Proponents of the super-penetrating ammunition, however, insist it has no proven harmful medical effects. Plus, they say, it "turns tanks into Swiss cheese."
Depleted uranium, or DU, is the byproduct of the process that produces enriched uranium for nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. It has low-level radioactivity with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Six to eight ounces of DU are used in each of the anti-tank shells fired by Tucson's own A-10 Warthog.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, under a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stores 11-inch-long 30mm A-10 ammunition in steel drums inside steel shipping containers inside a heavily constructed and fortified locked storage facility. Following Air Force regulations, radiation levels are monitored annually both inside and outside the building.
In a 1999 letter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Raymond Fatz wrote of depleted uranium, "Research to date indicates that the health risks associated with the use of DU are minimal."
Even so, Davis-Monthan officials assure us that the base's depleted-uranium ammunition is never used for test firings at the Goldwater Air Force Range west of Tucson. It is only available, they say, for times of war. They don't use it, or even load it for training purposes, because the aluminum-tipped steel shells they do use are easier and safer to handle and cost less. "It has never left the munitions bunker where it is stored," wrote then-DM 355th Wing Commander Col. John Corley of DU ammunition in 1998.
That same year, however, the Air Force prepared an environmental assessment for resuming use of DU rounds at the Nellis Air Force Range outside Las Vegas. It had suspended use of the ammunition at the range in 1993 because "of U.S. Fish and Wildlife concerns over the impacts to flora and fauna in the Desert National Wildlife Range."
According to Corley's 1998 letter, "To safeguard the environment and the health of AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center) workers, base personnel and area residents, AMARC has an aggressive radioactive materials program. ... To date, there have been no health hazards found."
Health hazards or not, large amounts of depleted uranium are found in the aircraft stored at the AMARC facility at Davis-Monthan. About 350 pounds of it are in each of the 112 C-141s at AMARC, 50 pounds in each of the 35 S-3s stored there, and 20 pounds in every one of the 245 A-7s.
A 1999 Rand Corp. report prepared for the Secretary of Defense reviewed the scientific literature pertaining to the use of depleted-uranium ammunition in the 1991 Gulf War. The report warned, "Very little literature directly addresses the health effects of DU." Despite that, using studies that looked at natural uranium, which is more radioactive than DU, the report concluded, "If no adverse health effects to natural uranium are reported, one may reasonably conclude the same will be the case for DU."
In addition, in his 1999 letter, the Army's Fatz stated that the "Rand study found no scientific or medical evidence to substantiate a link between DU exposure and Gulf War illnesses. ... Many alarming claims about illnesses and birth defects have been publicized, but have been universally debunked when subjected to scrutiny by the scientific community." Instead, some supporters of DU blame Iraq's use of chemical weapons or burning oil fields after the end of the Gulf War for the rise in disease in and near the battle zone.
But according to DU opponents, large amounts of anecdotal evidence from Iraq, where almost 800,000 rounds of 30mm DU ammunition were fired by A-10s, indicate that DU has an alarming long-term impact on humans and the environment. They point to Gulf War Syndrome among U.S. troops as one effect of DU, and label the government's stance as "Don't look, don't find."
Opponents claim that in the war zone near Iraq there has been a dramatic rise in the rates of cancer, birth defects, children's leukemia and infant mortality. Some opponents believe the use of DU weapons is a crime against humanity and a violation of international law because of its harmful impact on non-combatants.
Pat Birnie, a local opponent of depleted-uranium ammunition, displays photographs of Iraqi children with grotesque faces and badly deformed bodies and says, "When people see these, some think we are anti-abortion."
Betty Schroeder, another local DU opponent, adds, "It's the Agent Orange of the '90s. Its effects are being covered up so our government doesn't have to clean it up."
In his 1999 letter, the Army's Fatz wrote, "The most recent data indicates that the use of [depleted-uranium] munitions in a battlefield scenario does not raise radiation levels in the environment any measurable amount above background levels."
But that apparently was not the case last year in Iraq, nine years after the end of the Gulf War. Chris Busby, an opponent of the use of DU, says he found that 30mm A-10 shells "were just lying on the road. They were very radioactive."
Some defenders of DU ammunition say opponents are hysterical and inspired by the far-left. Others, such as Mark Laity, NATO's acting spokesman, use less incendiary terms. Laity said recently, "Depleted uranium wouldn't have been used in the first place [in the military actions in Kosovo and Yugoslavia] if people thought it caused health risks. So the starting point is there is no proven link. ... DU is not illegal. It is a legal weapon of war. End of story. We used it, it's legal."
Supporters of the ammunition also say it is "an extremely effective material when used in certain munitions." To ensure that it would continue to be available, one military official at the Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote in a memo a decade ago, "We should assure their future existence through Service/[Department of Defense] proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability."
Within the past few months, however, several European countries have become alarmed at DU's potential health effects on their soldiers after the wars in the former Yugoslavia. These concerns only intensified in the last few weeks when it was admitted that traces of plutonium are found in depleted-uranium weapons.
In response, some countries in Europe have called for a moratorium on the use of depleted-uranium ammunition until its health effects can be studied further. The Belgian Chamber of Representatives voted recently to ask for an immediate halt to the use of DU weapons "as long as their safety is not scientifically proven."
Despite all the public bravado about the harmless nature of depleted uranium, along with the expected release next month of a U.N. report that will apparently find no harmful effects from its use in the Balkans war, even DU's supporters aren't certain of its impact on health and the environment. As the Rand Corp. concluded in its 1999 report, "The use of DU munitions and armor is likely to expand greatly over the coming years. ... It is therefore important to continue research to further our knowledge of any potential health risks that might result from different levels and pathways of exposure."
Given local experience with the military's "use now and study later" approach to potentially harmful substances, that wait-and-see philosophy might not comfort Tucsonans. It is, after all, basically what the community was told about dross and TCE.