19 December 2007

Nuke industry is on the Verge of Getting $25 billion Handout


By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!. Posted December 18, 2007.

Congress is about to dump billions on an industry that has been unprofitable for 50 years.

The House is set to vote on Tuesday on the $500 billion 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Unveiled on Sunday, the measure covers budgets for all cabinet departments except the Pentagon. It's expected to pass both houses of Congress this week.

Hidden in the bill is a major energy package that would boost government financing for the nuclear industry. It would provide loan guarantees of up to $25 billion for new nuclear reactors. A massive grassroots campaign forced these taxpayer-financed loans out of the national energy bill earlier this month, but last week Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico slipped them back into the budget vote.

Harvey Wasserman has been at the forefront of raising awareness about the dangers of nuclear power. He helped found the grassroots anti-nuke movement in the early 1970s, advises the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. He's senior editor of the Ohio-based freepress.org and editor of nukefree.org. Harvey Wasserman has also co-authored two books on the 2004 election. They are How the GOP Stole America's 2004 Election and Is Rigging 2008 and What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election.

Amy Goodman: Welcome to Democracy Now! ... Talk about this energy bill.

Harvey Wasserman: Well, we beat Pete Domenici. With Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Keb' Mo', Ben Harper, we put out a music video on nukefree.org. We raised 120,000 signatures and presented them to Congress in October. And Domenici was forced to pull these nuke loan guarantees out of the energy bill, but then slipped them back into the appropriations bill.

And the nuclear power industry is a fifty-year proven failure, and they can't get independent financing to build their own new reactors, which they want to do now. And so, they've gone to the government. This is one issue where we're in agreement with Forbes magazine and the Cato Institute, which is backing the opposition to these loan guarantees, because if nuclear power, after fifty years of huge government subsidies, can't make it in the marketplace, why should the taxpayers fund another $25 billion worth of reactor construction?

We're on the brink of a tremendous energy revolution in solar, wind, tidal, geothermal. You know, we're looking almost at a solartopia of a renewable-based economy, which will be much more controllable at the grassroots, much more democratically oriented. And that's why the nuclear power industry is desperately holding on here.

Goodman:So who are its backers, aside from Pete Domenici?

Wasserman: Well, we have Westinghouse, General Electric -- the usual suspects -- Ariva, a large French company, all wanting to go into the -- to revive the so-called nuclear renaissance. You know, we've been trying for fifty years to drive the stake through the heart of an industry that doesn't seem to have one.

And there's absolutely no demand for new nuclear plants. There's no reason to build them. They don't work. Even with optimum conditions of licensing and so on, they couldn't get a reactor online for another ten years. They've been saying the nuclear power plants are a solution to the global warming problem; we know they make global warming worse. You know, it's a total scam. And they are continuing to take of taxpayer money, public money, to build reactors where we don't need that kind of financing for wind, for solar, for tidal, geothermal, the other forms of green energy, which can be community-controlled.

And so, these subsidies, these loan guarantees in the appropriations bill, we are asking people, through the nukefree.org website, to call Congress, call the congressional leadership, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi -- David Obey is very key as the congressional chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Mitch McConnell on the Republican side -- and tell them: get these loan guarantees out of the appropriations bill.

Goodman:So talk about how it worked over this last month -- went in, went out, went in.

Wasserman: Yes. Well, under tremendous pressure with the signatures that we brought in from nukefree.org to the Congress -- we had Ed Markey, John Hall, Shelly Berkeley at our press conference, support from John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, other key green energy backers -- Domenici was forced to pull these subsidies out of the energy bill. It was a very big victory for us.

Actually, there were much worse subsidies. There was a loan guarantee for the DOE that was essentially without any congressional appropriations oversight. Now we've got it down to a one-year $25 billion -- down to a one-year $25 billion subsidy. Even that's too much, way too much.
The nuclear power industry is a terror target just waiting to be hit. We don't need these reactors. They're devastatingly dangerous to the environment. They're destructive of public health. It was shown forty years ago that regular so-called normal emissions from nuclear plants kill thousands of Americans every year. This was by head of the Atomic Energy Commission's own medical research division. So, you know, this is something that is being prolonged at the expense of the public health and the public treasury.

The appropriations, as you say, they were pulled out of the energy bill due to public pressure, but Pete Domenici is the senator for nuclear power, and he's very clever at congressional manipulation.

Goodman:Why is he so wed to nuclear power?

Wasserman: He's the guy -- he's been their point guy for decades. You know, he is the senator from New Mexico, and he's been the man that the nuclear power industry has gone to to further their interests in Congress.
Goodman:And he'll be leaving next [inaudible] in 2009.

Wasserman: He will be leaving, not soon enough, as far as we're concerned, but he's been forcing these appropriations in -- you know, he tried the farm bill. Now, we beat him on the energy bill. He tried to put them in the farm bill. Then he tried to slip them into the global warming bill, and then Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, pulled them out. We've gotten good support from Senator Pelosi -- Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi, but we need more from Congressman Obey and from the Republican side. You know, these Republicans, who are supposedly conservatives, shouldn't be for subsidizing industries like the nuclear power industry. It's an obsolete proven failure.

Goodman:What if the nuclear industry doesn't get these loan guarantees?

Wasserman: It's a very big deal. They can't build new nuclear plants. No -- Wall Street will not finance new nuclear construction. We are actually in solidarity with the financial community here. Nobody wants to back nuclear power plants. They are a failure. They cannot compete now with wind energy or with solar or tidal or the other green forms of energy, even of flat-out marketplace. And so, if they don't get these loan guarantees, they're not going to be building new nuclear plants, and we will be going to wind and solar and to a solartopian, you know, energy version -- vision. So we really -- this is a very big deal to stop these appropriations. And, you know, like I say, we're actually in conjunction with the old-time right wing here who actually believes in a free market.

Goodman:You talk about King CONG madness.

Wasserman: That's right.

Goodman:That's coal, oil, nukes and gas.

Wasserman: Coal, oil, nukes and gas.

Goodman:The International Climate Change Summit in Bali ended with no new plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Wasserman: Astonishing. It's astonishing. Here, they give the Nobel Prize to Al Gore for warning us all about global warming. You know, I'm waiting for Al Gore to get arrested at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant. That's when he'll really deserve the Nobel Prize. You know, but the power of the coal, oil, nukes and gas conglomerates -- King CONG, as we call them -- is astonishing. To have the whole world focused on global warming and then come to this conference and not be able to get even a simple agreement is astounding. And it's really a terrifying testimony to the power of these corporations.

Goodman:Well, Al Gore went there and said, I name "the elephant in the room": the United States.

Wasserman: Yes. And, you know, it's a disgrace. It's an embarrassment to the world that the United States would stand -- here we're standing on the brink of a technological revolution that would really parallel the information revolution of the '90s. You know, we had the spread of the internet, the boom in computerization that really brought us prosperity. We could have a repeat of that, if we got away from nuclear power, coal, oil, nukes and gas and went into green power. But, you know, the Bush administration won't let it happen.

Goodman:How would green power look? I mean, you have the oil companies fighting hard against alternative energy, but at the same time -- I mean, like BP calling themselves "Beyond Petroleum" -- at the same time, seeing the writing on the wall, trying to get right in there. Now, there is a way to do this in a centralized way, isn't there? And isn't that what they're trying to get in on?

Wasserman: Yeah. They want to centralize and keep control of their energy supplies, of our energy supplies. And nuclear power is the ultimate way to do that, and then coal, oil and gas let them keep control over it, where the model we're working on --

Goodman:But even alternative.

Wasserman: Yeah.

Goodman:Even wind and solar.

Wasserman: They're not -- but I think they've realized they can't do it. Solar and wind cannot be centralized the way nukes, coal and oil can, because they are, of essence, decentralized technologies, and they can be community-owned. We're working in Minnesota and other states on a model of community-owned wind power, which we now have $100 million worth of community-owned wind in Minnesota.

Goodman:Doing what?

Wasserman: Doing -- generating cheap electricity, owned by the farmers on whose land it is and by the communities that get the electricity. This is the moment of terror for the coal, oil, nukes and gas industries, because they can't control this energy. And if we get -- that's why we need to stop these appropriations, because if they can't get the loans to build nuclear plants, all the money is going to go where it belongs, which is to green power. You know, with the information revolution, we didn't have an institutional barrier. With the renewable energy industry and with, you know, getting to solartopia, we do have the institutional barriers of the coal, oil, nukes and gas industry, and the nuke industry is really the vanguard, because it's the ultimate centralized --

Goodman:And you have some environmentalists who are pushing nukes. They are saying it's cleaner.

Wasserman: Very, very few. You know, it's been a miniscule -- you look at all the money the industry have, they have only been able to pick up a few marginal players. We had a press conference in D.C., and all the major environmental groups were right there: Sierra, League of Conservation Voters, Greenpeace. You know, they're with us. No major environmental group has gone to the dark side for nuclear power.

Goodman:Where does Bush stand?

Wasserman: You know, in a very deep radioactive hole, where -- exactly where you'd expect. They're pushing, you know, this industry. Actually, Dick Cheney has very serious interests in pushing nuclear power. And, you know, he's been right behind the scenes with Domenici there.

Goodman:What are his interests?

Wasserman: His interests are very corporate, and he wants controls. You know, the nuclear power -- as long as they're putting money into nuclear power, we're not going to get away from coal, oil and nukes and gas. Nuclear power is really the cutting edge for the fossil fuel industry. And if the nuclear barrier breaks, all the money -- all the new money is going to go to renewables. And so, they are terrified -- the coal, oil, nuke and gas industries -- of renewables. And so, nuclear power is really their finger in the dam, because once everything breaks, it's all going to go to renewables, and we'll have a transformed world.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

18 December 2007

The important uranium mining questions, via Southside Concerned Citizens

Learn About Uranium

Reprint from the Danville Register and Bee

A large deposit of uranium - possibly one of the largest in the country - is in Pittsylvania County, and a powerful group of investors wants to mine it. The mining of uranium may have serious implications, not only for Pittsylvania County, but most of eastern Virginia.

Here are some basics.Uranium is ubiquitous in nature. You can find it in anything and anywhere, but usually in only trace amounts that have insignificant environmental implications. In nature, uranium exists as three main isotopes (Uranium 238, Uranium 235 and Uranium 234).Uranium 235 is the isotope used in most fission processes, such as energy production in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.

The property that makes these elements useful is their instability. Uranium deteriorates by emitting particles (alpha particles and beta particles) and energy (gamma radiation), converting the uranium into other elements such as thorium, eventually leading to lead, which is stable and does not undergo any further degradation. These emissions are ionizing energy, and cause the most trouble. When living cells are exposed to this ionizing radiation, it can cause either cell death or disrupt DNA sequences, increasing the risk for cancer. Uranium 238 is the most prevalent isotope in nature and generally poses little risk unless it is either inhaled or ingested. But it does cause problems - an example being lung cancer - when inhaled.

Uranium is mined in areas where the concentrations of uranium are higher, but needs to be removed from the rocks and surrounding materials by some process. One method is to obtain the ore by removing material from open pit mines and then extracting the uranium from this material by dissolving the uranium with acid and then extracting the uranium in the form of uranium oxide, which is called yellow cake. The material left over is called mill tailings.

Mill tailings have relatively low radioactivity, but they can cause environmental contamination due to the large amount left over by the mining and extracting processes. The principle radioactive components of mill tailings are Thorium 230 (with a half life of 75,000 years) and Radium 226 (half life 1,600 years). Mill tailings also contain heavy metals such as manganese and molybdenum, which can leach into the groundwater causing contamination. Near existing mill tailing sites, groundwater has concentrations of heavy metals that are hundreds of times greater than government standards.

Another method of extracting uranium is called in situ leaching. This process is performed by injecting a solution into the uranium deposits and then removing the uranium oxide from the solution collected from the surrounding aquifer. ISL depends on the ore body being permeable to the solution - and being away from areas in which contamination of groundwater is likely or will be a problem.

This method is preferable in many areas because there is no leftover mill tailings. It is used in Australia, America and Ukraine. ISL is generally used in areas where the water supplies are already contaminated and there is no concern over the quality of the groundwater. But this method utilizes the underground aquifer to recover the uranium and is not an acceptable method for this area where so many (both here and in the eastern part of our state) depend on the water that moves through our area.

So, I guess the questions are: Do we trust the mining of this uranium ore to the people who are preparing to mine it? Who are they? What processes are they going to use to mine uranium? Is our state/national government capable of overseeing these operations? What regulations are in place to protect our environment, and are they going to be enforced? Who is going to be responsible for the uranium mill tailings and other byproducts that are going to be around for thousands of years - Virginia or Pittsylvania County?

The implications of the slightest mistake in mining this ore will result in a contamination of our environment that will not go away in our lifetime or our great-grandchildren’s lifetime. Think about it, ask the questions and educate yourself. But do it quickly.


Heck NO! We won't glow: Pittsylvania County, 1981 post

News From the Past.......1981

(From the New York Times 11/15/1981)



The first major exploratory drilling east of the Mississippi River for uranium ore to fuel the nation's nuclear power industry is dividing rural Virginians. In the southern part of the state, the preliminary core drilling seems to be generally accepted. To the north, residents concerned about low-level radiation are pitted against landowners who are leasing property to a uranium company.

The Marline Uranium Corporation, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Marline Oil Corporation, has spent $8.7 million in four years of prospecting for minable deposits of uranium oxide and in gathering leases to excavate the radioactive substance in five counties.

The leases signed so far by some 300 Virginians cover 53,000 acres in two areas of the state. Most of the leases are in Pittsylvania County, on the North Carolina line near Danville. There, the textile and tobacco community seems to have accepted the prospect of uranium riches with hopeful equanimity.

Core Drilling Demonstration

There today, Marline held a ''uranium fair,'' with free lunch and country music for 1,000 people, to demonstrate what it describes as the environmentally innocuous process of core drilling. Joanne Spangler, a critic who concedes that opposition to uranium development in Pittsylvania County is ''practically non-existent,'' noted that Marline representatives said little today about the actual mining and milling of uranium ore, a process she said would ''spread radioactive dust.''

The company is actively core drilling, a step in determining uranium reserves, around Danville on leases from such community leaders as the chairman of the county board of supervisors and the editor of the region's largest weekly newspaper. Although no open pit mining has begun and no major ore deposit has been reported, Marline spokesmen say they are ''encouraged'' by the findings so far.

Resistance in Northern Virginia

But in the second area, northward into the Virginia exurbs of Washington, there is increasing resistance. Marline officials say they have leases for only 12,000 acres in the area, along the outline of the so-called Newark group of the Triassic basin, a geological formation of a uranium-bearing sandstone that extends from the Carolinas through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and on into Maine.

On a line from Washington to Charlottesville, the northernmost of the two areas of ''radioactive anomalies'' cuts across parts of northern Virginia's famed hunt country. But radioactivity is not the only anomaly.

In a trend that opponents of uranium development say they find baffling, several of the wealthy landowners have led the way in signing mining leases. Barring a major find, the rewards of the standard lease seem modest. What is unknown, however, is how large a ''signing bonus'' Marline is paying for preferred leases. The ''standard bonus'' is $5 an acre, said Robert N. Pyle, a spokesman for the uranium company.

The 15-year contracts, which can be unilaterally cancelled at any time by Marline but not by the lessors, offer a per-acre rental payment of $1 a year for the first three years. The payment increases to $10 an acre in each of the fourth through seventh years, and then to $30 an acre through the 15th. But the higher payments are deemed ''advances'' against future tonnage royalties if mining is actually begun. Haulage charges to a mill from active mines also are to be deducted from lessors' payments unless a mill is begun directly on their properties, which the contracts give Marline the right to do.

One of the first and largest signers here in north-central Virginia was Donald E. Gingery, who recently bought Somerset Plantation, a 1,200-acre farm in southern Orange County, northeast of Charlottesville.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Gingery said ''I don't know'' when asked why he had leased all of his nearly 2 square miles of farm land. Then he added, ''I believe in the project.''

Change in Zoning Ordinance

Last June, the Gingery lease and others in the watershed of the Rapidan River spurred the apprehensive Orange County board of supervisors to amend its zoning ordinance, making it as difficult to obtain permits to core drill as to open a mine. The action came after a citizens' meeting at which a local physician raised the threat of delayed cancers from radioactive pollution of ground and river water.

The effects of low-level radiation are in debate among scientists. This fall, Orange County and other central Virginia jurisdictions asked the state government for a moratorium on all uranium activity in the state until the safety questions are resolved.

'Uranium Is a Bummer'

''I am not antinuclear,'' said James N. Cortada, the bluff former Foreign Service officer who is Mayor of the city of Orange, the county seat.
''But from an economic point of view, for us uranium is a bummer. We will not permit any uranium mining in Orange County without every conceivable process and protection, no matter what it costs.''

Officials of Marline, who came here stating in newspaper interviews that they were ''high rollers,'' say they are counting on an increase in the currently depressed price of uranium that could turn their prospecting investment in Virginia into a good thing.

At a recent briefing here, Norman W. Reynolds, Marline's vice president in the company's Danville office, said that while there are no plans to begin core drilling in Culpeper County in 1981, ''we think there is potential in this area or we wouldn't be here.''

Abandoned Uranium Mine, Riley Pass, SD

Abandoned Uranium Mine, Riley Pass, SD
Is this what Pittsylvania county will look like in 30 years?

"Heck No, We Won't Glow"

View Current Signatures - Sign the Petition

To: Elected and Appointed State and Local Officials of the states of Virginia and North Carolina

To: Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine
Members, Virginia General Assembly
Members, Pittsylvania County. Halifax County, and Henry, VA County Board of Supervisors
Members, Rockingham, Caswell, and Person, NC County Board of Commissioners
Members, Town and City Councils of all towns and cities in the 6 counties cited above.
All elected and appointed local and state officials in the 6 counties cited above.

We, the undersigned, do hereby petition all local and state officials cited above, and, those not cited that may have an impact on the outcome, to continue the Virginia State moratorium on Uranium Mining and Milling in Virginia, and, furthermore, to oppose and block any exploratory drilling for Uranium in the state of Virginia as well.


The Undersigned

View Current Signatures

Links to Documents

Example: Open Pit Uranium Mine, Ranger, Australia

Example: Open Pit Uranium Mine, Ranger, Australia
Coming Soon to Chatham, VA?

depleted uranium weapons update IRAK

– At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks.

But Ms. Hamid’s stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by - and contaminated with - controversial American depleted-uranium (DU) bullets. Local children play “throughout the day” on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven’t been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.

The Monitor visited four sites in the city - including two randomly chosen destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles, a clutch of burned American ammunition trucks, and the downtown planning ministry - and found significant levels of radioactive contamination from the US battle for Baghdad.

In the first partial Pentagon disclosure of the amount of DU used in Iraq, a US Central Command spokesman told the Monitor that A-10 Warthog aircraft - the same planes that shot at the Iraqi planning ministry - fired 300,000 bullets. The normal combat mix for these 30-mm rounds is five DU bullets to 1 - a mix that would have left about 75 tons of DU in Iraq.

The Monitor saw only one site where US troops had put up handwritten warnings in Arabic for Iraqis to stay away. There, a 3-foot-long DU dart from a 120 mm tank shell, was found producing radiation at more than 1,300 times background levels. It made the instrument’s staccato bursts turn into a steady whine.

“If you have pieces or even whole [DU] penetrators around, this is not an acute health hazard, but it is for sure above radiation protection dose levels,” says Werner Burkart, the German deputy director general for Nuclear Sciences and Applications at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. “The important thing in any battlefield - especially in populated urban areas - is somebody has to clean up these sites.”

Minimizing the risk

Fresh-from-the-factory DU tank shells are normally handled with gloves, to minimize the health risk, and shielded with a thin coating. The alpha particle radiation emitted by DU travels less than an inch and can be stopped by cloth or even tissue paper. But when the DUmaterial burns (usually on impact; or as a dust, it can spontaneously ignite) protective shields disappear, and dangerous radioactive oxides are created that can be inhaled or ingested.

“[The risk] depends so very much on how you handle it,” says Jan Olof Snihs, of Sweden’s Radiation Protection Authority in Stockholm. In most cases dangers are low, he says, unless children eat toxic and radioactive soil, or get DU oxides on their hands.

Radioactive particles are a “special risk associated with a war,” Mr. Snihs says. “The authorities should be aware of this, and try to decontaminate places like this, just to avoid unnecessary risk.”

Pentagon officials say that DU is relatively harmless and a necessary part of modern warfare. They say that pre-Gulf War studies that indicated a risk of cancer and of causing harm to local populations through permanent contamination have been superseded by newer reports.

“There is not really any danger, at least that we know about, for the people of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Michael Sigmon, deputy surgeon for the US Army’s V Corps, told journalists in Baghdad last week. He asserted that children playing with expended tank shells would have to eat and then practically suffocate on DU residue to cause harm.

But there is a growing chorus of concern among United Nations and relief officials, along with some Western scientific experts, who are calling for sites contaminated with DU be marked off and made safe.

“The soil around the impact sites of [DU] penetrators may be heavily contaminated, and could be harmful if swallowed by children,” says Brian Spratt, chair of the working group on DU at The Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific institution.

Heavy metal toys?

Fragments and penetrators should be removed, since “children find them fascinating objects, and can pocket them,” says Professor Spratt. “The science says there is some danger - not perhaps a huge danger - of these objects. … We certainly do not say that these things are safe; we say that cleanup is important.”

The British Ministry of Defense says it will offer screening to soldiers suspected of DU exposure, and will publish details about locations and quantities of DU that British troops used in Iraq - a tiny fraction of that fired by US forces.

The Pentagon has traditionally been tight-lipped about DU: Official figures on the amount used were not released for years after the 1991 Gulf War and Bosnia conflicts, and nearly a year after the 1999 Kosovo campaign. No US official contacted could provide DU use estimates from the latest war in Iraq.

“The first thing we should ask [the US military] is to remove that immediately,” says Carel de Rooy, head of the UN Children’s Fund in Baghdad, adding that senior UN officials need urgent advice on avoiding exposure.

The UN Environment Program last month called for field tests. DU “is still an issue of great concern for the general public,” said UNEP chief Klaus Töpfer. “An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks.”

US troops avoid wreckage

During the latest Iraq conflict Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and A-10 Warthog aircraft, among other military platforms, all fired the DU bullets from desert war zones to the heart of Baghdad. No other armor-piercing round is as effective against enemy tanks. While the Pentagon says there’s no risk to Baghdad residents, US soldiers are taking their own precautions in Iraq, and in some cases have handed out warning leaflets and put up signs.

“After we shoot something with DU, we’re not supposed to go around it, due to the fact that it could cause cancer,” says a sergeant in Baghdad from New York, assigned to a Bradley, who asked not to be further identified.

“We don’t know the effects of what it could do,” says the sergeant. “If one of our vehicles burnt with a DU round inside, or an ammo truck, we wouldn’t go near it, even if it had important documents inside. We play it safe.”

Six American vehicles struck with DU “friendly fire” in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

Television footage of the war last month showed Iraqi armored vehicles burning as US columns drove by, a common sign of a strike by DU, which burns through armor on impact, and often ignites the ammunition carried by the targeted vehicle.

“We were buttoned up when we drove by that - all our hatches were closed,” the US sergeant says. “If we saw anything on fire, we wouldn’t stop anywhere near it. We would just keep on driving.”

That’s an option that produce seller Hamid doesn’t have.

She says the US broke its promise not to bomb civilians. She has found US cluster bomblets in her garden; the DU is just another dangerous burden, in a war about which she remains skeptical.

“We were told it was going to be paradise [when Saddam Hussein was toppled], and now they are killing our children,” she says voicing a common Iraqi perception about the risk of DU. “The Americans did not bother to warn us that this is a contaminated area.”

There is a warning now at the Doura intersection on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. In the days before the capital fell, four US supply trucks clustered near an array of highway off-ramps caught fire, cooking off a number of DU tank rounds.

American troops wearing facemasks for protection arrived a few days later and bulldozed the topsoil around the site to limit the contamination.

The troops taped handwritten warning signs in Arabic to the burned vehicles, which read: “Danger - Get away from this area.” These were the only warnings seen by this reporter among dozens of destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles littering the city.

“All of them were wearing masks,” says Abbas Mohsin, a teenage cousin of a drink seller 50 yards away, said referring to the US military cleanup crew. “They told the people there were toxic materials … and advised my cousin not to sell Pepsi and soft drinks in this area. They said they were concerned for our safety.”

Despite the troops’ bulldozing of contaminated earth away from the burnt vehicles, black piles of pure DU ash and particles are still present at the site. The toxic residue, if inhaled or ingested, is considered by scientists to be the most dangerous form of DU.

One pile of jet-black dust yielded a digital readout of 9,839 radioactive emissions in one minute, more than 300 times average background levels registered by the Geiger counter. Another pile of dust reached 11,585 emissions in a minute.

Western journalists who spent a night nearby on April 10, the day after Baghdad fell, were warned by US soldiers not to cross the road to this site, because bodies and unexploded ordnance remained, along with DU contamination. It was here that the Monitor found the “hot” DU tank round.

This burned dart pushed the radiation meter to the far edge of the “red zone” limit.

A similar DU tank round recovered in Saudi Arabia in 1991, that was found by a US Army radiological team to be emitting 260 to 270 millirads of radiation per hour. Their safety memo noted that the “current [US Nuclear Regulatory Commission] limit for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year.”

The normal public dose limit in the US, and recognized around much of the world, is 100 millirems per year. Nuclear workers have guidelines 20 to 30 times as high as that.

The depleted-uranium bullets are made of low-level radioactive nuclear-waste material, left over from the making of nuclear fuel and weapons. It is 1.7 times as dense as lead, and burns its way easily through armor. But it is controversial because it leaves a trail of contamination that has half-life of 4.5 billion years - the age of our solar system.

Less DU in this war?

In the first Gulf War, US forces used 320 tons of DU, 80 percent of it fired by A-10 aircraft. Some estimates suggest 1,000 tons or more of DU was used in the current war. But the Pentagon disclosure Wednesday that about 75 tons of A-10 DU bullets were used points to a smaller overall DU tonnage in Iraq this time.

US military guidelines developed after the first Gulf War - which have since been considerably eased - required any soldier coming within 50 yards of a tank struck with DU to wear a gas mask and full protective suit. Today, soldiers say they have been told to steer clear of any DU.

“If a [tank] was taken out by depleted uranium, there may be oxide that you don’t want to inhale. We want to minimize any exposure, at least to the lowest level possible,” Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a top Pentagon health official told journalists on March 14, just days before the war began. “If somebody needs to go into a tank that’s been hit with depleted uranium, a dust mask, a handkerchief is adequate to protect them - washing their hands afterwards.”

Not everyone on the battlefield may be as well versed in handling DU, Dr. Kilpatrick said, noting that his greater concern is DU’s chemical toxicity, not its radioactivity: “What we worry about like lead in paint in housing areas - children picking it up and eating it or licking it - getting it on their hands and ingesting it.”

In the US, stringent NRC rules govern any handling of DU, which can legally only be disposed of in low-level radioactive waste dumps. The US military holds more than a dozen NRC licenses to work with it.

In Iraq, DU was not just fired at armored targets.

Video footage from the last days of the war shows an A-10 aircraft - a plane purpose-built around a 30-mm Gatling gun - strafing the Iraqi Ministry of Planning in downtown Baghdad.

A visit to site yields dozens of spent radioactive DU rounds, and distinctive aluminum casings with two white bands, that drilled into the tile and concrete rear of the building. DU residue at impact clicked on the Geiger counter at a relatively low level, just 12 times background radiation levels.

Hot bullets

But the finger-sized bullets themselves - littering the ground where looters and former staff are often walking - were the “hottest” items the Monitor measured in Iraq, at nearly 1,900 times background levels.

The site is just 300 yards from where American troops guard the main entrance of the Republican Palace, home to the US and British officials tasked with rebuilding Iraq.

“Radioactive? Oh, really?” asks a former director general of the ministry, when he returned in a jacket and tie for a visit last week, and heard the contamination levels register in bursts on the Geiger counter.

“Yesterday more than 1,000 employees came here, and they didn’t know anything about it,” the former official says. “We have started to not believe what the American government says. What I know is that the occupiers should clean up and take care of the country they invaded.”

US military officials often say that most people are exposed to natural or “background” radiation n daily life. For example, a round-trip flight across the US can yield a 5 millirem dose from increased cosmic radiation; a chest X-ray can yield a 10 millirem dose in a few seconds.

The Pentagon says that, since DU is “depleted” and 40 percent less radioactive than normal uranium, it presents even less of a hazard.

But DU experts say they are most concerned at how DU is transformed on the battlefield, after burning, into a toxic oxide dust that emits alpha particles. While those can be easily stopped by the skin, once inside the body, studies have shown that they can destroy cells in soft tissue. While one study on rats linked DU fragments in muscle tissue to increased cancer risk, health effects on humans remain inconclusive.

As late as five days before the Iraq war began, Pentagon officials said that 90 of those troops most heavily exposed to DU during the 1991 Gulf War have shown no health problems whatsoever, and remain under close medical scrutiny.

Released documents and past admissions from military officials, however, estimate that around 900 Americans were exposed to DU. Only a fraction have been watched, and among those has been one diagnosed case of lymphatic cancer, and one arm tumor. As reported in previous articles, the Monitor has spoken to American veterans who blame their DU exposure for serious health problems.

The politics of DU

But DU health concerns are very often wrapped up in politics. Saddam Hussein’s regime blamed DU used in 1991 for causing a spike in the cancer rate and birth defects in southern Iraq.

And the Pentagon often overstates its case - in terms of DU effectiveness on the battlefield, or declaring the absence of health problems, according to Dan Fahey, an American veterans advocate who has monitored the shrill arguments from both sides since the mid-1990s.

“DU munitions are neither the benign wonder weapons promoted by Pentagon propagandists nor the instruments of genocide decried by hyperbolic anti-DU activists,” Mr. Fahey writes in a March report, called “Science or Science Fiction: Facts, Myth and Propaganda in the Debate Over DU Weapons.”

Nonetheless, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, a doctor who visited Baghdad before the war, introduced legislation in Congress last month requiring studies on health and environment studies, and clean up of DU contamination in the US. He says DU may well be associated with increased birth defects.

“While the political effects of using DU munitions are perhaps more apparent than their health and environmental effects,” Fahey writes,

“science and common sense dictate it is unwise to use a weapon that distributes large quantities of a toxic waste in areas where people live, work, grow food, or draw water.”

Because of the publicity the Iraqi government has given to the issue, Iraqis worry about DU.

“It is an important concern…. We know nothing about it. How can I protect my family?” asks Faiz Askar, an Iraqi doctor.

“We say the war is finished, but what will the future bring?”

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