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Dream Vacation: Sea, sand, and depleted uranium at Vieques

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For nearly sixty years, Vieques, a tiny island off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, was used as a heavy weapons target range for the U.S. Navy. In addition, says columnist Juan Gonzalez: "The U.S. government (was) not content to simply use Vieques for its own military. It (had) the audacity to rent out the island to the armed forces of Latin America and Europe." This deal earned Washington $80 million in 1998 alone but the roughly 9000 residents of Vieques faced socio-economic disaster. The fishing and tourism industries were wrecked and 50% of residents were unemployed while 72% lived in poverty.

The situation attained international prominence when, on April 19, 1999, two F-18 fighter jets getting in some last-minute target practice before heading off to radiate the Balkans dropped two 500-pounds bombs on an observation post and killed David Sanes Rodriguez, a 35-year-old civilian worker. The incident sparked massive, sustained demonstrations and by 2003, the navy packed up and left.

Fast forward to 2007 and you'll find travel articles extolling Vieques as an "untapped environment" with "pristine beaches" and "chic restaurants" perfect for the "upscale city dweller," the "nature lover," and the "spring breaker." And the radiation comes at no extra charge.

Among the tons of ordnance dropped on Vieques, the U.S. Navy admits to using depleted uranium (DU) armor-piercing shells. "When fired," writes journalist James Ridgeway, "the uranium bursts into flame and all but liquifies, searing through steel armor like a white hot phosphorescent flare." The effects of DU go far beyond the immediate explosion. "The uranium-238 used to make the weapons can cause cancer and genetic defects when inhaled," says former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

"Depleted uranium burns on contact," adds Dr. Helen Caldicott, "creating tiny aerosolized particles less than five microns in diameter, small enough to be inhaled." These particles can travel long distances when airborne-and don't be comforted by their size. "There is no safe dose or dose rate below which dangers disappear. No threshold-dose,'" explains John Gofman, former associate director of Livermore National Laboratory, one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, and co-discoverer of uranium-233. "Serious, lethal effects from minimal radiation doses are not 'hypothetical,' 'just theoretical,' or 'imaginary.' They are real." 

Also real: Vieques, the new tourist hot spot, registers a 73 percent higher incidence of cancer than Puerto Rico as a whole. As Johnny Rotten howled: "A cheap holiday in other people's misery."

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