Uranium supplies are not a U.S. national security problem.
Why is Trump pretending the opposite?

Sharon Squassoni

Trouble has been brewing in America’s nuclear sector for decades. Once the preeminent nuclear technology exporter to the world, the U.S. industry has atrophied and taken on foreign owners, and nuclear energy has been losing its foothold in U.S. electricity markets. A much-hoped-for nuclear renaissance hasn’t materialized, in part because of the reactor meltdowns in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. But the larger problem plaguing the U.S. nuclear industry isn’t safety-related; it’s economic. In the United States, nuclear power hasn’t been competitive on price for many, many years, and so very, very few nuclear power plants are being built, as existing U.S. plants are increasingly shuttered for financial reasons. The Trump administration has a plan for that, based on wishful thinking and false premises.In April, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report designed to reinvigorate the American nuclear industry from top to bottom. “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Advantage: A strategy to assure national security” paints a picture of an industry on the brink of collapse, endangering our national security. The solutions proposed include mining around the Grand Canyon and establishing a uranium reserve, buying small and microreactors for U.S. government facilities, stripping regulatory processes, and muscling into foreign markets now occupied by China and Russia. This fantasy list of projects would be economically unwise at any time, but especially is now, when the country faces an enormously costly and unresolved pandemic.

Even more important, because it openly declares that domestic nuclear supplies are a national security priority, the new plan undermines decades of American nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Instead of protecting U.S. national security, the plan would endanger it.

The administration has picked a peculiar time to declare a nuclear power crisis when there is an actual crisis on its hands — the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, with resilience and resources very much a public concern now, the administration may be seeking to capitalize on public fears of shortages to promote the nuclear industry. So let me issue a false equivalency alert: Unlike the current situation regarding personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, there is absolutely no shortage of uranium. In fact, there has been a glut on the market since the 2011 Fukushima accident, which caused nearly all of Japan’s reactors (54 in total) to shut down for years (and some of them permanently). Despite the Trump administration’s classification of uranium as a “critical mineral” last year (such items are typically in short supply), uranium is found all over the world and in vast quantities in the ocean (which holds 500 times the amount estimated in land reserves).

The new plan, however, seeks to beef up the front end of the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle (uranium mining, conversion, and domestic enrichment) because it asserts that dependence on foreign uranium impairs U.S. national security. But the United States has relied on foreign sources of uranium for decades, and the U.S. production slump of the last five years is a reaction to market forces that demonstrate the market is working properly. The United States and its nuclear utilities have depended on foreign uranium for deliberate and effective reasons. For example, the purchase of uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons gave Russia an incentive not to reuse that material and put it to good use making electricity in the United States. In fact, diversifying suppliers has made good business and diplomatic sense, so U.S. utilities now source their uranium from 10 of the 19 uranium suppliers in the world, relying most heavily on trusted allies like Canada and Australia.

For true national security purposes — nuclear weapons, naval fuel, and some anti-armor munitions, the United States is awash in uranium processed during the Cold War. After Russia, the United States has the largest stockpile of uranium from defense programs on the planet — 585 tons of highly enriched uranium from dismantled nuclear warheads, most of which has been reserved for naval nuclear fuel and other defense purposes. It will be many decades before the United States runs short of enriched uranium for defense purposes. If it ever does.

It’s hard to estimate how much the new Trump strategy will cost, because much of it will never be implemented. The uranium reserve is expected to cost $1.5 billion over 10 years; reactor research and development subsidies could cost several billion dollars more. Export subsidies could lead to tens of billions of dollars in loans if implemented. But for items like allowing mining around the Grand Canyon, previously prohibited, the environmental, social, health and economic costs could be enormous, especially for local native tribes.

The damage to U.S. diplomacy could also be extensive. For 70 years, the United States has led the fight to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Treaties help in this regard, but keeping the building blocks of weapons out of the hands of would-be proliferators helps more. For at least 20 years, U.S. officials have told countries that want to develop commercial nuclear power that they should rely on the international market for fuel, just as the United States has done for decades. Claiming that U.S. national security suffers if the United States relies on foreign sources of uranium contradicts that key message of U.S. nonproliferation policy. It will give countries of concern — Saudi Arabia and Iran, among many — more international credibility than they deserve should they opt to pursue their own domestic uranium mining and processing programs. And any country with a domestic mining and enrichment program has the building blocks not just for a commercial nuclear power industry, but for a nuclear weapons program, also. And if, as the administration tells us, “nuclear power is intrinsically tied to national security,” why wouldn’t they pursue it?

Draping industry subsidies with the flag of national security is a well-worn tactic for funneling taxpayer dollars into uneconomic ventures. At a time when U.S. leadership is being tested severely across a wide range of issues, the administration should quietly abandon its attempts to reframe U.S. nuclear energy as a national security imperative and instead hang onto what little leadership it continues to exert in the area of nuclear nonproliferation by cultivating cooperation and adherence to the high standards that the United States has long championed.

Sharon Squassoni is research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University. She has specialized in nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and security policy for three decades. Her article is from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 28, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Is the Pentagon giving our soldiers cancer?

With virtually no public oversight, radioactive weapons have replaced conventional weapons as the cornerstone of American military might. The U.S. military's deadliest munitions are now packed with depleted uranium, which incinerates tanks on impact. Whenever U.S. troops go to war, depleted uranium — radioactive waste left over from nuclear weapons production and nuclear reactors — supplies the "shock and awe." But soldiers and civilians alike say the radioactive ammo is making them sick.

In both Iraq wars, and in Afghanistan, the U.S. military used depleted uranium (DU). The DU in "hot rounds" is pyrophoric and burns through steel at 5,000 degrees Celsius. Flaming radioactive particles blow off in every direction, igniting fuel tanks and whatever explosives the target might be carrying.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, the military exploded as much as 320 tons of DU in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait. Tank-killing DU rounds brought Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to its knees in only four days. At the Pentagon, DU munitions quickly earned the nickname "silver bullet," and the Defense Department turned its attention to creating even more powerful DU weapons.

In the 2003 war on Iraq, DU projectiles were exploded not only in uninhabited deserts but also in urban centers such as Baghdad — a city the size of Detroit. The shells were fired from airships, gunships, tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles. Upon impact with their targets, they spewed clouds of microscopic uranium dust particles into the air. The particles, lofted far from the battlefield on the wind, will emit low-level radiation for 4.5-billion years. The DU also contains traces of plutonium and americium, which are far more radioactive than uranium. Some doctors fear that long-term exposure to such radiation could eventually cause lung and bone cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma — a fatal cancer of the immune system.

The Pentagon insists that the weapons pose no threat to U.S. soldiers or to non-combatants. "DU is not any more dangerous than dirt," declares Col. James Naughton, who recently retired after years as director of Army munitions. But a broad consortium of scientists, environmentalists, and human-rights activists — as well as thousands of U.S. soldiers who served in the Gulf in 1991 — cite mounting evidence that depleted uranium will cause suffering and death among civilians and soldiers alike long after the war's end.

Europeans are more acquainted with the DU controversy than Americans, in large part because a handful of Italian soldiers, most of whom were sent to Yugoslavia as peacekeepers when the Balkans conflict ended, developed leukemia. The U.S. used DU weapons in the Balkans in 1994 and 1995. When seven of the Italians died, and the deaths of at least nine other Balkan veterans were linked in news reports to DU exposure, anti-DU fervor rapidly swept across Europe.

In Geneva, the Human Rights Tribunal declared DU projectiles weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations has made its position on depleted uranium abundantly clear: Use of such weapons is illegal, because they continue to act after the war ends, they unduly damage the environment, and they are inhumane.

Iraqi civilians were exposed to low-level radiation from DU, and preliminary evidence indicates that the consequences have been devastating. Iraqi doctors, many of them specialists trained at eminent Western institutions, report twelve-fold increases in Iraqi cancer rates since the first Gulf War, as well as sharp rises in birth defects in southern Iraq, where much of the fighting took place. According to Iraqi doctors, some infants were born with one eye, or no brain, or without limbs.

The Pentagon says that only 900 of the 700,000 U.S. soldiers deployed during the 1991 Gulf War were exposed to DU. But scientists and military whistle-blowers who have studied the campaign say the number of soldiers exposed to DU dust and debris is closer to 300,000. And no one warned them of the hazard.

Within months of the war's end, thousands of Gulf War veterans began suffering from odd, nameless maladies, including hair loss, bleeding gums, memory loss, joint pain, incontinence, and disabling fatigue. In 1992, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the congressional General Accounting Office to study American tanks that had been hit by DU rounds during the war. GAO investigators learned that most soldiers had never been informed by their superiors about the hazards of DU. The GAO's findings were summarized in the title of its report issued a year later: "Army Not Adequately Prepared to Deal with Depleted Uranium Contamination."

Military and civilian doctors agree that the host of ailments now known as Gulf War Syndrome were probably caused by a multitude of physical insults: vaccinations, pesticides, toxic solvents, and oil fires (which deposited a film in the nostrils so thick that soldiers relied on Popsicle sticks to remove it). But many of the diseases — including increased rates of lymphoma — are consistent with either radiation sickness or the toxicological effects of exposure to depleted uranium.

It will take years, if not decades, to determine how much of a role DU played in the illnesses, but the sheer magnitude of the problem could make the struggle over Agent Orange — the cancer-inducing chemical used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War — pale in comparison. More than 150,000 veterans of the first Gulf War are currently on medical disability, and another 50,000 have applied for benefits — nearly one-third of the entire fighting force. By comparison, nine percent of veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War applied for similar compensation.

The Bush administration has been adamant in denying a link between depleted uranium and the host of illnesses suffered by American troops. However, Han Kang, an environmental epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, examined death certificates of Gulf War-era vets and discovered a thirty percent increase in lymphoma.

So far, the Veterans Administration has agreed to study only ninety soldiers who were exposed to DU. "There has been no cancer of bone or lungs," Michael Kilpatrick, the military's top spokesman on Gulf War Syndrome, told journalists a year ago. He added that the vets, twenty of whom carry DU fragments in their bodies, have suffered "no medical consequences of that depleted uranium exposure." He failed to mention that one of the vets had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and that another vet had a bone tumor. He also neglected to mention that every vet in the study continued to excrete depleted uranium in their urine nine years after their exposure — evidence that DU is present in their organs and tissues.

"The Pentagon is lying," says Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer deployed in the Gulf in 1991. "This is the precedent that has been established with atomic veterans and with Vietnam veterans. If they're not going to let us know what they know, they should give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran. But they don't want anyone telling them what weapons they can and cannot use."

Left to its own devices, the military has made clear that it considers depleted uranium worth any risk it poses. "The military benefits are so much larger compared to any health problems," Naughton says. "We feel we have to use it. It's radioactive — I wish it wasn't, but I can't change the laws of physics. The issue is, once you've had the hit, once you're involved in the catastrophic failure of the tank, did the crew survive long enough to really care whether it was tungsten or DU that hit them? Anyone who does should count themselves damn lucky. I'm sure every one of them would thank God that they lived forty years to contract lymphoma."

– edited from Rolling Stone, October 2, 2003
PeaceMeal March/April 2004

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)