Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

Treatise on Depleted Uranium

Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

Treatise on Depleted Uranium

Article excerpt


A look at the historical, legal, health and political issues surrounding the use of radioactive waste in military weapon.


The United States (U.S.) and many other countries use the radioactive metal uranium-238, so-called "depleted uranium," or DU, in military weapons systems, such as armor-piercing bullets, casings for bombs, shielding on tanks, counterweights and penetrators on missiles, and in cluster bombs, antipersonnel mines, and other antipersonnel weapons called dirty bombs. Beside uranium-238, DU also contains reprocessed nuclear reactor waste which is itself highly toxic and radioactive.

Weapons containing DU are appealing to military planners because of their pyrophoric qualities, which cause them to friction-burn on impact. When a DU penetrator strikes a hard target, it burns and creates respirable-sized radioactive dust particles that contaminate surrounding soil, water, flora, and fauna, as well as the human body. Explosives also are used to disperse this radioactive dust that poisons people, inflicting illnesses, injuries, and sometimes a lingering death. DU is an immune system killer.

A recent report entitled "VA Confirms Massive 1991 Casualties" states that 206,861 of the 696,778 U.S. Gulf War veterans have filed claims for veterans' benefits based on service-connected injuries and illnesses; 159,238 have been granted benefits. Since the end of the Gulf War, over 8,000 returning veterans have died in what has become known as the Gulf War syndrome.[1],[2]

There is urgency as each new battle erupts. The possibility that DU will again be used is very real. According to recent statements of the Ministry of Defense, United Kingdom, DU weapons will be used again if necessary. History indicates that governments using DU weapons are unlikely to warn local civilian populations, despite evidence that DU contaminates food and water supplies, as we will show below. Prior to the Gulf War, the U.S. Army was aware that DU contamination had the potential to cause health problems among civilian populations. However, during and after the Gulf War, the U.S. Department of Defense did nothing to warn the inhabitants of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq about DU contamination of their air, soil and water. Rather, U.S. Army reports discussed below express more concern about public backlash and future restrictions on the use of DU weapons. Up to now, there have been no official reports confirming the use of DU in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether a second U.S. invasion of Iraq will be followed by another epidemic of Gulf War Syndrome.

DU is radioactive waste from the reactor fuel and weapons-uranium refining process of natural uranium (U). "The average concentration of natural uranium in soil is about 2 ppm, which is equivalent to 2 g of uranium in 1000 kg of soil."[3]

While natural uranium, a radioactive mineral, contains a small amount of the isotope U-235, nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs require greater concentrations of U-235 to sustain a chain reaction. The process to concentrate the U-235 is called enrichment, and the waste generated from this process is called depleted uranium (DU). DU is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium, and "typically contains about 99.8 percent U-238, 0.2 percent U-235, and 0.0006 percent U-234 by mass."[4]

DU-the isotope U-238, a mostly low-level radioactive material-has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years, and a uranium decay chain of daughter isotopes that emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. After 14 decays, the chain ends with stable lead-206. DU has accumulated in huge quantities since the dawn of the nuclear age. It is estimated that there are more than 2 million tons of DU in the world today. It is a highly toxic and radioactive waste that must be contained, monitored, and managed as such.

Managing DU in nuclear waste storage dumps would cost the U.S. Department of Energy billions of dollars. …

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