The Dirty, Deadly History of Depleted Uranium MunitionsBreaking News
tags: veterans, Gulf War, Depleted Uranium
Joshua Frank, a TomDispatch regular, is an award-winning California-based journalist and co-editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (Haymarket Books).
While the UK’s decision to send depleted-uranium shells to Ukraine is unlikely to prove a turning point in the war’s outcome, it will have a lasting, potentially devastating, impact on soldiers, civilians, and the environment. The controversial deployment of DU doesn’t pose faintly the same risks as the actual nuclear weapons Putin and his associates have hinted they might use someday in Ukraine or as would a potential meltdown at the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in that country. Still, its use will certainly help create an even more lethal, all too literally radioactive theater of war — and Ukraine will end up paying a price for it.
Stuart Dyson survived his deployment in the first Gulf War of 1991, where he served as a lance corporal with Britain’s Royal Pioneer Corps. His task in Kuwait was simple enough: he was to help clean up “dirty” tanks after they had seen battle. Many of the machines he spent hours scrubbing down had carried and fired depleted uranium shells used to penetrate and disable Iraq’s T-72 tanks, better known as the Lions of Babylon.
Dyson spent five months in that war zone, ensuring American and British tanks were cleaned, armed, and ready for battle. When the war ended, he returned home, hoping to put his time in the Gulf War behind him. He found a decent job, married, and had children. Yet his health deteriorated rapidly and he came to believe that his military service was to blame. Like so many others who had served in that conflict, Dyson suffered from a mysterious and debilitating illness that came to be known as Gulf War Syndrome.
After Dyson suffered years of peculiar ailments, ranging from headaches to dizziness and muscle tremors, doctors discovered that he had a severe case of colon cancer, which rapidly spread to his spleen and liver. The prognosis was bleak and, after a short battle, his body finally gave up. Stuart Dyson died in 2008 at the age of 39.
His saga is unique, not because he was the only veteran of the first Gulf War to die of such a cancer at a young age, but because his cancer was later recognized in a court of law as having been caused by exposure to depleted uranium. In a landmark 2009 ruling, jurors at the Smethwick Council House in the UK found that Dyson’s cancer had resulted from DU accumulating in his body, and in particular his internal organs.
The manufacturing of DU dates back to the 1970s in the United States. Today, the American military employs DU rounds in its M1A2 Abrams tanks. Russia has also used DU in its tank-busting shells since at least 1982 and there are plenty of accusations, though as yet no hard evidence, that Russia has already deployed such shells in Ukraine. Over the years, for its part, the U.S. has fired such rounds not just in Kuwait, but also in Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Syria, and Serbia as well.
Both Russia and the U.S. have reasons for using DU, since each has piles of the stuff sitting around with nowhere to put it. Decades of manufacturing nuclear weapons have created a mountain of radioactive waste. In the U.S., more than 500,000 tons of depleted-uranium waste has built up since the Manhattan Project first created atomic weaponry, much of it in Hanford, Washington, the country’s main plutonium production site. As I investigated in my book Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, Hanford is now a cesspool of radioactive and chemical waste, representing the most expensive environmental clean-up project in history with an estimated price tag of $677 billion.