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From the Manhattan Project to the Bronx Project: the toxic legacy of the nuclear age

by Alice Slater  Spring 2023 Edition

Recent alarming reports state that the UK is prepared to supply Ukraine with depleted uranium ammunition in the ongoing slaughter in Ukraine. These lethally toxic carcinogens are known to cause illness and death, not only for the victims of war but for the perpetrators as well. Victims who have suffered genetic damage pass it on to their children who are often born with terrible malformations and illnesses. 

 In Metal of Dishonor–Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons, published in 1997 by Ramsay Clark and the International Action Center, essays reveal the horrors caused by depleted uranium in the first Gulf War. Although the figures on the nuclear budgets have risen astronomically, with the United States now budgeting over $1 trillion for new bombs, bomb factories and delivery systems, sadly, nothing else has changed much since that time, although civil society did succeed in establishing the International Renewable Energy Agency to promote benign life affirming energy from the sun, wind, and tides. Below is a chapter written for that book in 1996, when the author was president of GRACE, the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment.

he world is awash in radioactive waste. We simply haven’t a clue where to put it. The best we have come up with in the United States is a harebrained scheme to ship the lethal carcinogenic garbage from nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear power plants, by rail and by truck, from the four corners of the continent, and bury it in a hole in the ground in Nevada at Yucca Mountain. Citizens groups, like the proverbial boy with his finger in the dike, have been holding off the onslaught of this devastating disposal solution, preventing the legislation from passing in the Congress. Deadly plutonium remains toxic for 250,000 years and there is no way of guaranteeing that the Yucca site could prevent radioactive seepage into the ground water over this unimaginable period of time. Remember that all of recorded history is only 5000 years old!

The National Academy of Sciences reported last August that most of the contaminated nuclear weapons sites across our land can not be adequately cleaned up because of “insufficient money, technical skill or political will to do the job.” reflecting the skewed priorities of our national leadership. Congress approved Clinton’s last request for $5.1 billion to the Department of Energy’s weapons labs which will fund the design of new nuclear weapons ……………………………………….

We’ve Wasted Precious Resources………….

We’ve Polluted Our Own Environment
We’ve created more than 4,500 contaminated sites, covering tens of thousands of acres that may take 75 years and cost as high as one trillion dollars to ‘clean up.’ ‘Clean up’ of toxic plutonium, which remains lethal for over 250,000 years, is the wrong word. At best, we can only attempt to manage and contain the poisons from seeping into the air and groundwater and visiting further destruction on our people.

We’ve Experimented on Our Own People
Nuclear weapons drove us to the unspeakable act of secretly testing radiation on our own population. 23,000 American civilians were subjected to radiation research in about 1,400 projects over 30 years. The government tested on children with mental disabilities, mental patients, poor women, and US soldiers. More than 200,000 troops were ordered to observe nuclear test detonations and were exposed to radiation.

We’ve Abused Indigenous Peoples
Every nuclear test site in the world is on indigenous land. ……………………

Worst of All—We’re Still Doing It…………………………….

Enchanted by the “hardness” of depleted uranium which can penetrate tank armor, some evil genius in the pay of the Pentagon thought to make bullets from it in a bizarre recycling program which enabled the government to make a dent in the 500,000 tons of depleted uranium waste amassed since the Manhattan Project. Don’t be misled by the term “depleted uranium.” Like “spent fuel” from civilian reactors, depleted uranium is highly toxic and carcinogenic and has a half-life of some 4.4 billion years. 

 “Half life” is another euphemism that distances us through our language from grasping the deadly seriousness of what we are doing to our planet. For example, while the half-life of plutonium is 26,000 years, this lethal poison has a fully toxic life of about 250,000 years until all the radioactivity decays. So you can imagine — or can you — the life span of toxic depleted uranium with its “half life” of over 4 billion years!

While our brilliant military was dreaming up its scheme of penetrating Saddam’s tanks with “hard” depleted uranium (DU), they neglected to calculate the impact this material would have on our own soldiers. “Friendly fire” killed 35 U.S. soldiers and wounded 72 others during the Gulf War while disabling more US tanks than the Iraqis did. Spewing 300 tons of DU ammunition over Iraq, the U.S. left a growing legacy of respiratory problems, liver and kidney dysfunction, and birth defects among the newborn children of U.S. vets (A Veterans Administration study of 251 Gulf War veterans families in Mississippi found that 67 percent of the children born to the vets since the war have severe illnesses, with effects ranging from missing eyes and ears to fused fingers.) And similar medical reports are coming from Iraq with an increase of leukemia and congenital birth defects from 8% before the war to 28% today. Undeterred, similar environmental havoc and dangers to health were created by the use of depleted uranium ammunition in the bombing of Bosnia.

This callous disregard for human well being is sadly typical of government policy during the nuclear age………………………………………………………..

Trying to get our government to admit that radioactive bomb factories and power plants are harmful to living things is like the long battle waged against the tobacco companies who continued to claim that there is no connection between smoking, cancer, and other life threatening diseases. There are current assaults on the permissible level of radiation exposure. Don’t protect the people. Just change the standards…………………………………………………………………..

We need to tell the boys to put away the toys of war and clean up the mess they made. ………………………

Our ability to govern ourselves has been eroding as a result of the unprecedented secrecy and cover-up engendered by the nuclear age…………………………….

A sane informed citizenry would call for an immediate cessation of the production of any new nuclear material, leaving all existing nuclear waste as close to the point where it is generated, as safely as possible, under international guard…………………………….more


April 12, 2023 - Posted by | depleted uranium, USA

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