Say the word nuclear, and scandal seems to follow, from Chernobyl to America's polluted nuclear-weapons production facilities. The latest controversy centers on the Balkans, where NATO forces fired more than 40,000 shells with dense, armor-piercing tips made of depleted uranium. At least 15 European soldiers who served there have developed or died of leukemia in the past five years. Outraged relatives blame the deaths on these munitions, a link the Pentagon hotly disputes. Arjun Makhijani, an engineer and president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environment Research, has analyzed past environmental abuses in his book Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and its Health and Environmental Effects (MIT Press, 2000). He shares his thoughts with Discover associate editor Josie Glausiusz.
What's your opinion of current controversy over depleted uranium missiles? It's a huge, huge scandal. These complaints deserve to be investigated seriously, but instead the American government is dismissing them without adequate study. This is very reminiscent to me of what the government did with the people who helped make nuclear weapons. It said, "No, you weren't hurt; we are sure the doses were low; really conditions were very safe; you didn't breathe very much radioactive material." Last year, of course, they made a blanket admission that half-a-million workers were put in harm's way, and we don't know how many of them got cancer as a result.
How could these missiles harm human health? When they're fired, the metal burns at a very high temperature. And the fine particles that result are not the same as is seen typically, say, in a factory that makes depleted uranium metal. Some researchers have suggested that the uranium oxide dust created at very high temperatures will stay in the body for much, much longer than oxide which is generated at lower temperatures, because it is a kind of insoluble ceramic particle that dissolves a lot more slowly, and so may be eliminated from the body a lot more slowly.
How might these particles cause cancer? Depleted uranium is primarily dangerous when it's inside your body, because it emits alpha radiation, which gravely damages the cells near where it is located, or even a single cell. So if you breathe it in, for instance, it can increase the risk of lung cancer, and it can migrate to the bones. Soldiers and civilians who handle depleted uranium shells could get cuts in the hands or arms, and so get oxide particles directly into the bloodstream.
Do you believe that depleted uranium missiles caused cancer deaths among soldiers who served in the Balkans? I don't know. Cancer is a very common disease, there were a lot of soldiers there, and we must be careful in making scientific conclusions. I think four things are called for. One, the suspension of use of depleted uranium missiles. Two, conducting independent studies. Three, giving the benefit of the doubt to both the civilians and combatants so that they get the medical treatment they deserve. Fourthly, committing to cleanup. You cannot pretend that modern war is precise in its effects, and that just because no NATO troops died during the 1999 Yugoslavia-NATO war [in Kosovo] the long-term effects on the combatants and noncombatants are negligible or can be ignored. In the case of depleted uranium, there's a lot of it lying around. There should be some declaration of what was used, where it was used, how much, where it's expected to be found, and where it can be recovered.
What in your opinion are the most pressing nuclear issues today? In the nuclear power field, it's the continued use of plutonium as a fuel for reactors, and the continued reprocessing and piling-up of commercial plutonium stocks in Russia, France, England and Japan. It's a waste of money, it's a proliferation risk and there are problems with significant discharges of radioactivity into the environment.
Then there is the problem of about 4400 nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert in the United States and Russia combined. The high alert state is getting more and more dangerous all the time, because Russia is losing its infrastructure. They don't have radar coverage of the sky. They don't have sufficient satellites up to provide them with 24-hour tracking of up-and-coming missiles. So they are more prone to make mistakes. I think it is extremely dangerous for the United States and Russia to persist in keeping warheads on tactical alert.
Have nuclear weapons contributed in any way to peace? No. The most you can say about nuclear weapons is that they seem to have prevented white people from going at each other's throats. They have not directly fought each other in Europe for the last fifty years. But instead they have exported wars to the Third World. This idea that nuclear weapons have maintained the peace is a fantasy that has been created by the short-sightedness and self-absorption of the Europeans who have been writing history for the last couple of hundred years.
Do you think the world will ever rid itself of nuclear weapons? Well, my mother sometimes wonders what I am doing in this business. She keeps telling me it's not going to change. My answer to her is, "I have to try. I can't look at myself in the face and say I'm not trying, knowing what I know." I do think that if the world doesn't rid itself of nuclear weapons, that we are inviting nuclear chaos. Look at the Middle Eastern question. There is also a commitment under the extension of the non-proliferation treaty to create a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Now, if there is no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian question, then how the nuclear situation in the Middle East evolves will be anybody's guess.
Why do you do what you do? We want to democratize science. We don't think you can really be a democracy in the true sense unless you understand the important scientific issues of modern life, especially in the environmental and energy fields. Right now we're doing a study on the environmental effects of modern war. Our work on depleted uranium will be part of that.
Do you think that nuclear materials should be allowed in space for peaceful purposes? I respect the idea of space exploration. I think we know a lot more about our planet because of what space explorers have done. But what many people don't realize is that the amount of plutonium in the Cassini mission to Saturn contains more radioactive plutonium than has been released in all the atmospheric weapons testing. I think there are other ways to do these missions, and we should carefully evaluate the priority for doing them. What is the hurry to get to Pluto or Saturn? We are doing a very bad job of husbanding this planet. Maybe we ought to leave the other planets alone for a little while until we learn to take care of the one we've got.