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Costing the Earth: Depleted Uranium Special
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The BBC's Alex Kirby:
"Depleted uranium is deadly"
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Thursday, 10 June, 1999, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
A soldier's experience
tank in gulf war
Doug Rokke cleaned tanks contaminated with depleted uranium
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

As debate continues over Nato's use in Kosovo of depleted uranium munitions, one US Gulf veteran has recalled his experiences eight years ago.

Dr Doug Rokke is assistant professor of environmental science at Jacksonville State University, Alabama. He is also a major in the US Army Reserve, and in 1991 he served in the Gulf.

His work involved helping casualties and cleaning equipment contaminated with depleted uranium (DU), used in the war in tank-busting weapons because of its high density.

"The shell would hit an armoured vehicle", Dr Rokke told BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth programme. "The uranium would catch fire and split into burning fragments".

training soldiers with masks on
Soldiers training for chemical and biological warfare - but is it enough?
About 70% of the round vaporised into dust, as fine as talcum powder.

"When we climbed into vehicles after they'd been hit, no matter what time of day or night it was, you couldn't see three feet in front of you. You breathed in that dust."

Although the British Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon insist that DU weapons pose no special risk, Dr Rokke and some other veterans believe the munitions have made them ill, and that they also threaten civilians.

Two of Dr Rokke's clean-up team of about 15 people are now dead, he said.

'You're trashed with uranium'

"It's very hard to look back at all those years of recommending medical care, and yet two of your best friends are dead because you assigned them to do a job."

He was tested for uranium poisoning while working as head of a Pentagon project on DU in late 1994.

"In September 1996 I was at the Pentagon, briefing on DU contamination and management.

"An individual walked up to me and said: 'Dr Rokke, you're trashed with uranium'. I said: 'Thank you. I'd like some medical care'. Nothing happened.

"Finally, in July 1997, I received a letter from the Department of Energy stating my own internal uranium contamination was 5,000 times that permissible.

"My lungs are trashed, I've got rashes, neurological problems. And I'm not the only one - this is what's happened to everybody else.

soldier in gulf
A number of Gulf veterans believe DU weapons made them ill
"If they didn't provide any medical care for the project director, guess what they did for the average soldier.

"And guess what they're going to do for all the civilians exposed in Kosovo and Serbia."

Dr Rokke thinks he knows why neither the USA nor the UK, the two Nato members which used DU munitions in the Gulf, is providing medical care routinely to all veterans who may have been exposed.

"They don't want to acknowledge the health effects, because they don't want to be accountable for the illnesses of the troops, or of the civilians in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."

DU munitions 'too effective'

But he says many Nato governments tell their troops involved in cleaning vehicles and equipment contaminated with DU to wear full respiratory and skin protection.

"They acknowledge the risk. But they don't want to be held accountable," he said.

In Dr Rokke's view, DU munitions are too effective for their owners to surrender them. He cites a 1992 letter from the assistant secretary for the US Army.

It says: "DU is fully supported by the Army as an item that gives the American soldier the winning edge on the modern battlefield".

"No matter what we found and what we wrote", he said, "we could not disrupt the decision to use DU munitions in combat." US aircraft have been firing DU rounds over Kosovo.

Costing the Earth is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2100 BST on 7 June.

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See also:

11 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Pentagon's man in uranium warning
12 Apr 99 | Europe
Uranium weapon fears in Kosovo
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