Depleted Uranium Use Confirmed in Hawaii

One of the deadliest substances humankind has ever known, depleted uranium, remains surrounded by a wall of official secrecy and mainstream media ignorance. The recently confirmed use of DU weaponry in Hawaii, however, is the latest chapter of a global story that will not die.

Text by Brian COVERT

‘Isolated Incident’

Hawaii, that year-round tropical playground for the tourists of the world, has become the latest battleground in the fight to shed light on one of the deadliest substances known to humankind — depleted uranium.

Concerned residents of Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous island, are demanding an investigation into the recently confirmed use of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition at Schofield Barracks, a 17,000-acre United States army base in central Oahu. There are calls also for an environmental assessment of affected persons.

“The impact (of the Hawaii DU revelations) on all is significant and means that cleanup and medical care is even more essential,” Dr. Douglas Rokke, a retired U.S. army officer, told DAYS JAPAN. Rokke is a former director of the U.S. army’s “depleted uranium project” and has since come out strongly against DU use in any form.

The army says the spent DU artillery rounds in Oahu were used in training exercises at the base in the 1960s; they were unearthed in August 2005 during construction work there by a private contractor. E-mails confirming the discovery of the DU ammunition were exchanged between the army and the contractor in September. Copies of the e-mails were later obtained through court proceedings by activists in Oahu, who held a press conference in January of this year demanding an investigation into the military’s confirmed use of DU in Hawaii.

One army spokesperson in Hawaii, in line with the U.S. government’s stated position on DU, downplayed the radiation dangers of the DU ammunition used at the Oahu base, adding that it was an “isolated incident.” But just how isolated is it? Rokke notes that DU ammunition has been fired on military testing ranges in Nevada, New Mexico, Indiana, Florida and Maryland states in the U.S., and in Canada, Puerto Rico, Korea, Okinawa, Australia and Scotland. Everywhere DU has gone, protests and calls for its banning have followed.

Depleted uranium, a heavy metal made up mostly of uranium-238, is left over from the production of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. Chemically toxic, DU can cause serious illness or death when coming into direct contact with the human body even in very small amounts.

The U.S. is by far the world’s largest stockpiler of depleted uranium, having produced an estimated 500,000 tons of it since the 1940s. The roots of DU are said to date back to the development of America’s “Manhattan Project” during World War II that led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945.

The first large-scale use of DU in war was during the U.S.-led attack on Iraqi troops in 1990-91 during the Persian Gulf War. Wherever DU has been used in war since then — Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994-95, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003 — rates of cancer, birth defects and other serious illnesses have skyrocketed, both among civilian victims and the soldiers themselves.

“This incident in Hawaii makes it clear again that the DU problem is not limited to the battlefields in Iraq, but is a global problem,” says Dr. Nobuo Kazashi, professor of philosophy at Kobe University in Japan. Kazashi is also a founder of the “No DU Hiroshima Project,” a Hiroshima-based citizen action group.

Along with the increased military use of DU, a culture of secrecy and denial by governments, especially those of the U.S. and United Kingdom, has grown. For the former insiders of the U.S. military-scientific establishment who dare to publicly expose the dangers of depleted uranium — such as Rokke, who says he is ill himself due to past DU radiation poisoning; Dr. Asaf Durakovic, once one of the U.S. army’s top experts on nuclear medicine; and Lauren Moret, a geoscientist and government whistleblower — it can mean a constant stream of anonymous death threats and destruction of personal property. Who would want to silence them, and why?

Despite a noticeable lack of coverage of DU in mainstream news media around the world, especially in the U.S., depleted uranium is proving to be the story that refuses to die. If the tourist paradise of Hawaii is any indication, citizen pressure on governments to acknowledge DU contamination and to clean it up and compensate the victims will only rise in the future.

Brian COVERT
Journalist and author. Born in 1959 in Los Angeles, California; later studied journalism at university. He has worked mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in the U.S. and Japan, reporting for UPI news service and the Mainichi Newspapers, among others. An independent journalist since 1995, he currently resides in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.