way.

The US does not want to lose DU munitions from their arsenal, Rokke states. A 1991 internal US Army memorandum recognised how effective these weapons were against Iraqi armour, but warned that if the health and environmental impact of these weapons become widely known, their use may become politically unacceptable and they could be removed from the arsenal. Therefore, the memo concluded that this "sensitive issue should be kept in mind when after action reports [on DU] are written". Rokke's interpretation of this is that the Pentagon is directing its staff to lie.

Rokke says he will not lie. He describes himself as a patriot who loves his country and a military man who will carry out his charge to clean up the DU mess. As such it is his duty to continue to speak out about the dangers of depleted uranium.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has categorised DU weapons, alongside nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, napalm and cluster bombs, as a "weapon of indiscriminate effect". Iraqis are already suffering a host of health problems due to DU, and these will only increase over the coming decade.

[For more information on the dangers of depleted uranium, go to <http://www.google.com> and enter the keywords "Rokke depleted uranium".]

From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
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