The “Invisible Hand” of the Market

The Financial Times was recently caught purveying a new kind of advertisement on its web site — invisible ads! (New York Times, Alternate Link) The ads consisted of links to other commercial sites, printed in white on a white background. Harmless you might think, but think again. The ads aren’t for human visitors to the sites, but for web search engine programs like Google that travel the web and rank some pages by (among other things) the number of external links to them by “trusted sites” like the FT.

Ken McGaffin, in an article on how he discovered the FT’s hidden links, explained:

Google will regard a site such as as a trusted authority and any site that links to will get a significant boost to its ranking. The site will move towards the top of search engine results, bringing more visitors and more lucrative business as a result.

So the FT was servicing its advertisers by building up the likelihood that web searches would pull up their sites, which violates Google’s “quality guidelines.” The Financial Times pleaded ignorance. A spokesperson for the newspaper said (New York Times):

the invisibility had been a matter of aesthetics. “They just didn’t want to clog up the real estate with an overt link,” she said. “As soon as we figured out it was something we weren’t supposed to do, we took it right down immediately.”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether or not to believe this.

McGaffin runs a “link building and online marketing service,”, which helps companies make money off of links. The company’s web site holds that

Link building should be at the heart of any online marketing campaign. Here’s why:

  1. Links drive qualified traffic to your site.
  2. Links improve your search engine rankings.
  3. Links establish your market position.

Apparently the Financial Times took this advice to heart, but in a way that the company McGaffin was consulting for decried as “unfair competition.” Consider it the “invisible hand” of the market…

Thanks to Angsuman Chakraborty for bringing my attention to this.

New NASA Head Supports “Space Business”

Mike Griffin, the new administrator of NASA, recently made a candid admission of one of the most important unspoken purposes of NASA and other government agencies that fund science and technology research. That is, testing technologies, techniques, and theories risk free before they are given to corporations to make a profit.

(I work for a NASA-funded lab at Caltech, so technically Griffin is like the CEO of the company that employs me. I didn’t go to his talk, but read about it in Universe, the newspaper that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory distributes to its employees.)

Griffin told an audience of employees at JPL that “Government, including the federally funded research and development centers, exists to expand the range of what human beings know how to do.” This is certainly true in some cases, but other comments by Griffin make the case that, once public money is expended to figure out how to do new things, the natural home for the capability is private industry. Companies (called “contractors” by the government) could waste a lot of money developing new techniques, but

I don’t want a contractor doing something new and innovative that they probably don’t know how to do. I don’t want contractors losing money; that’s not healthy for the space business…[W]e take in tax dollars from the working public and try to turn it into good products for them. Federal dollars should be spent to acquire knowledge, technology, and processes that we do everything in our power to hand out to the rest of the public.

Obviously, NASA doesn’t just “hand out” technology to the “public” for free. Newly-developed technology can only be integrated into useful items by those with the means of production. So he really means research and development funded by “tax dollars from the working public” are used to develop “good products” that are “handed out” to corporations and wealthy individuals. The products can then be bought (again) by the “working public.” John Pike, head of, was right when he said of Griffin, “The intersection between politics and the aerospace industry is territory he’s quite familiar with.”

No surprises here, just nice to see someone being this honest about the way the system works.

Lasers and Stingers

It may not be as frightening as the militarization of space that the US government is working on (see Under the Same Sun for commentary), but the new plan to equip commercial passenger jets with “directed energy weapons” (lasers) certainly won’t make me feel safer in the air.

Aerospace giants BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman received about $120 million to test an “advanced laser-based missile protection system” similar to Grumman’s Guardian system (pictured below) for use in commercial aircraft.
Northrop Grumman's Guardian system
The system is supposed to detect and disable shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles to which planes are supposedly vulnerable at altitudes less than 15,000 feet, during takeoff and landing. A successful missile would make its way inside the engine and explode. The system is supposed to track the missile and scramble its electronics with a high energy laser, so it veers off course.

There are four reasons why this is the wrong way to improve transportation safety.

(4) It’s Expensive

A cost-benefit analysis by the RAND corporation considers the project one of the least cost-effective solutions (lives and money saved versus expense) for improving airline security. The Department of Homeland Security has required that BAE and Northrop should develop a package that costs no more than $1 million per plane (there are about 6,800 passenger jets in the US), but more realistic estimates put the cost at about $1.6 million per plane. Congress has projected that “the total cost of installing and maintaining the systems [will be] upwards of $10 billion.” A RAND study on the proposal anticipates total “ten year life-cycle costs” of about $40 billion, a bill that will largely fall on the taxpayer. The potential financial gain for the contractors is substantial. Because of projects like this, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are among the largest defense contractors worldwide, and hence among the wealthiest corporations.

The most vocal critics of the measure are the airlines themselves. The Air Transport Association estimates that the project could cost between $50 and $100 billion over 20 years, which it refuses to let fall on the unstable airline industry, already propped up by the government and “just about at the end of its rope,” according to one commentator. A statement by the Association reads in part, “The defense of our aviation system must be…fully supported by general tax dollars. Any suggestion that the industry or its customers can sustain these costs is misplaced.”

That this proposal is a gift for services rendered is very clear–BAE and Grumman are among the top ten campaign contributors for the two House sponsors, John Mica (R-Fl) and Steve Israel (D-NY). The two senatorial sponsors, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) did not get noticeable amounts of money from defense contractors, but Northrop worldwide headquarters are located in Los Angeles, CA, Boxer’s state.

(3) It’s Useless

A RAND report discussing security at Los Angeles Airport considers a MANPADS attack among the “lesser threats” to human life during air travel. (Missiles fired from a shoulder launcher are in the category “Man Portable Air Defense,” also known as MANPADS.) Even a successful MANPADS attack is unlikely to cause a plane crash, since ” large passenger airliners are designed to fly after the loss of an engine, even if that engine explodes” (NYT). More serious threats are bombs planted on the ground either in luggage, in vehicles, or in the cargo. Historically, there have been 35 attempts to shoot down civilian planes, but only 6 of those attacked “large, multiengine jets.” According to James Loy, the head of the US Transportation Security Administration, “five caused little or no damage.” In other words, there is only one example of a successful MANPADS attack on a jet.

New York Times Graphic

(2) It’s a Foot in the Door for Space Weapons

You might consider the airline laser “missile defense with a human face.” It’s technically only a defensive weapon that cannot hurt anybody (except whoever gets hit by the mis-guided missile), and will supposedly make air travelers feel more safe. It’s sponsored by Democrats, mostly, who are supposed to be anti-missile defense. But it is in the category of potentially lethal “directed energy weapons” that are being considered for either airborne or satellite platforms. A Heritage Foundation paper cites development of short-range lasers like the Guardian as “the most successful laser-based anti-missile program in history.” The report goes on to predict that “Future directed-energy weapons may offer the greatest improvements to U.S. defenses…The unique features and advantages of DEWs may arguably revolutionize concepts of military operations, as well as greatly influence civilian protection.” It is touted as a “non-lethal” weapon that will allow “precision strikes” and zero “collateral damage,” but we have heard that before. If the lasers get powerful enough, you can be sure they’ll start using them to disrupt electronics in airplanes, ground vehicles, and civilian infrastructure.

(1) It Doesn’t Solve the Problem

The real solution is of course “nonproliferation” – stop making and selling the damn weapons! Like landmines, the MANPADS are floating around because of the actions of the US and Soviet governments. Over 500,000 such weapons are estimated to still be in circulation, about 350,000 of which are “in government arsenals,” according to the New York Times, quoting a Congressional study. In the mid-1980’s the Reagan administration authorized Stinger missile gifts to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan, many of whom were hyper-fundamentalist fanatics. Both Boxer and Schumer, the senate sponsors of the anti-missile package, were members of the House of Representatives when Reagan gave the initial batch of Stingers to the Mujahideen. It would be interesting to dig up their voting records on this.
US-made Stinger Missiles

Since Stingers have the longest range of all MANPADS (they can reach an altitude of up to about 4500 meters), they would be the most likely to be used against commercial airliners. According to the General Accounting Office, the US government “sold” over 20,000 Stingers to “17 foreign countries and Taiwan” (is Taiwan not a foreign country?) since 1982 when the weapons first came online. Once sold, the weapons are extremely difficult to track, and our government hasn’t made it any easier. The GAO reports that, due to “poor oversight and recordkeeping,” US-produced handheld missiles “remain vulnerable to theft or other undetected losses.” Any inventory checking that the armed services did was considered “inaccurate and incomplete, and therefore unreliable,” meaning we have no idea how many of these objects there are and who has them.

The first step in deterring against possible attacks on civilian airlines with these weapons should be: track them down and get rid of them. The second step should be: stop making them.

Stewardship for us, Non-Proliferation for them

A recent Asia Times commentary by Bhaskar Dasgupta rightly claims that the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty is a “crock” that “has proven to be spectacularly ineffective in the past decade.” What he doesn’t say is that the treaty was largely meaningless from the beginning since it never called for the nuclear-armed powers to destroy their arsenals, only for other countries not to get nuclear weapons. In other words, the word “nonproliferation” only applies to our adversaries. The NPT is just another example of the big nuclear-armed powers, mainly the US, setting the terms by which newly-nuclear or non-nuclear countries should behave. (It’s also a good excuse for a non-nuclear country to get nuclear weapons.)

George W. Bush has been complaining that the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty hasn’t been doing its job, not of course because the US still has a huge arsenal, but because Iran and North Korea have declared their willingness to pursue their own nukes. The Bush administration doesn’t want the treaty to be rewritten, though, because “They fear doing so would take the focus away from Iran and North Korea,” who they want to be able to use the treaty against, like they did with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. If they called for a rewrite, says the New York Times, it would “play into the hands of nations that complain the existing treaty favors nations that already have large nuclear arsenals, and that have moved too slowly to fill their commitments to shrinking those arsenals to zero.” Washington wants the treaty to allow them to ostracise uncooperative non-nuclear and almost-nuclear powers before they become nuclear rivals, and hopes the world will keep quiet about the fact that the US “has moved too slowly” to cut back its own stockpile (NYT, May 1, 2005).

In other words, if Bush tried to rewrite the treaty, US hypocrisy might be seen for what it is. But the Times won’t say this. Neither will it say what former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Richard Butler said: “their [US] weapons of mass destruction are just as much a problem as are those of Iraq.” Nor will it remind us that the Bush administration refused to be part of a weapons inspection regime probably a lot less stringent than that forced on Saddam Hussein’s government, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), which would have banned production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons. In withdrawing from the FMCT, the State department claimed that the inspections regime it called for “would have been so extensive that it could compromise key signatories’ core national security interests and so costly that many countries will be hesitant to accept it.”

But we don’t really need weapons inspectors to prove that the US is not serious about nonproliferation. First of all, the Department of Energy is doing everything it can to ensure that existing US weapons of mass destruction are up to date and kept in peak working order. In president Bush’s description of his 2006 budget request for the DOE, it is declared that “The Nation’s nuclear deterrent remains a critical component of our defense strategy.” The “stockpile stewardship program” under the aspices of DOE “ensures the operational readiness of the Nation’s nuclear weapons.”

But more importantly, the DOE is always on the ready to produce new weapons. The Department runs the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has among its goals to “promote international nuclear safety and nonproliferation.” If we had any doubts that “nonproliferation” is really only ever applied to others, not us, we find that “The NNSA …maintains and enhances the … performance of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile, including the ability to design, produce, and test” nuclear weapons. The NNSA Strategic Plan for “stockpile stewardship,” will develop “the capability to produce all nuclear components in a weapon” to be ready “to respond rapidly to the Department of Defense requirements to counter a broad spectrum of emerging threats.” In other words, the NNSA will be able to assemble new nukes at the drop of a dime. Thus, “The Nation will maintain a deterrent posture second to none.”

Let’s face it. The United States and other nuclear superpowers are not going to draw down their nuclear arsenals just because they agreed to. The way I see it, there are only three conditions which might lead to the world’s powers dismantling their nuclear stockpiles entirely.

  1. The world becomes a place where the use or threat of force no longer makes sense or is no longer possible.
  2. World War III occurs.
  3. The people of nuclear-armed nations multilaterally force their governments to stop making nukes.

(1) is 99.99999% unlikely, and (2) is unthinkable (but more likely). So we are left with (3).

Anti-Nuclear Demonstration.  Photo by New York Times.

Bhaskar Dasgupta comments, “Gone are the days that massive rallies would take place about the removal of nuclear weapons…now, people are more driven by what a few terrorists could do, rather than what a whole structure that owns and manages nuclear weapons can do.” I think Dasgupta is saying that since 9/11, when the US was attacked by terrorists, US citizens that used to worry about the danger to the world posed by our own government’s WMD’s have stopped doing so and are now worried about the next al Qaeda suicide bomb . If this is indeed his meaning, I would have to say that, like the NPT, this is a crock. There are plenty of US citizens who are angry that their government possesses weapons of mass destruction, like the 40,000 protestors who marched in New York on May 1. Of course, that number will have to increase before we see UN weapons inspectors in the US, but the days of “massive rallies” are surely not “gone.”


For further reading:

Who Do Scientists Serve?

March 2003

An online search using “Google” for the two words “Iraq” and “scientist” will result in many pages of links to news articles telling how an Iraqi scientist agreed to a private interview with United Nations officials on February 6th. Most of the links point to the same Associated Press article, which was picked up by hundreds of American news bureaus. So many links to the same article might be said to show the importance of the story. (It also says something about the lack of diverse sources of information in our country—everybody gets their news from AP apparently.)

It is considered important that someone who worked in Iraq’s weapons program is “coming clean” and divulging the secrets behind some of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that his government developed (the reports don’t add that the chemical and biological weapons were developed mostly as a result of financial support and materials shipments from the United States and Britain during the 1980s). There never was a follow-up story about what the scientist finally divulged, perhaps because it didn’t fit with the picture of “the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons” that George W. Bush wants people to believe. There was another AP report on February 11th about another Iraqi scientist that “played a leading role” in the bioweapons programs, who said her country “was justified in producing germ weapons to defend itself in the 1980s and 90s.” In contrast with the “scientist submits to UN” piece, this story was only picked up by a handful of news outlets. Perhaps it was not the hoped-for story about a level-headed Iraqi scientist criticizing the atrocities of her government.

The credibility of scientists is taken for granted in our culture, thus Iraqi scientists who publicly support Saddam Hussein must be “under threat,” or are “under electronic surveillance,” or are really “intelligence agents in disguise.” Obviously, intelligence agents are doctrinally controlled, whereas scientists are thought to work in “higher realms of truth” beyond doctrine. Scientists who wind up serving the aims of worldly institutions like governments must be victims of coercion, or are being duped. Secretary of State Powell asserts that “Saddam’s security officials have been working aggressively to discourage or to control interviews between Iraqi scientists and inspectors.” Otherwise, “free of intimidation, free from the risk of loss of life, they might tell the truth.” This would never be said of an intelligence operative. Unmentioned is the fact that Iraqi scientists really are under coercion, but not to support Saddam. The most powerful military in the world is mobilizing outside their borders and preparing to invade. How this helps keep Iraqi scientists “free of intimidation” or “free from the risk of loss of life” is difficult to imagine.

Scientists in the US are not threatened with imprisonment or death for taking a stand in opposition to the government, yet even here scientists are no better than the rest of humanity at scrutinizing critically the operations of their own government. US scientists are not flocking to the UN weapons inspectors with information about US WMD programs that they work on. This is not because the United States is harmless, but because scientists have no reason to do so. Scientists have a strong incentive to remain silent when it comes to government crimes.

Part of the reason is funding. Most scientists are at least part-time government employees, so criticizing government policy is “biting the hand that feeds.” US research and development is funded either by government agencies or by corporations. By granting or witholding funds these institutions have veto power over research choices. Jeff Schmidt, author of “Disciplined Minds,” argues that scientists have an “assignable curiosity” — the personal interests of scientists get redirected based on where the money is. For example, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) says it wants to support “scientists, engineers, and innovators on the cutting edge of technology” working in areas as diverse as neural networks, lasers, and ground-penetrating radar. In a slick brochure entitled “Missile Defense Technologies: Tools to Counter Terrorism, 2002” the MDA states that the research it funds will have results that “are applicable in the war against terrorism and protection of the homeland.” Once the funding is in, scientists that get MDA grants are not expected to question the applications of their work.

Even when scientists don’t get paid by the Pentagon, most benefit indirectly from military spending. In my own field, astronomy, advances are made when telescopes are made more sensitive, or are enabled to operate at new wavelengths. Developing more powerful sensors of different wavelengths of light has always been a military goal, thus scientific understanding of the universe parallels the rise of military hardware. Radar development during World War II was responsible for the flourishing of radio astronomy, leading in 1965 to the discovery of the left-over radiation from the Big Bang using an instrument originally designed for satellite tracking. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), the project for which I work operates some of the most sensitive infrared detectors ever devised, developed as part of a “symbiotic relationship” between astronomers and the Department of Defense (DoD). According to a study by the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the US National Research Council, the military “has invested large amounts of money in IR detector development for defense applications.” The study also asserts, “successful management of the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics research enterprise requires close coordination between NASA, NSF, DoD, DoE and many private and state-supported facilities.” “Symbiotic” work and “close coordination” with the DoD requires that a scientist suspend her critical attitude towards the military.

Like other professionals, scientists internalize the structure of the institutions in which they work. Otherwise they would not “get anywhere.” In Iraq and the United States both, this includes tolerating the weapons work that takes place as part of the overall research and development effort of the country. To critique the institution one works for to the “outside world” is to attempt to undermine it, as is understood in the case of Iraqi scientists. Powerful institutions depend on those who work for them reinforcing the status quo, not challenging elite privilege. Thus, scientists are expected to keep silent when it comes to the crimes committed by their governments and other institutions in which they participate. That expectation is rarely stated – scientists simply know how to act “professionally” by not discussing certain topics in public or at the workplace. The rewards are impressive and include a decent salary, job security, the opportunity to do intellectually rewarding work, and access to modern equipment. The achievements of scientists are lauded by society and their opinions are respected, but is that respect deserved when a scientist does little to advance the fight for a truly peaceful and secure future free from oppression?

At the very least scientists should end the tradition of silence and add their voices to the growing movements against the use of force and for social justice. But even more, they should attack as illegitimate their own privilege because there is nothing intrinsically noble about them or their work that they deserve to be put above other people. In addition to dismantling all weapons of mass destruction hidden in bunkers, warehouses, silos, and submarines by all governments around the planet, scientists should join the fight to dismantle the structures of power that lead to privilege for some and the oppression of others.

The author is a staff scientist at the SIRTF Science Center, California Institute of Technology. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, an organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Should Scientists Support Hi-Tech Warfare?

by Jim Ingalls with members of the Caltech Progressive Coalition on 24th January 2000

“…From now on institutions for learning and research will more and more have to be supported by grants from the state… Is it at all reasonable that the distribution of the funds… should be entrusted to the military? To this question every prudent person will answer: ‘No!’ ” -Albert Einstein, 1947

Last Friday President Bill Clinton visited our campus to announce the fiscal year (FY) 2001 science and technology budget. Caltech has been ranked the top undergraduate educational institution in the United States, and is one of the most competitive centers of science and technology research in the world, so Clinton’s science budget affects many of us directly. As you may have noticed, when the representative of US political leadership addresses its technical leadership on science and technology research, he stresses the positive side of his program. It is important to acknowledge also the destructive uses of science and technology research.

The “ivory tower” insulates us from many of the consequences of our work, so perhaps we don’t realize that yearly, 81% of the research conducted at Caltech is publicly funded, and that 24% of such funding comes from either the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Department of Energy (DOE), and may be used for military purposes. For example, Caltech is a member of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which oversees the DOE-sponsored $19 million Center for Simulating Dynamic Responses of Materials. Scientists and engineers who receive funding from this Center are creating a “virtual shock physics laboratory” whose main goal is to simulate the detonation of high explosives. Fully 40% of all applied science research at Caltech is paid for directly by the DOD.

But Caltech is not unusual in its pursuit of military-financed research. Although President Clinton proudly announced a $227 million increase in US funding for nanotechnology research and a $605 million increase in funding for information technology research, he did not mention that 18% and 21% of these increases, respectively, will be provided by the DOD. In 1998, the Clinton Administration boasted of its commitment to civilian research and development (R&D), which at $170 billion over 5 years was at its highest level ever. Yet 50% of the total US R&D budget is still for defense research. More imortantly, even though the total defense R&D spending has been declining since its post World War II peak in 1987, for the past four fiscal years (1997-2000), the destructive program entitled “weapons activities” has had its funding increased $525 million (36%), at the expense of programs like “environmental restoration and waste management,” which has been cut by $90 million (45%) during the same period. In constant dollars, the defense R&D budget is only a few percentage points below its second-highest postwar peak of 1967, when the Indochina Wars were in full swing.

This military focus parallels the overall spending profile of the US Government. In FY 2000, the only Cabinet-level US department to get an (inflation-adjusted) funding increase over the previous year was the DOD (an increase of 12%). President Clinton signed the Defense Authorization Act on 15 October 1999, allocating $289 billion for the military. While total international military spending decreases, US military spending increases. The US military budget is more than 5 times that of Russia, and it is more than 19 times the combined spending of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan (the Pentagon’s “7 most likely adversaries”). Furthermore, the US is the world’s largest arms exporter, supplying 36% of the world’s arms deliveries during the period 1989-1998. The consequences are devastating. For instance, decades of US arms sales to Indonesia enabled that country to illegally and brutally occupy the territory of East Timor. Twenty four years of domination and hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared Timorese later, and finally East Timor is an independent state, no thanks to US weapons.

We can speak dispassionately of “stress wave propagation in an elastomer binder,” but perhaps some day Caltech’s “virtual shock physics laboratory” will be used to study shrapnel propagation in human skin, such as occurred during the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia. More than 1,100 cluster bombs, “the most savage weapons of modern warfare,” according to BBC Correspondent John Simpson, were dropped on Kosovo and Serbia by the US last spring. Condemned by international humanitarian organizations (they violate the Geneva convention because of their indiscriminate nature), when cluster bombs explode they send 200,000 “bomblets” of shrapnel over a wide radius. Cluster bombs have a 5-30% failure to detonate rate. Lodged in the ground, unexploded bombs act as landmines. In the first month after the NATO airstrikes, about 150 Kosovars were killed or injured by “land mines or unexploded ordnance,” including cluster bomb fragments. In the Persian Gulf, over 1,200 Kuwaitis were killed in the same fashion, and they weren’t even the “enemy”! Ironically, the Clinton Administration withdrew from the 1997 international negotiations to ban landmines.

The results of US military spending permeate the international landscape. No human being is untouched by the US military apparatus. Perhaps the most painful exposure is being had in Iraq, where since the December 1998 “Desert Fox” operation, the US and allies have flown a total of 28,000 sorties and expended over 1,800 bombs and missiles in strikes against 450 separate targets in Iraq. Current contingency operations in Iraq are estimated to entail annual costs of about $1 billion. And on the ground, the deadliest “weapons of mass destruction” have proven to be the economic sanctions insisted on by the US, which are crippling Iraq’s social infrastructure.

Scientists are rewarded financially when their research supports military goals, but to expect such work not to be harnessed for destructive purposes is either ignorance or insincerity. Shouldn’t the responsibility of scientists for the consequences of their work extend beyond their wallets? US scientists ushered in the nuclear era, and now the US is one of the few countries which refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. According to opponents of the treaty, “nuclear deterrence” is more important than peace and safety. At any rate DOE’s nuclear weapons programs and scientists continue to be funded. In fact, between 1997 and 2000, DOE “atomic energy defense activities” research has not incurred a loss of funding; to the contrary, over the past four years it has received a boost of $440 million (18%) from the government.

Is it healthy that a nation which faces no credible military threat should continue to allocate half of its research funds for military purposes? As scientists we are accustomed to thinking, “I only do basic science” or, “I’m just doing what I’m told,” but what is the difference between passive acceptance and active participation when the consequences are the same? Recall Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who was horrified by the violent uses of his invention and later dedicated his royalties to a foundation for peace. Are scientists like Nobel, Einstein, and Caltech’s own Linus Pauling doomed to extinction?

Depleted Uranium: A Review of its Properties, Potential Danger and Recent Use in Yugoslavia

Presented at the 1999 Independent Commission on War Crimes during the Bombing of Yugoslavia

The issue of depleted uranium (DU) has been a source of intense debate since it’s first major use in the Gulf War in 1991. While the governments of the United States and other “Allied Powers” steadfastly maintain that DU is safe enough to eat in small quantities, the public and especially those likely to have been exposed to DU such as Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians plagued with mysterious illnesses, have opposed this view with justified suspicion and reasonable claims. There is no clear answer to the suspicion that DU is hazardous substance. The largest obstacle to ending this debate is a lack of rigorous scientific testing and data analysis. As this paper is being written, new investigations and analyses are seriously tainting the claim that DU is a safe product. This paper introduces the reader to the origins and sources of DU, the potential internal damage that could be caused by DU, the use of DU in Iraq, current research findings, and the most recent use of DU weapons in Yugoslavia.


Table 1. Summary of Uranium Isotopes
Isotope Percent in natural uranium Percent in depleted uranium No. of Protons No. of Neutrons Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 99.800 92 146 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 0.199 92 143 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 0.0010 92 142 245,000

Based from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

Uranium is a radioactive element found in trace quantities all over the earth and has many different forms or isotopes. Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three isotopes: 99% U238, 0.7% U235, and 0.005% U234 (see Table 1). In 1938, German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed that the uranium atom could be split into parts to yield energy. Today, uranium is the principal fuel for nuclear reactors and the main raw material for nuclear weapons manufacturing. Used in the form of metallic uranium, or uranium dioxide (chemical symbol UO2), a large number of civilian and military nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturers require that the UO2 fuel be “enriched” prior to use, that is have a higher proportion of U235 present than in natural uranium. It is the process of uranium enrichment which results in byproducts, the bulk of which constitutes depleted uranium (DU). Hence DU is a form of uranium that is “depleted” of its U235 content. It consists of 99.8% U238 and 0.2% U235 and U234.

Figure 1. Depleted Uranium storage cylinders

A May 1999 report by Peter Diehl on DU as a by-product of nuclear fission says “Most of the depleted uranium produced to date is being stored as uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in steel cylinders in the open air in so-called cylinder yards located adjacent to the enrichment plants. The cylinders contain up to 12.7 tonnes of UF6. In the US alone, 560,000 metric tonnes of depleted UF6 have accumulated until 1993; they are currently stored in 46,422 cylinders. Meanwhile, their number has grown by another 8,000 new cylinders (see Figure 1).” While nuclear reactors, keep functioning ever-increasing quantities of waste DU pile up. Efforts to recycle DU have been taken up by various metallurgical laboratories in the United States. DU is an extremely dense metal, twice as dense as Lead (19.07 gms/cc). Its extreme hardness and density makes it an excellent candidate for objects such as airplane counter-weights and armor penetrating weapons such as high-energy ballistic projectiles.

Properties of Depleted Uranium

1. Radioactive Properties

Radioactive elements such as uranium decay by the emission of any or all of three kinds of radiation: alpha particle radiation, beta particle radiation, and gamma radiation. The time taken for a radioactive sample to decay to half its original amount is called the half life. DU is a mildly radioactive metal with an incredibly long half life of 4.46 billion years. It decays mainly by the emission of alpha and beta particles. (See Table 2 for a chart of all the stages of radioactive emission of DU, mostly U238, and the corresponding half lives of radioactive decay into the final stable product, lead). In fact, in terms of energy of radiation, DU is about half as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium. Additionally, alpha and beta particle radiation have very limited ranges of penetration and hence are not expected to cause very serious damage to living tissue via external exposure. However, it is the internal damage to tissue that makes DU a potentially extremely hazardous metal. In the following sections I will describe how DU can enter the human body and potentially cause damage.

Read from left to right. Arrows indicate decay.
Uranium-238 ==>
(half-life: 4.46 billion years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-234 ==>
(half-life: 24.1 days)
beta decay;
Protactinium-234 ==>
(half-life: 1.17 minutes)
beta decay;
Uranium-234 ==>
(half-life: 245,000 years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-230 ==>
(half-life: 75,400 years)
alpha decay;
Radium-226 ==>
(half-life: 1,600 years)
alpha decay;
Radon-222 ==>
(half-life: 3.82 days)
alpha decay
Polonium-218 ==>
(half-life: 3.11 minutes)
alpha decay
Lead-214 ==>
(half-life: 26.8 minutes)
beta decay;
Bismuth-214 ==>
(half-life: 19.9 minutes)
beta decay;
Polonium-214 ==>
(half-life: 163 microseconds)
alpha decay
Lead-210 ==>
(half-life: 22.3 years)
beta decay;
Bismuth-210 ==>
(half-life: 5.01 days)
beta decay
Polonium-210 ==>
(half-life: 138 days)
alpha decay

Taken from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

2. Flammability and Aerosolizing

DU is a highly flammable metal. As a powder it is a pyrophore, which means that at temperatures in the range of 6-700 degrees Celsius, it can spontaneously ignite. At such high temperatures, easily reached during the impact of DU fortified bullet through armor plated tanks, DU will ignite, part of it combining with oxygen to form a series of complex oxides such as uranium dioxide (UO2), uranium trioxide (UO3), and triuranium octaoxide (U3O8). Any remaining particles of uranium will oxidize over time due to weathering (UNEP2). Particles of the resulting oxidized DU that are small enough to inhale (< 5 microns in size - AEPI) are also light enough to float and travel long distances via air currents: "This was discovered in 1979 by workers at the Knolls Atomic Laboratory north of Albany, New York. While investigating the National Lead Industries, reportedly fabricating DU penetrators for 30 mm canon rounds and airplane counter weights, they found DU contamination on their own air filters 42 kilometers from the factory (BERTELL1)." A 1999 study by the RAND Institute found that on average 10-35% (with a maximum of 70%) of a DU bullet becomes airborne or aerosol on impact or when the DU dust catches fire. The more rocky or stony the area of impact, the greater the extent that DU will be aerosolized (NELLIS).

Path of DU through the human body and potential damage to organs

Figure 3. Diagram comparing the penetration depths of different types of radioactive emission. Taken from No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1984 (BERTELL2).

Despite the fact that it is mildly radioactive, it is important to remember that while there is DU present inside the body it will emit alpha and beta particles along the way and the longer the organs and tissue are subject to this radiation, the greater the chance of developing any of several pathological complications such as metabolic disease, tumors, kidney disease, leukemia, immune deficiency etc. In her 1984 book, No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell discusses the damage that alpha and beta particle radiation can cause (see Figure 3):
“Alpha particles can be stopped by human skin, but they may damage the skin in the process. Both alpha and beta particles penetrate cell membranes more easily than they penetrate skin. Hence ingesting, inhaling or absorbing radioactive chemicals capable of emitting alpha or beta particles and thereby placing them inside delicate body parts such as the lungs, heart, brain or kidneys, always poses serious threats to human health”.

As mentioned earlier DU radiates mostly alpha and beta particles, which have short penetration ranges in live tissue. Hence, being present in the vicinity of solid DU for a short time can mildly damage to the human body. However, the internal presence of DU has potential for great damage by radioactive emission, particularly if the DU stays internally lodged for considerable amounts of time. Figure 2 shows a schematic diagram of the various possible paths that DU can take within the body and cause problems.

Figure 2. A schematic view of the path of DU through the human body. Taken from RAND 1999.

One direct way in which DU directly enters the human body and can cause health hazards is from embedded shrapnel of DU fortified bullets. A simple X-ray can reveal the presence of DU fragments in the human body. In fact, in ‘friendly-fire incidents’ during the Gulf War, there were “at least twenty-two [US] veterans with DU shrapnel embedded in their bodies (NATION2).” Any sample of DU or naturally occurring uranium is partly soluble and partly insoluble. The soluble portions of the shrapnel can dissolve in the blood stream and then be transported to various organs. The insoluble portions of the DU will continue to radioactively decay and potentially damage surrounding tissue.

In addition to being hit by shrapnel, there are two important ways in which DU can enter the human body: ingestion and inhalation of aerosol DU particles. Via ingestion, insoluble DU particles will pass through the digestive and gastro-intestinal systems fairly quickly with a fairly low rate of absorption by the intestinal lining. They will then be egested in the feces. However, soluble DU particles have a higher rate of absorption and can linger in the human body for longer periods of time, irradiating tissue cells while they flow through the blood stream. While little is known about the actual internal effects of soluble DU particles, it is well known that naturally occurring soluble uranium is a chemical toxin, affecting the kidney and causing heavy metal poisoning. In fact, once ingested, soluble metals will in general be absorbed rapidly into the blood stream and eventually concentrate in various organs, for example, Iodine to the thyroid and Lead to the kidney and bone. Taking into account the potential internal damage by ingestion of DU, it should be noted that only about 0.05% of aerosol particles are usually absorbed by ingestion (AWTG).

The inhalation of DU particles raises the greatest health concerns and is the most likely link between internal tissue damage and an environment polluted with DU dust. When insoluble, or ceramic DU particles are inhaled, some will be exhaled out and some will be deposited within the lungs. To a some degree DU can reach the gastrointestinal system via inhalation too because “some of the uranium originally in the lungs ends up in the gastrointestinal tract as a result of mucociliary clearance from the respiratory tract and subsequent swallowing (RAND).” Once DU has entered a human body via ingestion or inhalation, it may initially be circulating in the blood stream or retained in the lung tissue, or both. If circulating in the blood stream a large portion of it will be excreted in the urine. The remainder will be deposited in the bone tissue and soft tissue organs such as the kidneys. Soluble DU in the lungs can enter the lymph nodes and the blood stream via absorption through lung tissue. Although it is unknown what percentage of inhaled air containing insoluble DU particles could be retained within the lung tissue, even a single DU particle that gets lodged in the lung will remain indefinitely. As the half life of DU (see Table 1) is extremely long, the lodged particle will irradiate the surrounding lung tissue continuously over time, decaying into its daughter products which include radon, an established cause of lung and other cancers.

War Time Use of Depleted Uranium

1. Proliferation of DU Weapons

Several countries including the United States, Britain, and France have DU fortified weapons in their arsenals. Additionally, “Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. (NATION2)”.

Figure 4. Armor penetrating round used by the US A-10 Warthog attack planes. Taken from UNEP Report, Oct 1999.
The primary weapons employing DU are A10 seven-barrel battling guns manufactured by General Electric which can fire 3900 rounds of ammunition a minute. Each bullet (see Figure 4) contains a conical DU penetrator (UNEP2). These bullets can penetrate armor so efficiently that they render ground troops in armor plated tanks virtually defenseless. While the long and short term health risks associated with the aerosol DU dust left behind have not been conclusively assessed, the US military use of DU weapons in international conflicts continues.

2. DU in the Gulf War

Their low cost and extreme effectiveness at penetrating armor plated tanks have made DU fortified bullets one of the US army’s most valuable weapons. While federal regulations dictate strict terms under which DU is to be safeguarded in storage within the United States, the use of this radioactive waste product on the battle field remains unrestricted. According to the Ministry of Defense, the first military use of DU was in 1991 in Iraq during the Gulf War.” US planes and tanks fired 860 000 rounds of ammunition containing 290 tonnes of DU. British tanks fired 100 rounds containing less than 1 tonne of DU (NEWSCI).” In the immediate aftermath of the war Preventative Medicine Command health physicist, Doug Rokke and his team were charged with the “clean up” of battlefields in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, littered with rounds of DU bullets. Rokke’s team was never informed of the possible health risks associated with DU, nor did they ever receive any special training or protective gear to handle the bullets containing DU. In fact, “within two weeks of his return from duty in the Middle East, Rokke and the other members of his DU assessment team began developing health problems (MJONES1).” While some of his team members have died, Rokke himself suffers from what is now called Gulf War Syndrome, a set of inexplicable immune system and tumor afflictions affecting a large number of US Army veterans of the Gulf War.

A January 1999 San Fransisco Examiner article explains that “the Pentagon over the years has steadily increased the number of vets exposed to DU during the Gulf War. In 1993, the estimate was 35, but by 1998 when the Pentagon, under pressure, unveiled a map of the Gulf War battlefield, the new estimate was thousands.” Increasing pressure on the Pentagon from Veterans groups, environmental, and anti-nuclear weapons activist groups around the country has had limited success in addressing the deplorable health status of veteran soldiers. While the lack of definitive research makes a pronouncement on DU’s health risks elusive, some constructive steps such as conferences, publications, independent testing and research on DU and connections to Gulf War Syndrome have been taken. For example, a December 1998 Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium” paper shows increasing registration of different types of cancer cases and change in the epidemiological pattern of there occurrence with time among military personnel who were in the southern region of Iraq during the war.” According to them “there is a significant correlation and association between these cases and DU exposure.” Additionally, a March 1994 article in the Nation Magazine reported that the Veterans Administration “conducted a state-wide survey of 251 Gulf War veterans families in Mississippi. Of their children conceived and born since the war, 67% have illnesses rated severe or have missing eyes, missing ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.” This alarming rate of birth defects suggests that soldiers were exposed to some kind of toxin during the war.

In addition to Gulf War Veterans, the population of millions of Iraqis now living near areas riddled with DU fortified bullets, are at an even greater risk. With no more clean up of spent DU rounds or DU dust scheduled, Iraqis face the possibility of exposure to DU on a daily basis. As summarized in the previous section, aerosol particles of DU can theoretically travel large distances and be inhaled and deposited into the lungs where irreparable damage can occur as a result of radioactive emission. Cases of birth deformities as a result of genetic defects, and cancer are showing alarming elevations in the civilian population of Iraq. “The occurrences of cancer were recorded in four hospitals and/ or medical centers … in Mosul city from August 1989 to March 1990. The same work was repeated in the same hospitals and medical centers during August 1997 to March 1998. Type of cancer, sex of patients, and type of therapy was studied. The two most prevalent types of cancer diseases were also examined and statistically analyzed. The frequency of incidence of cancer diseases … [such as] lung, leukemia, breast, skin, lymphoma and liver cancers elevated 5-fold after the war. The elevation in these could be due to the depleted uranium weapons used by the allied forces against Iraqi troops and citizens (CHEC).” Also, in Basra alone, the Iraqi province south of the battlefields where DU bullets were fired, leukemia rates have risen by 56%, according to a study by Dr. Muna Elhassani of the Iraqi Cancer Registry.

The similarities in the symptoms between Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians strongly suggests a common origin of the afflictions. In addition to DU, some have suggested experimental vaccines, chemical warfare pills, as well as smoke from oil well fires as being responsible (NATION1). However, the radioactive nature of DU, mild as it may be, is theoretically the most likely cause of the types of diseases that have developed. Only rigorous scientific research can rule out or confirm its effects.

3. Research on the effects of DU Exposure in the Gulf War

In a response to pressure by activist and veteran groups, the US government initiated “A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses” by the RAND Institution. Although RAND professes to be a private non-profit organization, it is important to note their affiliation with the defense industry in the United States. For example, a title in their publication list includes “The Cutting Edge, A Half Century of US Fighter Aircraft R&D: A Government-Industry Partnership” and a major research area at RAND is defense planning and operations. The RAND report on DU, although mostly scientific in its approach, fails to address the issue of exposure to insoluble DU particles which can become trapped inside the lungs upon inhalation and stay lodged for years, irradiating the surrounding tissue. A dismissive statement in the report is reflective of their approach to the controversial link between DU and Gulf War Syndrome : “insoluble compounds, such as oxides are more toxic to the lung because their longer residence in the lung produces a larger radiation dose. As previously discussed, many of these compounds are laboratory reagents and industrial chemicals and are absent from the military environment. As such, they are not relevant to the discussion of health effects related to the military use of DU.” This blanket statement does injustice to the scientific literature on the aerosolizing of DU upon impact and ignition and thereby ignores one of the most important ways in which DU can cause damage inside the human body.

Another aspect of DU contamination which was not properly addressed by the RAND report was the adverse effect of embedded DU fragments inside the body. The potential mutagenic effects of DU are unknown and so the Applied Cellular Radiobiology Department of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute began carrying out experiments on rats implanted with DU fragments. The urine and serum of these rats and control rats implanted with inert metal were tested for “mutagenic potential”. Preliminary results showed that “In depleted uranium-implanted animals, urine mutagenicity increased in a dose- and time-dependent manner demonstrating a strong positive correlation with urine uranium levels” (Medline inquiry, 1998). However, a more recent study by researchers at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Baltimore, published in the Health Physics Journal in November 1999 contends that there are no adverse outcomes from radioactive shrapnel embedded inside a human body. The study carried out tests on the urine samples of veterans with embedded DU shrapnel using “a laser induced phosphorescence analysis for total uranium”. Dr. Rosalie Bertell observes that in the Baltimore study “no attempt was made to do an isotopic breakdown of the uranium. There is no indication whether the excluded samples were from vets with or without shrapnel on X-ray. Those with shrapnel had very small pieces, most less than 1 millimeter scattered throughout muscle. There were a few pieces of shrapnel as large as 20 millimeter.” It is clear that a more rigorous analysis of uranium in urine samples is needed. At present there is no well established connection between embedded DU shrapnel and uranium contaminated urine or any physiological symptoms.

In addition to the controversy surrounding DU shrapnel, no well-accepted evidence exists on the effects of inhaled or ingested DU particles. The pronouncement of the RAND report that the “the body is very effective at eliminating ingested and inhaled natural uranium” and hence exposure to DU particles does not result in adverse health effects, has not encouraged any steps toward a moratorium on the use of DU fortified weapons. However, aside from government sponsored research, various independent research programs have recently tackled the issue of DU aerosol inhalation or ingestion. Among them are Dr. Hari Sharma’s study of British Gulf War veterans. Dr. Sharma is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and his approach of direct testing of urine samples from veterans show results that are startlingly incriminating of DU. He found “traces of DU in the urine of 14 out of 30 British veterans” (KIRBY). Critics of Dr. Sharma’s work have claimed a lack of scientific rigor in his methods. However, another independent study by geochemist Patricia Horan supports Sharma’s results. Horan used a technique that “is said to achieve results between 50,000 and 500,000 times more accurate than Dr Sharma’s” (KIRBY). Her mass spectrometer analysis of the urine of Veterans also showed that eight years after the use of DU bullets in the Gulf War, veteran soldiers were still passing DU in their urine, pointing to an anomalously high DU exposure during the Gulf War.

An overall complication associated with this research is the difficulty of doing an isotopic separation between naturally occurring uranium and DU is necessary in order to accurately determine DU exposure. Since naturally occurring uranium is all around us, measuring total uranium levels is not conclusive evidence of the presence of DU. A new research approach which looks promising is the method of neutron activation analysis adopted by Miriam Ripley, a Uranium Medical Project Coordinator. This method discriminates between naturally occurring and depleted uranium (presented at the Conference on Low Level Radiation sponsored by the New York Academy of Medicine and the STAR Foundation, February 1999). The project is in its preliminary stages and can hopefully lead to an end to the controversy over DU in urine samples.

At the theoretical level, research on how aerosol DU particles could enter and damage the human body, are being spearheaded by physicist Dr. Leonard Dietz. Dr. Dietz has developed a physical model of exposure to DU based on a biokinetic model developed by the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) that describes the behavior of uranium within the human body by accounting for aerosol particle size, the chemical forms of the particles, and excretion rates of absorbed uranium. The model points out that large numbers of Gulf War veterans could have been exposed to aerosol DU particles in Iraq (IAC).

Figure 5. A faxed memorandum from Lt. Col Ziehmn to Doug Rokke in 1991 expressing his stance on DU weapons used in the Gulf War

It is difficult to do a complete review of all the research being carried out independently on the subject of DU. Despite the potential health hazards of DU highlighted by the flurry of studies in the past and present, no action has been taken by any of the governments of the Allied powers to halt the use of DU munitions in war time. The reasons for this are probably best expressed in a faxed memo from Lt. Colonel Ziehmn of Los Alamos National Laboratory (a federally funded laboratory) to Doug Rokke in 1991 (see Figure 5) which states that “There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable … If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DoD proponency.” In the mean time hundreds of Gulf War Veterans and thousands of Iraqis continue to suffer from immune system disorders, cancers, birth defects and other inexplicable symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, nausea, etc. In reality, there are no widely accepted reasons for the afflictions and yet, there is no conclusive research to rule out exposure to DU aerosol as the source of these physiological disorders. It seems that DU bullets have indeed proven their worth by destroying tanks so efficiently and being produced at such low cost that they were employed with enthusiasm during the next military undertaking of the US, namely the war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

4. The use of DU Weapons in Yugoslavia

In spring of 1999 the United States along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) carried out a brutal 78 day bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over the issue of alleged “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo by Serbian military forces. During the bombing the use of DU munitions was strongly suspected and first brought to notice on April 1 1999 in a bulletin by the International Action Center in New York, an activist group opposed to DU weapons. In a Washington press briefing during the bombing Major General Charles Wald, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, specified that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against Serbian forces. This was eventually supported by the “Pentagon [who] has confirmed that it used DU in Kosovo. It has also confirmed it has no plans to clean it up.”(MJONES1). In addition to the A10 battling guns, AV-8 Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans also carried DU munitions (NEWSCI).

Despite the verbal confirmations to news media of the deployment of DU weapons, there has been no official written acknowledgement of the extent of DU weapons use in Yugoslavia by the US government or NATO. A recently published United Nations report makes an estimate however: “by taking into account the number of sorties the A-10 Warthogs (the planes firing the DU bullets, according to the Pentagon) were flying per day, the estimated percentage of those sorties which actually fired DU rounds, and the number of rounds their guns hold, it is possible to arrive at an estimate. According to John Pike, a well-respected defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists ‘one could reasonably assume that we have fired at least 10,000 of [DU] rounds (UNEP2).” This estimate, although almost 100 times less than the amount of DU fired in the Gulf War, is likely cause for great concern. Even the Ministry of Defense thinks so, warning their “personnel in Kosovo … to stay clear of areas which have been affected by depleted uranium weapons unless they are wearing full radiological protective clothing (HERALD).” All returning refugees in Yugoslavia were issued no such warning.

To date NATO and the US have refused to reveal information of exactly how much DU was used and exactly where it was used. The UNEP Balkans Task Force program to assess the environmental damage to Yugoslavia carried out an investigation using soil and water testing in areas that were suspected to be contaminated with DU. No widespread DU contamination was found. However, the radiation measurement and sampling was not systematically performed and this was admitted to be the most serious drawback of the UNEP study. The report does make the recommendation that places where localized contamination has been confirmed, should be subject to restricted access and local residents warned of the potential hazards. The lack of information from NATO about the sites of DU weapons deployment was stressed as being the largest obstacle to assessing dangers of DU exposure to the civilian population.

The present situation in Yugoslavia can perhaps be best summarized in the words of Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), “NATO has undertaken actions that could put large numbers of people at risk in Yugoslavia as well as in other countries. It is imperative that NATO provide a full accounting of why these plants were bombed, and what assessments have been undertaken of their direct and indirect consequences for present and future generations.” If indeed the estimate of 10000 DU rounds fired is accurate or even a lower limit, and if the rounds were those that were mostly deployed for the purpose of damaging civilian infrastructure, then it is plausible to say that civilians in Yugoslavia are at risk of potentially hazardous exposure to DU.


DU is a mildly radioactive combination of uranium isotopes and is stored in large amounts as radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturing plants. Its high density and ease of availability have made it a valuable ingredient in “tank-busting” weapons used by mainly the US government. DU has much greater potential for causing damage to humans internally than externally. Its pyrophyric properties cause a fraction of it to ignite and form DU oxide particles of respirable size that are easily airborne. In addition to DU shrapnel embedded in the body as a result of a direct or peripheral hit, DU aerosol particles can enter the body via ingestion and/or inhalation. Once in the body, a small portion of the soluble DU can enter the blood stream and collect in soft organs, muscles and bone while some insoluble DU can be retained in the lungs, passing to the lymph nodes, irradiating the surrounding tissue indefinitely.

Despite its potential to cause internal damage in humans, DU weapons were used for the first time in the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait, and more recently in Yugoslavia. In the 8 years following the Gulf War, veteran soldiers have been plagued with a series of inexplicable physiological symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, weight loss, etc, as well as cancers such as leukemia and lung cancer, and an alarming rate of birth defects in their children born after 1991. Very similar symptoms have been discovered in Iraqi civilian populations. The Iraqi landscape bombarded with DU bullets in 1991 remains contaminated with no future plans for cleanup by the Allied Powers.

While there is no widely accepted cause-and-effect relation between exposure to DU and the development of what is now called “Gulf War Syndrome”, a significant body of research, some Government motivated, some independent, now exists on the potential hazards of DU. There is no conclusive evidence to either implicate or rule out DU. However, urine analysis of Gulf War veterans by independent researchers Dr. Hari Sharma and Patricia Horan, strongly suggest that military personnel in Iraq were subject to large doses of DU.

Instead of exercising caution with respect to DU weapons, the US army deployed A10 battle guns which use DU fortified bullets in Yugoslavia during its 78-day bombing campaign in early 1999. The use of DU has been confirmed by the Pentagon. However, the Pentagon refuses to provide any information about the the total number of rounds fired or sites at which they were fired. As a result the UNEP program was unable to determine the extent to which the civilian population were being exposed to the radioactive metal. Estimates put the number of DU rounds used at about 10000, which, if true, and if fired within populated areas, could pose a significant risk of exposure to civilians.


The controversy surrounding DU is one whose end is far overdue in light of the serious physiological effects on people suffering from Gulf War Syndrome in the US and Iraq. With respect to Yugoslavs living near sites of DU contamination, a quick conclusion can help address problems before they become serious: a finding that indeed exposure to DU results in Gulf War Syndrome can initiate an immediate clean up of Yugoslav sites that are contaminated with DU. Conversely, a finding that there is no link between DU and immunological and cancerous disease will allow attention and resources to be diverted to any other possibly responsible toxins. I therefore recommend that:

  • Scientific peer reviewed research on the extent of exposure to DU dust and the internal damage directly resulting from any internally retained DU is imperative to ending the debate over DU is imperative.
  • A complete disclosure by the US and NATO must be made of all the sites that DU bullets were fired at and the total number of DU rounds fired which will enable the UNEP Balkans Task Force to thoroughly investigate the sites in question and proceed accordingly with a civilian evacuation and cleanup.
  • An immediate testing must be carried out on urine samples of all Gulf War veterans and a continuous monitoring of uranium levels measured. Additionally, it is imperative that the newly proposed method of neutron activation measurement be pursued to strengthen such a study by being able to distinguish between naturally and depleted uranium levels in urine samples.
  • An immediate and comprehensive ban on DU munitions of any form and foreign sales of DU munitions must be imposed by the US, NATO and any other country possessing the weapons, until and unless it has been scientifically and conclusively proven that DU is entirely harmless.
  • A complete cleanup of all spent DU rounds in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Although far more expensive to perform, a complete cleanup of DU aerosols in the environments of the two countries in light of the strong possibility that DU dust ingestion and inhalation can cause significant internal damage.
  • A contingency plan for addressing health concerns of Yugoslavs who may develop similar symptoms to Gulf War Syndrome in the near future.


  • ACRD: Urinary and serum mutagenicity studies with rats implanted with depleted uranium or tantalum pellets, Miller, A. C., Fuciarelli, A. F., Jackson, W.E., Ejnik, E.J., Emond, C., Strocko, S., Hogan, J., Page, N., Pellmar, T., Applied Cellular Radiobiology Department, Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, Nov 1998.
  • AEPI: Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Army, U.S. AEPI (Army Environmental Policy Institute) Technical Report, June 1995
  • AWTG: Atomic Weapons Training Group, “Basic Health Physics”, Field Command, DASA, Sandia Base, Albuquerque, Dec 1965.
  • BERTELL1: Depleted Uranium is a Chemical and Radiological Warfare Agent Used Extensively in the Gulf War, Dr. Rosalie Bertell President, International Institute of Concern for Public Health Toronto (, Nov 1997.
  • BERTELL2: No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1985.
  • CHEC: Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium used by U.S. and British forces in the 1991 Gulf War, Baghdad Iraq, December 1998.
  • DIEHL: Depleted Uranium: a by-product of the Nuclear Chain, Peter Diehl, Laka Foundation (, May 1999.
  • HERALD: Depleted uranium warning only issued to MoD staff, Felicity Arbuthnot, Sunday Herald, Aug 1999.
  • IAC: Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers Civilians with DU Weapons, 2nd Edition, edited by the Depleted Uranium Education Project International Action Center, 1997.
  • ICRP: International Commission on Radiation Protection Publication 54, book, Individual Monitoring for Intakes of Radionuclides by Workers: Design and Interpretation, Pergamon Press, 1988.
  • IEER: Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, May 1996.
  • KIRBY: Depleted uranium study ‘shows clear damage’, Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby, Aug 1999.
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  • MJONES2: Hot Shot Uranium, Mother Jones Magazine, January 1999
  • MORGAN: Hazards of Low-Level Radiation, Morgan, K. Z., Yearbook of Science and the Future, Supplement of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980.
  • NATION1: Mal de Guerre, Flanders, L., The Nation Magazine, March 1994.
  • NATION2: The Pentagon’s Radioactive Bullet, Bill Mesler, The Nation Magazine, Dec, 1998.
  • NELLIS: Resumption of Use of Depleted Uranium Rounds at Nellis Air Force Range, Target 63-10, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nebraska, June 1997.
  • NEWSCI: Too Hot to Handle, Rob Edwards, New Scientist, June 1999.
  • OBUS: It Is Not Depleted Uranium, Max Obuszewski, Baltimore Chronicle (”), Feb 1999.
  • RAND: A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Harley, N. H., Foulkes, E. C., Hilborne, L. H., Hudson, A., Anthony, C. R., RAND ( 1999.
  • RCHDU: Radiological and Chemical Hazards of Depleted Uranium, Defense Radiological Protection Service Report (, July 1993.
  • SULLIVAN: Gulf War map a clue to vet ills?, Kathleen Sullivan, San Fransisco Examiner, Jan 1999.
  • WRRI: Modeling Erosion and Transport of Depleted Uranium, Yuma, Proving Ground, Ward, T.J.& Stevens, K.A., Arizona, WRRI Report No. 286 (New Mexico Resources Research Institute) (, June 1994.
  • UNEP1: The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements, UNEP/UNCHA BTF Final Report (, 1999
  • UNEP2: The Potential Effects on Human Health and the Environment Arising From Possible Use of Depleted Uranium During the 1999 Kosovo Conflict: A Preliminary Assessment, United Nations Environmental Program(UNEP)/UNCHA Balkans Task Force (, October 1999.