Apr 12, 2007

Alliant Techsystem's role in illegal uranium weapons trade: Pulse writer speaks

(Editor’s note: John LaForge, freelance writer for Pulse and organizer with Nukewatch, was invited by the Manchester, England-based Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU.org/uk) to be part of a panel on uranium weapons at the British House of Commons. The occasion was CADU’s Parliament Lobby Day, intended to inform British MPs about uranium weapons—in pursuit of an international ban. A transcript of his speech follows.)


It is an honor to speak with you in this magnificent place, especially since I come to you from a country where discussion and debate within civil society is being drowned out by the roar of mercenary armies sent abroad, and screaming sports stadiums at home.

All of us come to our position here with a grim understanding of the grave consequences of what our governments are doing with radioactive waste. Its weaponization, and use as such, is a ghastly violation of rules the so-called civilized world had promised to obey. I will return to that later.

I’ve been asked to speak to the role of industry in this scandal and a bit of our work against it in the States. Simply put, industry’s role is to obscure its criminal conspiracy to prepare wars in violation of international treaty law, all the while securing contracts for more production. Industry does this by touting the positive effects of uranium weapons, masking the actual contents of its shells, ignoring their effects, ridiculing peace activists, and by contributing to the re-election of friendly members of Congress.

A spokesperson for Alliant Techsystems [ATK], the U.S.’s biggest [depleted uranium ammunitions maker, located in Edina] DU producer, has said that DU protesters at its Minnesota headquarters have no “impact on any decision this company makes.” Yet the company has removed all mention of DU from its websites. And after critics broadcast the startling images widely, the company also removed photos of its haphazard cleanup operations at a contaminated DU production site.

Alliant has produced over 15 million 30-mm shells for the U.S. Air Force and over a million 120-mm rounds for use in U.S. tanks and howitzers. Last February, the U.S. Army placed a $38 million order for its DU tank rounds. These days, descriptions of its DU munitions use the words “high density penetrator.”

ATK is the largest ammunition manufacturing entity in the world. It made headlines in 2005 by producing 1.2 billion bullets. ATK is now supplying more than 95 percent of all the Pentagon’s small-caliber ammunition used for combat and training. ATK also makes machine guns, rocket motors, cluster bombs and land mines. As a prosecutor told a jury in a protest case, “ATK doesn’t make anything you’ll be giving your kids at Christmas.”

The industry must also hide the effects of its products. It is not helping produce 600,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, no. ATK says it is “developing a new generation of weapon systems that will bring greater power, precision and performance to America’s fighting forces.” The closest the company ever comes to mentioning the war is to say its shells have “outstanding lethality.”

The industry works to protect its reputation from negative publicity with euphemism and distraction. It is not producing limitless radioactive pollution and attacking the gene pool of multiple generations, but says, “Our … munitions business is … providing capabilities critical to national security.”

Of course DU is where the money is. The waste uranium-238 is given free to the contractor. But a single 30-mm DU round made for the A-10 warplane costs taxpayers $21.50 The A-10 fires 3,800 rounds per minute, or $81,000 per-minute for ATK—as long as there’s a shooting war.

The Pentagon and NATO admitted in 2001 that the DU shells used in the bombardment of Kosovo were tainted with plutonium, U-236, and other by-products of reactor operations that are far more radioactive than uranium-238 (New York Times, Feb. 14, 2001; Madison, Wis., Capital Times, Feb. 3, 2001).

Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the U.S. Department of Energy, Dr. David Michaels, said Jan. 20, 2000, “One may normally expect that depleted uranium contains a trace amount of plutonium ....” As much as half of the U.S.’s 250,000 metric tons of DU is now known to have been left over from the reprocessing of used reactor fuel—leaving it spiked with plutonium and other fission products (USA Today, June 25, 2001)....

Although the Pentagon and NATO continue to say DU is “less radioactive than natural uranium,” and while they downplay the danger of what they call “mere traces” of plutonium (one millionth of a gram can cause cancer), former DOE [Department of Energy] official Robert Alvarez reported, “They really don’t have reasonable estimates of how much [plutonium contamination] was in a lot of this recycled uranium. It could range ... to relatively high levels.”

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson has said, with perfect scientific absurdity, “traces of highly radioactive elements such as plutonium … were not relevant to soldiers’ health because of their minute quantities” (New York Times, Jan. 18, 2001). But this public relations ploy failed with the disclosure of a July 1, 1999, “hazard awareness” memo issued by the Pentagon. The memo warns military personnel entering Kosovo against touching spent ammunition, suggests the use of protective masks and skin covering while in contaminated areas, and recommends follow-up health assessments (New York Times, Jan. 9, 2001)....

It is so easy to prove the outlaw status of these poison weapons that after a perfect record of being convicted in every protest case I’ve been part of for 28 years, a jury found me and three friends “not guilty” of trespass at ATK. Our case, in December 2004, was the fourth “not guilty” jury verdict there in four years. Over 100 campaigners have been similarly acquitted after showing the juries that weapons made with radioactive waste are illegal to produce.

We explained the Nuremberg Principles and how they forbid the “planning and preparation” of war that would violate other treaties. The Tribunal declared, “International law, as such, binds every citizen, just as does ordinary municipal law.” We showed that the building of weapons —the use of which is known in advance to be illegal—is itself a criminal act. We showed that citizens are rightfully allowed to interfere with such offences—known as inchoate crimes.

Juries—when allowed to hear the evidence—have agreed that our demand to talk with company officials was an attempt at crime prevention. Not only was our arrest that day unlawful, but prosecutors have been educated: they can consider bringing charges against the real criminals.

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