Blowing the N-whistle

June 28 2003

Doug Rokke sits on the edge of his chair in a beige, could-be-anywhere hotel room in Carlton. He stares at you with an almost embarrassing intensity and is close to tears.

"It's lonely," he says slowly. "It's very lonely. I made a decision. I was given a job. I did my job. I learned something. I gave them an answer they didn't want. I became persona non grata. And the better parts of my life ended."

What remains is an obsession with proving he is right about the dangers of depleted uranium (DU) weapons. A waste produced from the uranium enrichment process, depleted uranium has become increasingly contentious since American and British militaries first used it in the 1991 Gulf War and, since then, in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rokke, a health physicist who became the Pentagon's most senior DU expert during the first Gulf War, became convinced it had contaminated the battlefield and could be a factor in Gulf War Syndrome, the mysterious mix of illnesses that have afflicted returning soldiers. Rokke acknowledges DU's brilliance as a weapon - because it is an extremely dense metal that sharpens and burns as it hits its target, it is used on the ends of tank shells and missiles to penetrate steel and concrete much more easily than conventional weapons. But he also believes that he and the research team became contaminated. "Everybody is sick," he says. "We've all got rashes, respiratory and kidney problems. It's there; there are no two ways about it."

Rokke is a military veteran. He joined the US Air Force in 1967 and bombed Vietnam targets "before I could shave". Years later, with a master of science and expertise in environmental health, he was ordered to the Gulf to help protect American soldiers if chemical and biological weapons were used and, later, to oversee DU clean-up. He became convinced DU was causing illnesses such as cancer, and that the Pentagon was downplaying its dangers. When he went public with his views, he was sacked.

He is still campaigning, and this week urged the Australian Government, which doesn't allow weapons to be made with DU, to test returning troops for contamination and to campaign for it to be banned globally.

DU is only slightly radioactive - far less than uranium itself - but it is also chemically toxic, and scientists are divided about whether the combination poses a serious or remote health risk to soldiers and civilians who come in contact with it or inhale its dust. Little rigorous research has been done, and Rokke's theories remain unproven.

The official American position is that it is safe. In March, US Army Colonel James Naughton dismissed Iraqi claims that DU weapons caused cancers and leukaemia in children who played around bombed-out tanks and buildings during the first Gulf War. He claimed the real reason Iraq complained about DU weapons was because they were so effective. "Why do they (the then Iraqi government) want it to go away?" Naughton asked. "They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them. There is no doubt DU gave us a huge advantage over their tanks."

In the first Gulf War, most American deaths were from friendly-fire DU weapons. Rokke was ordered to decontaminate shot-up vehicles and tanks and to investigate health effects on troops. Dressed in protective gear and masks, he and his team crawled over tanks and other vehicles, sending some back to the US. Those considered too dangerous to move were buried in a giant hole in the ground.

In the mid-1990s, he was recalled from an academic job to head the Depleted Uranium Project in Nevada, which test-fired weapons into targets to analyse the health risks and to work out how to clean up safely.

Rokke, now 54, is convinced that he and other members of his team in Iraq were contaminated and that the tests he undertook showed that significant amounts of the DU vaporised on impact, making it extremely dangerous when inhaled. He pulls up his trouser leg to reveal the red rash he says appeared within hours of his contact with DU. He holds up his hand and moves fingers clumsily to show that his fine motor skills have gone. He has respiratory problems and cataracts and has medical reports showing that the amount of uranium in his urine is way above acceptable limits.

He has become a campaigner, not just for better clean-up and treatment, but for the weapons to be banned. "After everything I've seen, everything I've done, it became very clear to me that you just can't take radioactive wastes from one nation and just throw it into another nation. It's wrong. It's simply wrong."

Depleted uranium is so cheap and effective - 350 tonnes was used in weapons in the first Gulf War and possibly 500 tonnes in this year's Iraq conflict - that Rokke says the US is reluctant to do proper studies of veterans or Iraqi civilians. "It's the arrogance. Once they acknowledge that there are actual health effects of depleted uranium munitions, then they can't use them any more; the house of cards falls apart."

Rokke, brought to Melbourne by the Victorian Peace Network, has the single-mindedness of a whistleblower. He says he has lost friends, had his house ransacked, had his taxes audited and been publicly vilified for his outspokenness.

Concerns about DU have found some political acceptance - the British Government has announced it will test returning troops for DU contamination. But neither it, nor Washington, plan decontamination in Iraq. In the Australian Senate this week, Democrat Lynn Allison urged the Government to campaign internationally against DU in the same way it does against cluster bombs. Defence Minister Robert Hill said Australian troops in Iraq were not in areas where DU was used, and "there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that ammunition containing depleted uranium poses a significant adverse health risk to (Australian) personnel operating in Iraq".

The scientific evidence is cloudy because there has been so little research. It is broadly accepted that DU does little harm outside the body. But it may cause serious damage if it is inhaled. That means that people near where it is used could be contaminated, and it is possible it could seep into water tables.

Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the British Royal Society's DU working group, this week told Radio National he welcomed the testing of British troops, because it meant the government "was at least taking the issue seriously, which is a very different attitude to the American military, who seem not to be interested in having any tests for their soldiers".

Spratt acknowledged that the issue was deeply political: the military have reasons for downplaying DU's health effects, and the anti-nuclear lobby have an interest in inflating them. Rokke has faith he is doing what is right, and he clings to the belief that he is still doing the job the Pentagon ordered him to do. "I didn't ask for this job," he says. "I was given the job, and I'm going to finish the job."

Gay Alcorn is a senior writer and former Washington correspondent for The Age.  

Depleted uranium and it's effects on those involved in the Iraq war.

24 June 2003
Question without Notice:
Depleted Uranium
Democrat Senator Lyn Allison

Senator ALLISON (2.53 p.m.) -My question is for the Minister for Defence and Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Can the minister confirm that Australia stopped using depleted uranium in its munitions back in 1990 for health and safety reasons? If so, why did he imply yesterday that they were safe? Is it not time that we said to US and the UK that we will not support operations where DU weapons are used? Is it not the case that DU is radioactive for 4.5 billion years, making DU armaments much more dangerous than cluster bombs, which we have said we will not support? Why isn't Australia calling for a worldwide ban on DU weapons?

Senator HILL -I have answered a number of questions on this subject in the Senate and at the estimates committee hearings. The answers I have given in the past are that Australia gave up using DU because other alternatives existed that suited our purposes. Obviously Britain and the United States, and perhaps others, do not agree with that assessment. They still believe that DU is the most appropriate material to use in certain munitions. In relation to the claim that within the soil there may be some residual consequences for a long period of time, I do not know the answer to that. As I recall it, the previous briefings suggested that there would be very little long-term consequence, that there would be very little residual uranium. As far as I can recall, I think it was even suggested that it would probably be little more than the natural background. But I will go back to the scientists and get some more information for the honourable senator on that particular matter.

As to why we are not supporting the use of cluster bombs but are supporting DU, I would not put it quite in those terms. We have been concerned about cluster bombs because they incidentally can have similar consequences to landmines-that is, that part of the cluster that does not explode can have inadvertent detrimental consequences to children picking up those parts of the munition. It is our opposition to antipersonnel landmines and the similarity of certain of the consequences of cluster bombs that has drawn us to the conclusion that we have. In relation to DU used by our allies we have said that, if they believe it is the most appropriate element to use in their particular munitions in certain circumstances, we do not think it is appropriate for us to press a different view upon them.

Senator ALLISON -Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, you might check the Hansard for what Air Commodore Austin said in February this year during estimates, when he indicated health and safety to be the reason. If DU armaments are safe, how does the minister explain the fact that almost a quarter of the 580,000 US troops sent to the Gulf War are now labelled as permanently disabled and that another 8,000 troops are already dead? Are you aware that the US Army training manual requires anyone who comes within 25 metres of DU contaminated equipment to wear respiratory and skin protection? According to Dr Rokke, the vast majority of US armaments used in the two gulf wars were packed with DU. Were our troops protected? Were our embedded journalists protected? Why is it that we will not know where DU was used until the US decides to tell us?

Senator HILL -That sounds very alarmist to me. I have seen no suggestion that US casualties have been associated with the use of depleted uranium within certain munitions.

Senator Faulkner -Where do those figures come from?

Senator HILL -I have no idea where those figures come from but they sound very alarmist to me, which is sometimes the way the Democrats do their business.

Senator Ian Macdonald -It was on AM.

Senator HILL -Oh, it was on the ABC, was it! I should have known it would be on the ABC. In relation to Australian forces, as I have said in previous answers, we do not believe that they were serving in the vicinity of munitions utilised that use DU.

Question without Notice (Speech): Defence: Depleted Uranium
Defence: Depleted Uranium

Senator ALLISON (Victoria) (3.29 p.m.) -I move: That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Allison today relating to depleted uranium weapons.

The Minister for Defence today assured us, as he did yesterday, that the risks that were posed to our units and special forces in Iraq were low. He also scoffed at the fact that this week Dr Rokke from the US, who was an army major, a health physicist for many years and an expert on exposure of troops to toxic material, mentioned this on radio as if that is something that makes that not legitimate.

I strongly suggest that the minister or someone from his department actually meet with Dr Rokke while he is here. He is a very well-informed individual. I met with him on the weekend and was somewhat shocked and alarmed at what he had to say about the likely exposure of our troops in Iraq. He is sick, in fact, because he spent some time in the Middle East salvaging DU-contaminated tanks, among other things. He says that Iraq is a toxic wasteland and that this is the result of a long Gulf War and the most recent attack on Iraq by the US and the UK. He says that the United States blew up weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s-most of which, of course, were supplied by America to Iraq-and, in so doing, released nerve agents and biological and chemical weapons into the atmosphere which remain there today. He also says there are endemic diseases in the area and hazardous materials that have been released through the bombing of industrial sites. He says the oil fires, for instance, have left an enormous pall of contamination and that this affected troops while they were there and will affect them subsequently. He says that pesticides were used without much discretion and that, all in all, it is not a safe place for either Iraqis or our troops to have been.

On the question of DU, he says that pretty much every armament that was used in the Middle East had high concentrations of depleted uranium. He showed me documents that demonstrated what I had only heard anecdotally, which is that the US regards DU as a very handy substance. Not only is it very heavy and very useful for penetrating hard surfaces but also it has allowed the US to get rid of a lot of very difficult intractable waste. In fact, 100 grams of uranium-328 produces 99.2 grams of depleted uranium and just 0.6 grams of usable uranium. So there is an enormous quantity to be gotten rid of. He says that it is in cruise missiles, landmines and ballast used for aircraft.

He says that 15,000 rounds of DU-armaments-in just one form of armament-were used during the Gulf War. They each had four kilograms. So an enormous quantity of depleted uranium has been dispersed. I do not think we can say that it goes onto the ground and just disappears for all time, as Senator Hill suggested today. That is a nonsensical notion, because we know that it hangs around for 4.5 billion years and that in a very dusty, dry sandstorm prone area, such as so much of the Middle East is, this will quickly be lifted into the atmosphere and will be inhaled and contaminate skin. So not only is it a problem for our troops; it is also a problem for people who have to live there.

On the ABC this morning, Dr Rokke said that there had been: ... extensive use of uranium munitions by the US and British forces.

His concern was: ... that any individual who has been exposed to this toxic wasteland receives the optimal medical care that they're due. In the case for Australian troops, although there's no indication that Australian troops did use uranium munitions in this war, they were still involved in the combat and the conflict area where uranium munitions were used and where all these other toxic materials were released.

He told the ABC reporter that tens of thousands of American soldiers who took part in the Gulf War are now seeking medical treatment and compensation for illnesses such as cancer, kidney and liver damage and respiratory ailments. The minister scoffed at the figures that I used. (Time expired)

Depleted uranium and it's effects on those involved in the Iraq war.
Following is two questions to the Minister and a Senate speech by Senator Lyn Allison, the Democrats nuclear spokesperson.

23 June 2003

Question without Notice:
Depleted Uranium
Democrat Senator Lyn Allison

Senator ALLISON (2.48 p.m.) -My question is to the Minister for Defence and the Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Is the minister aware that Dr Douglas Rokke, a former nuclear health physicist with the US Armed Forces, responsible for the attempts to clean up depleted uranium after the 1991 Gulf War, said this morning that it is very likely that Australian troops were exposed to waste from depleted uranium and other hazardous chemicals? Will the minister acknowledge that both the US and British troops used weapons containing depleted uranium in Iraq and that our troops, like the Iraqi civilian population, were in the vicinity? Isn't it the case that Iraq is the most toxic war zone in the world, with depleted uranium used in huge quantities, nerve agents and hazardous chemicals left over from the Gulf War, endemic disease and toxic chemicals and pesticides? And why won't minister insist that the testing of Australian troops for levels of uranium exposure is necessary?

Senator HILL -This subject was debated at length during the estimates hearings when honourable senators-

Senator Faulkner -You should be right across it then.

Senator HILL -I think I reasonably am. I was just saying that honourable senators had the opportunity to question the senior health officials within the Department of Defence: those who are expert, have been studying this situation for a long time and obviously have a vital interest in the health of the members of the ADF. I am only making the point that senators who have an interest in this matter were able to, and some in fact did, examine health officials within Defence on this matter.

It is true, as I understand it, that depleted uranium weapons were used by our coalition partners but not in regions where our troops were deployed. I am advised that incidental exposures to depleted uranium contaminated dust would have been very low. I am advised that global position monitoring data has been recorded for our deployed units and special forces in Iraq. Similar data has been recorded by our allies. In the long term this data will be useful in future health outcome studies. As I have said before in this place, and as the officials said during estimates, there is no conclusive evidence to indicate that ammunition containing depleted uranium poses a significant adverse health risk to ADF personnel operating in Iraq. There is therefore no need for restrictions based on this criteria. However, all persons in Iraq that may have been exposed to very low levels of DU contaminated dust would be subject to review, as is determined from time to time. The officials did say that they were aware of new scientific research concerning exposure to low-level radiation from depleted uranium, which may be what Senator Allison is referring to today. The officials said that they were assessing this new research and if, as a result of that, there was any necessity to make adjustments to ADF health advice and screening procedures, they would do so.

Senator ALLISON -I thank the minister for his answer and I ask a supplementary question. From answers given at estimates it is my understanding that it was not anticipated that a data set or map of environmentally hazardous regions in Iraq would be provided. I ask the minister: has that been provided? If not, when will it be provided? Is the minister aware that some US troops have been found to have 5,000 to 7,000 times the permissible limit for uranium in their urine? Do you acknowledge that Dr Rokke would have far more of an idea of what our Australian troops were exposed to than the Australian government? Again I ask: why is it that you will not take his advice and conduct radio bio-assay tests on our troops? What, otherwise, are the government trying to hide?

Senator HILL -The government, obviously, are not trying to hide anything. We have a vital interest in the health of our forces, and if you do not believe that of the politicians I would have thought that you would believe it of the ADF doctors, who have a concern on a daily basis for the health of ADF personnel. As I said, GPM monitoring does enable us now to track the position of Australian forces against data that could be gathered and examined relating to the use of these munitions by our coalition colleagues. So if in future it is necessary to refer back to that data to assist our health officials in their task they will be able to do so.

ABC (Australia)

AM - Monday, 23 June , 2003  08:17:12
Reporter: Rachel Carbonell

LINDA MOTTRAM: A former nuclear health physicist with the United States Armed Forces has raised concern that Australian troops may have been exposed to depleted uranium (DU) during the recent conflict in Iraq. Doctor Douglas Rokke is urging the Australian Government to quickly provide medical care and ongoing research into the effects of exposure to DU weapons, citing early evidence from the United States as worrying.

Today in Melbourne, Dr Rokke will meet with the Returned Services League, which says that it too is concerned.

Rachel Carbonell reports.

RACHEL CARBONELL: American nuclear health expert, Dr Doug Rokke, claims it is likely Australian soldiers were exposed to chemical waste from depleted uranium projectiles, because United States and British military both used these weapons during the recent Iraq conflict and the Gulf War.

Dr Rokke is a Vietnam veteran and later worked with the United States Army as a nuclear health physicist. He says he wrote the US Army's field manual for responding to chemical and biological warfare and trained soldiers in radiation safety techniques. Dr Rokke is starting a national tour of Australia today, in which he hopes to raise awareness of the potential health effects of exposure to depleted uranium.

DOUG ROKKE: We know from Gulf War I that Australian troops, in addition to the US troops and everybody, were definitely exposed to a hodgepodge of a toxic wasteland. During Gulf War II, we have just seen an extensive use of uranium munitions by the US and British forces and again the concern that I have is to ensure that any individual who has been exposed to this toxic wasteland receives the optimal medical care that they're due.

In the case for Australian troops, although there's no indication that Australian troops did use uranium munitions in this war, they were still involved in the combat and the conflict area where uranium munitions were used and where all this other toxic materials were released.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Dr Rokke says depleted uranium weapons disperse radioactive particles into the air and have proven harmful effects on humans and animals. He says tens of thousands of American soldiers who took part in the Gulf War are now seeking medical treatment and compensation for illnesses such as cancer, kidney and liver damage and respiratory ailments.

DOUG ROKKE: In the United States today, out of the little over 580,000 individuals that actively participated in the Gulf War I, well over 160,000 of them are labelled as permanently disabled from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and over 8,000 are dead.

The individuals that then continue to go into the region up through May of 2002, another 60,000 individuals are now labelled as permanently disabled and another 3,000 are dead minimal. And again this is coming from the residual contamination of war in that whole region.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Dr Rokke is due to meet with the Returned Services League in Melbourne today. In the US there are a number of veterans advocacy groups fighting to have medical treatment and research improved in the area of exposure to uranium. In Australia, the RSL says it knows very little about the potential hazards of exposure to these weapons but says it is concerned about the issue.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Rachel Carbonell reporting.

Tuesday 17 June 2003, 5:05 PM The Age (Australia)

Australian troops who served on the battlefield in Iraq were at serious risk of radiation sickness, a US military expert on depleted uranium warned.

Dr Doug Rokke, who first joined the US military as a medical officer in 1967 and rose to the rank of major, spent seven months in Iraq in 1990-91 in the lead-up to and after the first Gulf War.

During that conflict, Dr Rokke was tasked with measuring the effects of depleted uranium (DU) on American forces and their equipment, and how best to "clean-up the mess".

Considered a radioactive substance, DU is still used by US and British forces but was banned from Australian weaponry 13 years ago

It is used for the enormous strength it gives ammunitions, allowing them to pierce armoured vehicles, including tanks.

Now, more than 12 years later, the health physicist who rose to become the foremost US military expert on DU, is still suffering the effects of radiation exposure.

He has skin rashes across his body, suffers from respiratory, eye and renal ailments and is excreting uranium in his urine at 4,000 times the permissible level.

He believes at least 30 of his 100-strong team have died of ailments directly related to their exposure, either through breathing in or absorbing the minuscule dust particles through their skin, or through shrapnel.

"Everybody is sick. We've all got rashes, respiratory and kidney problems. It's there, there are no two ways about it," Dr Rokke told AAP.

"It's been there since we cleaned up and it's never gone away.

"Not only is it a serious health concern, it is a serious health risk.

"Your guys (soldiers) are coming back with it now."

Dr Rokke said any troops who had served in Iraq would be at risk of contamination, irrespective of whether they used DU weaponry or wore protective clothing.

He warned any military equipment used by the Australians had a high probability of being contaminated "with all sorts of things, not just radiological, but chemical and biological".

Dr Rokke, who produced documents in support of his claim that the US government had covered-up the hazardous effects of DU, said his life had been ruined since he first "blew the whistle" in 1997.