Information compiled by Hei Hu Quan
1) What is D.U. or Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process.
Depleted Uranium, or DU, is a waste material left over from the nuclear industry. A vast amount of this waste DU is produced when natural uranium is enriched for use in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Only the uranium isotope U-235 can be used in nuclear processes, such as reactors and weapons. As most of this isotope is removed from naturally occurring uranium, the remaining uranium product comprises U-238 and smaller amounts of the more highly radioactive U-235 and U-234. DU is both chemically toxic and radioactive. It is this latter product, the left over uranium, comprising mainly U-238, which has been used to make ‘depleted’ uranium weapons. It is used for weapons because this heavy, dense metal is judged by the army to be an excellent penetrator of enemy armour, tanks, and even buildings.
The term “depleted uranium” is a misnomer. DU is “depleted” only in the isotopes U234 and U235 which constitute less that 1% of the total uranium. The fact is that both “depleted” uranium and “natural” Uranium are over 99% composed of uranium-238. Depleted uranium is almost as highly concentrated as pure uranium and may contain plutonium in trace amounts.
A large amount of DU in the stockpiles held in the United States has been contaminated with recycled spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors. For example trace amounts of U-236 and highly radioactive substances such as plutonium, neptunium and technetium were found in a DU anti-tank shell used in Kosovo. Hundreds of thousands of tons of this contaminated stock was exported to the UK, France and other countries in the 1990s. The extent to which this DU has been contaminated with recycled spent fuel is still unknown and undisclosed.
Depleted uranium is a risk to health both as a toxic heavy metal and as a radioactive substance. The UK and US Governments have long sought to play down these risks.
2) What is it used for and why?
DU is used in a variety of military applications. It is attractive to the military, governments and the nuclear industry for three main reasons. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, it is in cheap and plentiful supply and solves the problem of storage and monitoring. Secondly, it is a very effective battlefield weapon because its high density and self-sharpening qualities enable it to penetrate hard targets with ease. Thirdly, DU is pyrophoric, which means it burns on impact, enhancing its ability to destroy enemy targets.
The US military uses DU mainly for its Abrahams tanks and A10 warplanes, although it is also used in its Bradley fighting vehicles, AV-8B Harrier aircraft, Super Cobra helicopter and its Navy Phalanx system. It is also used by the US military for a variety of other applications including bombshells, tank armour plating, aircraft ballast and anti-personnel mines. Although the US and UK militaries are the only countries who have been properly documented as using DU weapons, they are known to be held by at least seventeen other countries including: Australia, Bahrain, France, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Modern warfare since the Gulf War in 1991 has employed weapons which make use of DU for its properties:
1. It is cheap and available to arms manufacturers free of charge.
2. It has a very high-density which makes it a superior armour piercing material.
3. It burns upon impact producing intense heat and easily cuts through steel.
4. It acts as a self-sharpening penetrator.
The 1991 Gulf War saw the first verified use of DU weapons. Around 320 tonnes of DU in weapons were used in the war, of which about 1 tonne was used by the UK military. According to data from the US Department of Defense, tens or hundreds of thousands of US military personnel could have been exposed to DU. Both the US and UK Governments refused any responsibility for decontamination and both refused to study the exposure rates or after-effects of this DU use. After a few years, evidence began to emerge from Iraq about the increasing incidence of cancer and birth deformities in the south of the country. After heavy US lobbying in November 2001 the UN General Assembly voted down an Iraqi proposal that the UN study the effects of the DU used there.
In the 2003 attack on Iraq, the US and UK militaries used DU again despite the lack of reliable data on the effects of using it in Iraq 12 years previously. The British Government has admitted using 1.9 tonnes of DU. Even though this is only a tiny proportion of all DU used in Iraq, it is double the amount used in 1991. The US authorities have still not said how much has been used, although an initial Pentagon source revealed 75 tons of DU may remain in Iraq from A-10 planes alone.
The implications for Iraqi civilians are very alarming. Unlike the first Gulf War, which was largely confined to desert areas, much of the DU use has been in built-up, heavily populated areas. The US Government has refused any cleanup of DU in Iraq, clinging to the statement that it has no link with ill health, while the British Government has for the first time admitted it does have a responsibility but says it is low on their list of priorities.
3) Are there international laws against its use?
No, there are none.
4) What countries are using D.U. currently?
The United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Bahrain, France, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
5) What are the specific health threats?
Uranium is most dangerous when it burns and is aerosolized as happens when it is used in weapons. Inhaled uranium can remain in the lungs and bones for years where it continues to emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Each alpha particle can traverse up to several hundred cells causing somatic and genetic alterations. Soldiers inside a tank or armoured vehicle can inhale tens of milligrams of DU after the shell goes through the tank. Compare this to the maximum allowable yearly dose in the U.S. for inhaled uranium is 1.2 milligrams per year.
Serious long-term effects include: Compromised immune system, metabolic, respiratory and renal diseases, tumours, leukemia, and cancer.
A 1998 study conducted by Dr. Livengood showed that DU contamination transforms normal bone cells into tumorous ones.
It is estimated that 300 – 800 metric tons of DU were deposited in the battlefield in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Dr. Doug Rokke (DU expert and former US army physicist) estimated that 120 to 480 million grams of DU would be aerosolized if 40% of the DU were burnt up.
The smaller the particles of DU, the greater the danger. Particles less than 5 microns can be inhaled and deposited in the lungs where they can remain for years. A study found DU particles 42 km away from the source.
Compare these numbers to the allowable limits for radiation releases in the US. The National Lead Industry Plant in Colonie, NY was closed down for violating a New York state court order which limited the amount of radiation released to 387 gram of DU metal per month. The plant closed down in February of 1980 for exceeding this limit and closed permanently in 1983. The area has been decontaminated. The engineering report states that the soil from 53 of the 56 nearby properties was beyond the radiation limits and had to be removed to a low-level radiation storage site. The cost was over 100 million USD. The cleanup cost was 1000 USD per cubic meter.
It’s not just in terms of increased risk of cancer that DU DNA damage can affect health. It is also implicated in causing a depressed immune system, reproductive problems, and birth defects. For example, a study of US Gulf War veterans has found that they are up to three times as likely to have children with birth deformities than fathers who had not served; and that pregnancies result in significantly higher rates of miscarriage. A major 2004 Ministry of Defence-funded survey study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that babies whose fathers served in the first Gulf War are 50 per cent more likely to have physical abnormalities. They also found a 40 per cent increased risk of miscarriage among women whose partners served in the Gulf.
There are three main routes through which DU exposure on the battlefield takes place: inhalation, ingestion and wounding. As a DU penetrator hits its target some of the DU from the weapon reacts with the air in the ensuing fire and becomes a fine dust (often called an ‘aerosol’) that makes inhalation and ingestion a possibility for those in the area. Even after the dust has settled, the danger remains that it may be resuspended in the future by further activity or the wind, and again pose a threat to civilians and others for many years into the future. DU particles have been reported as travelling twenty-five miles on air currents. Open wounds also allow a gateway for DU into the body and some veterans have also been left with DU fragments in their bodies, remaining after combat.
Inhaled DU dust will settle in the nose, mouth, lung, airways and guts. As a DU penetrator hits its target, the high temperatures caused by the impact ensure the DU dust particles become ceramic and therefore water insoluble. This means that, unlike other more soluble forms of uranium, DU will stay in the body for much longer periods of time. This aspect of uranium toxicology has often been ignored in studies of the health effects of DU, which base their excretion rates on soluble uranium. DU dust can remain in the sticky tissues of the lung and other organs such as the kidneys for many years. It is also deposited in the bones where it can remain for up to 25 years. This helps explain why studies of Gulf War veterans have found that soldiers are still excreting DU in their urine over 12 years after the 1991 conflict. Ingested DU can be incorporated into bone and from there will irradiate the bone marrow, increasing the risk of leukaemia and an impaired immune system.
In Basra, in southern Iraq, there have been striking reports for a number of years about the rise in local childhood cancers and birth deformities seen there. The findings of a leading Iraqi epidemiologist, Dr Alim Yacoub, were presented in New York in June 2003 and suggest there has been a more than five fold increase in congenital malformations and a quadrupling of the incidence rates of malignant diseases in Basra.
The Dutch Journal of Medical Science reported the findings of the Flemish eye doctor, Edward De Sutter. He found 20 cases out of 4000 births in Iraq of babies with the phenomenon anophthalmos: babies who have been born with only one eye or who are missing both eyes. The very rare condition usually only affects 1 out of 50 million births.
6) Other Countries Contaminated by DU Include:
BOSNIA 1994-1995 – Around 10,800 DU rounds, or 3 tonnes, were used in Bosnia.
KOSOVO, YUGOSLAVIA 1999 – US A-10 aircraft fired around 31,300 rounds of DU, or 9 tons of DU in areas of Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro during NATO action there in 1999.
AFGHANISTAN 2001- 2004 – There is some evidence that DU has been used in Afghanistan, although this has never been confirmed officially. For example, US A-10s and Harrier aircraft, which both use DU ammunition, are known to have been active in the region.
Geneva Convention Rules (to which US and UK are signees)
– The limitation of unnecessary human suffering [Art.35.2]
– The limitation of damage to the environment [Art. 35.3 and 55.1]
– It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering [Art. 35.3]
– It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. [Art. 35.2]
– In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives. [Art. 48]
– Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. [Art.51.4]
– Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population. [Art. 55.1]
The Uranium Medical Research Centre – DU Facts and Fictions – http://www.umrc.net/facts_and_fictions.aspx
Viewzone – Depleted Uranium – The Truth – http://www.viewzone.com/du/du.html