Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Welcome to the new!

If you have questions, feedback, or encounter issues as you explore, please fill out our Feedback Form.

Depleted Uranium

PLASKON: At one time doctors thought Depleted Uranium might be good for people.

JOHNSON: They would give high doses of Uranium a day to a person and it would make the kidney function really great for like 3 months and then they would be totally destroyed.

PLASKON: Bill Johnson of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and former UNLV Assistant Professor of Health Physics says that's one of the less successful uses of Depleted Uranium or DU over the years. It comes from enriching raw Uranium to make fuel for nuclear weapons and power plants. Only 1 percent of Uranium is highly radioactive and useable for fuel. The other 99 percent Johnson says is low-level junk or Depleted Uranium.

JOHNSON: There is lots and lots of it in various chemical forms it is a big hazard on the horizon they are trying to figure out how to get rid of all this depleted uranium.

PLASKON: While using it to treat failing kidneys wasn't a successful method of disposal, there are some other uses . . . one that taps into it's deadly nature - bullets. The Military has used DU in Bosnia and Kosovo to name a few, and in a DVD the Air Force champions the fire power of the A-10 jet that shoots DU.

SOUND: Video

PLASKON: The Air Force's A-10 or 'silent gun' supports troops. Before DU, pilots had to fly dangerously low because their bullets were only effective on the weaker armor on the sides of tanks. Now, Pilots like Major Tony Roe can fly at safer altitudes and dive at steep angles shooting at the toughest tank armor with the DU bullets.

ROE: It only makes a very small spawl in the armor going in, but the pyrophoric effect, the blast and frag of the kenetic penetrator as it blasts through the armor creats a massive amount of over pressurization and obviously molten armor, massive amounts of heat, is what disabling the tank. It is black on the inside.

PLASKON: The bullet cripples armor because it weighs almost twice as much as lead. It's also Pyrophoric, meaning it burns as it cuts through metal, creating a green-black smoke that is widely accepted as a deadly toxin. The Veterans Association lists exposure to burning vehicles hit with DU as a possible source of Gulf War Illness. During the war in Kosovo the US shot 31-thousand rounds of DU. A World Health Organization study published in 2001 reported there is no evidence that the metal would affect the population there. In the 1991 Gulf War the Department of Defense estimates the military used 783-thousand rounds. The Air Force alone unloaded 311-thousand of these rounds or 224 tons of Depleted Uranium. Mike Estrada, Air Force Spokesman says the military isn't cleaning it up.

ESTRADA: No I don't see why it would be. This is a military round. It has a specific use to kill armor. It is up to other countries if they want to remove destroyed targets."

PLASKON: However, the Air Force IS for the first time trying to clean it up near Indian Springs on the Nevada Test Site, the only place its licensed to shoot it in the U-S. As the military's proving ground for nearly every ordinance known to man, the Test Site is pock-marked with nuclear craters. It's littered with targets from houses to train tracks and a graveyard of cold-war era tanks upon whose carcasses the A-10 has unleashed Depleted Uranium bullets for the past 30 years. It shoots nearly 6-tons of Depleted Uranium bullets there every year. Spencer Anderson is the Deputy to the Base Commander and manages the clean up.

ANDERSON: We are just trying to get a jump start on what we know is inevitable. We are going to have to get these things outta here at some time in the future weather it is going to be 10 or 15 years into the future we are trying to start that process now. Not where it is all just dumped on us 50 years from now.

PLASKON: So every year in January personnel walk around this low level nuclear waste site and pick up the Depleted Uranium rounds they can find. They seal them in ziplock bags and put them in buckets. Pilot Roe handles one.

SOUND: Bucket

PLASKON: The potential for DU bullets to contaminate groundwater has been studied extensively by the United Nations to the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Health physicist Johnson says in wet environments the DU easily gets into ground water. A study by one of his former students showed that a person living at the DU test site would not surprisingly end up with very high levels of the waste in their blood. However, UNLV studies show the desert is a relatively good place to shoot Depleted Uranium because minerals form around the metal in the dry climate, sealing it from water. Published reports this year by Health Physicist Bill Johnson show that the DU can be cleaned up by just digging up a little bit of dirt from the site where the bullets land. But recently he's begun to question that, because he says soils in Nevada are high in carbonates.

JOHNSON: They are so abundant in the Las Vegas area that it would tend to make the uranium probably more soluble and transported more quickly in the ground water than it would be in another location.

PLASKON: In September the Air Force published an inch-thick report saying no evidence exists to show the DU contamination would enter surface or groundwater at the test site. Nonetheless, it has already begun to decontaminate the site, cleaning tanks that have been hit with DU. But the work is slow because Assistant Commander Spencer Anderson says the costs of decontaminating all 180 tanks would make one's eyes water.

ANDERSON: The timing is right to start dealing with some of these issues rather than delaying the inevitable.

PLASKON: He says the Air Force would rather shrink wrap the tanks, put them on trucks and trains and ship them to a repository in Iowa. What's standing in the way is something called the Rocky Mountain Compact he says - an agreement not to ship out nuclear waste that is produced in Nevada. Shipping them out would come at a cost too.

ANDERSON: The Department of Defense doesn't want to set the precedent to pay the tax when there is no disposal site within the Rockey Mountain Compact. In the meantime we just wait. We have a licensed above ground repository. We have to wait for the politics to play their way out until we can dispose of these things.

PLASKON: Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to continue to shoot DU at the Test Site and around the world until the retirement of the A-10 in 20 years.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR