Cohen: Handled Properly, DU Poses No Risk
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2001 If handled properly, depleted uranium, known as DU, poses no risk to American or allied forces, according to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
"We have been using depleted uranium weapons for decades," he said Jan. 10 at the National Press Club here. "Depleted uranium is also used in most of our aircraft and most of our ships. It's used as ballast. So it's around us all the time and it doesn't pose an unreasonable risk."
Cohen responded to European claims that some allied troops have died after being exposed to DU used during NATO air operations in the Balkans. The 15-nation European Union has asked its scientists to determine whether illness and death among Balkans peacekeepers could be linked to ammunition containing DU.
"If there were any deficiency to be found," Cohen had said to reporters a day earlier at the Pentagon, "it would be in the failure to pick up fragments of destroyed vehicles or tanks in which the depleted uranium projectiles were used."
U.S. officials are confident that scientific inquiry will convince European allies that DU is not linked to leukemia or other forms of cancer as some have alleged, Cohen said.
"We will persuade our allies that this has been a responsible thing to do, and we intend to continue to use this depleted uranium," he added.
DU is about 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, according to U.S. defense officials. The U.S. M-1 Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle and other weapon systems use ammunition containing needle-like DU penetrators that can punch right through conventional armor.
Armor containing depleted uranium is used in the Abrams tanks, Phalanx gun systems and some cruise missiles, as well as A-10s, Harriers and other military and civilian aircraft. DU is used in armor because its superior strength, hardness and density can defeat conventional armor-piercing ammunition.
U.S. armed forces first used DU munitions and armor during the Gulf War and decisively demonstrated its effectiveness. Pentagon officials have said there is no lingering danger in the Gulf from the substance.
After a round containing DU hits a target, he noted, it releases alpha, beta and gamma rays. "The alpha rays do not penetrate the skin," Cohen said. "The beta rays don't penetrate clothing. The gamma rays are such low level they don't pose a health hazard."
In some circumstances, however, DU can be hazardous.
"Where it's unsafe, it's like leaded paint," Cohen said. "Leaded paint does not pose a problem to you unless it starts to peel and then children or others ingest it."
If inhaled, dust particles emitted when a DU round explodes can pose health problems, he said. "But once the operation has been complete, usually rain washes the oxides away and there's no health hazard."
Cohen said U.S. military officials urged U.S. and allied troops to use caution when working around weapons containing DU. DoD issued instructions to U.S. and NATO forces regarding necessary precautions, such as how to handle tanks and metal fragments exposed to DU, he said.
"I think adequate warnings were given, and there is a very low risk of coming into contact with this, provided there is sufficient protection taken," he told Pentagon-based reporters.
At this time, Cohen said, U.S. officials have not considered imposing a moratorium on DU munitions while the European investigation is ongoing.