— Commander, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Battle of Fallujah
Yellowcake travels to the enrichment plant where it undergoes isotope separation through processes of gaseous diffusion or laser centrifuge. The purpose is to separate the more common U-238 from the less common U-235. Low-enriched uranium is about four percent U-235, which is fine for civilian electric-power reactors. Highly-enriched uranium contains 90% or more U-235, and that is what is required for naval warships, submarines, and nuclear weapons.
Because of the SALT and START treaties, there is a worldwide surplus of weapons-grade uranium, and not much is produced anymore. All the large uranium diffusion plants in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom have been closed, and our largest, the K-25 plant in Tennessee, is now being demolished, with deregulation scheduled for late 2011. Reduced operations continue at Paducah, Kentucky and Portsmouth, Ohio.
The amount of electricity required for isotope separation is huge, and when all three US plants were in operation, they consumed more power than the continent of Australia. This power capacity came from a combination of coal and hydro-power in the Tennessee and Ohio river valleys, and produced its own pollution that has only recently been taken into account in looking at the greenhouse effect of nuclear power. Producing nuclear fuel generates 21.7 grams of CO2 per kg, so for a reference reactor (1000 MWe @ 75% capacity), the CO2 released to the atmosphere would be 14 million metric tons per year. For the 104 reactors now active in the U.S., call it a billion tons. Safe and clean nuclear power.
When U-238 is separated from yellowcake, it is tossed aside at the enrichment plants. The piles of depleted uranium has been called Q-metal, depletalloy, or D-38 over the years, but now most techies at the plants call it DU. Because about 2/3 of the U-235 has been removed, it is only 60% as radioactive when it leaves the plant as when it arrived, so it is treated as relatively safe. And, because of its high density — 19.1 g/cm3 — the military found it useful for armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles.
Uranium rounds fired from A-10 Warthogs really made those civilian cars pop like popcorn on the Highway of Death from Kuwait City in Desert Storm in 1991. Six American vehicles struck with DU “friendly fire” in the desert 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.
So when Operation Iraqi Freedom rolled into town, DU rounds were outfitted into every tank and humvee. During the siege, Warthogs shot 300,000 DU rounds into the Iraqi planning ministry – about 75 tons of DU. Between 1,000 and 2,000 MT of DU were used in the three-week assault on Baghdad, including bombs dropped on a downtown restaurant in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. That was about 3 times more than were used in all of Gulf War-I, but the Pentagon was only getting started.
Western journalists who spent a night on the outskirts of Baghdad on April 10, 2003, measured piles of jet-black dust at 9,839 and 11,585 counts per minute, more than 300 times average background levels. A burnt tank round lying by the roadside pushed the Geiger meter off the scale. Similar DU tank rounds recovered in Saudi Arabia in 1991 were calibrated at 260 to 270 millirads per hour. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit is 100 mrad/yr for non-radiation workers and 1700 mrad/yr for workers.
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 have been superseded by newer reports (which they commissioned).
But a 2001 study of 15,000 Gulf War combat veterans and 15,000 control veterans found that the Gulf War veterans were 1.8 (fathers) to 2.8 (mothers) times more likely to have children with birth defects. After examination of children's medical records two years later, the birth defect rate increased by more than 20%. A laboratory study on rats produced by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute showed that, after a study period of 6 months, rats treated with depleted uranium coming from implanted pellets, comparable to the average levels in the urine of Desert Storm veterans, substantial amounts of uranium were accumulating in their brains and central nervous systems, and showed a significant reduction of neuronal activity in the hippocampus in response to external stimuli. The conclusions of the study show that brain damage from chronic uranium intoxication is possible at lower doses than previously thought. Results from neurocognitive tests performed in 1997 showed an association between uranium in the urine and “problematic performance on automated tests assessing performance efficiency and accuracy.”
At the Winter Soldier hearings on Capitol Hill last year, veterans of the Fallujah campaign in April 2004 described commanders requiring tanks to drive down streets and fire two DU rounds into every building. They described how the sunsets and sunrises over Fallujah were turned brilliant green from the uranium dust in the air.
On October 12, 2009, the Iraqi Minister for Women’s Affairs and several local hospital administrators in Fallujah sent a letter to the President of the United Nations General Assembly. They respectfully reported that in September 2009, Fallujah General Hospital had 170 new born babies, 24% of whom were dead within the first seven days and 75% of the dead babies were classified as deformed. In August 2002, prior to the coalition assault on Fallujah, background morbidity was one birth defect to 530 live births.
The doctors told the UN that an increasing number of babies are being born grotesquely deformed, with no heads, two heads, a single eye in their foreheads, scaly bodies or missing limbs. In addition, young children in Fallujah are now experiencing cancers and leukemias at abnormal rates. It is not known how many birth defects are not reaching the hospital. One grave digger of a single cemetery is burying four to five babies a day, most of which he says are deformed.
We know from studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, atomic veterans, uranium miners and nuclear workers that birth defects and leukemia are just the early warning signs for what is still to come. Leukemias show up in the first 5 to 15 years, because damage to blood-forming organs in the bones is the most rapidly propagated. After 20 to 30 years we will see cancers of the bone, breast, lung, colon and other soft tissues. The genetic damage will continue for 2000 years, because only about 1 percent is expressed in each generation.
Article 6(b) of the 1945 Nuremberg Charter defined as a war crime the “wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages.” Human experimentation was also defined as a war crime under Nuremberg. Nuclear power is surely the largest medical experiment on unconsenting humans in history.