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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Use of Depleted Uranium as a Weapon

This is not a new story, but one which has gotten very little coverage in the US press. Could part of the outrage aimed against the US and its involvement in the Middle-East be fueled partly by the use of depleted uranium in military projectiles?

Depleted Uranium (DU) is the by-product of the refinement process (or enrichment) of naturally occurring Uranium, whereby trace amounts of U-234/U-235 are removed for weapons and fuel use - leaving U-238 as the primary waste product, along with non-naturally occuring U-236 which is a direct result of the enrichment process. DU is 1.7 times denser than lead and is very effective in penetrating armored objects such as tanks and fortifications. When a DU shell strikes a target at sufficient velocity, it literally melts through thick metal plating while expanding into a burning vapor which then cools and is left behind as dust.

DU is primarily an Alpha-particle emitter which has a half-life of 4.56 billion years. It is generally accepted that Alpha and Beta radiation may be blocked by as little as a sheet of paper. However, because of their pyrophoric nature, when DU munitions strike they transform into aerosol particles ranging in size from granular to less than 1 microns. This DU dust easily becomes wind-borne and travels great distances, and is readily re-suspended into the air and deposited into the water and soil, thereby becoming inhaled and ingested by living creatures - including humans. While much of ingested DU is excreted from the body, the small amounts which remain can be a constant source of low-level radiation that damages cell structures - and when the damage occurs within reproductive organs it results in genetic mutations which are passed on from generation to generation. Additionally, when cells are stimulated to repair the damage done by previous radiation strikes, they become hypersensitive to further radiation strikes for 8-10 hours.

For example, a single 2.5 micron (~0.0001 inch) DU particle contains approximately 210 billion atoms. The total combination of U-23x emissions is about 37.6 Alpha particles per annum. It seems logical to conclude that ingesting small amounts of this dust could result in permanent damage to living organisms. Conservatively, concentrated amounts of this dust remain radioactive and a proven health hazard for millions of years, as opposed to the sparse, natural concentrations which oxidize and bind more readily with elements in the environment.

The use of depleted uranium in weapons is considered illegal according to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, although reports vary wildly on the actual severity of the threat. Although the IAEA currently dimisses the health threat of DU, I have watched as the long term effects of Uranium tailings on the indigenous Indian population of the US have been revealed. Additionally, a 1966 study found that Uranium tailings used in the construction of homes, schools, and other buildings in and around Grand Junction, Colorado, constituted a health hazard. The nuclear industry's track record on this issue is most certainly suspect, at best.

Although I am not fully convinced of the authenticity of several players involved, and am obviously not a nukular scientist, this subject deserves serious consideration.

An excellent flash animation related to DU is located here:
Poisonous Legacy

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