Depleted Uranium Poses Significant Dangers
September 28, 2003
The front page article headlined: "Justice Department considers action against ABC over story," appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Journal Times. It told how ABC News smuggled 15 pounds of "depleted uranium" into the United States through the port of Los Angeles under the noses of US customs and the LA port authorities. However, the article did not explain adequately why the Department of Homeland Defense and the FBI are so distressed, nor did it explain how this breach in security relates to homeland security. To understand the serious implications of ABC's story you have to know what "depleted uranium" is.
Uranium is the metal used to make nuclear weapons and fuel rods employed in nuclear reactors. But only a tiny fraction, less than 1 percent, of mined and purified uranium is useable for these purposes. This useable fraction is extracted and concentrated. What is left behind is so-called "depleted uranium" -- called DU for short. For every pound of useable product produced, some 200 pounds of "depleted uranium" are left behind. A number of very major problems are also left behind:
DU Is Not Totally ‘Depleted’
DU is essentially permanently radioactive. It gives off radioactive particles at a fixed rate on any human time scale -- decades, centuries, even millennia. A lump of DU sitting on a table in front of you is harmless. The radioactive particles that DU gives off are stopped by the thin layer of dead skin cells that naturally cover everyone's body, so human tissue cells are said to have a large "stopping power" for these radioactive particles.
However, this same large "stopping power" makes DU deadly if it gets inside the body. Besides being a chemically toxic heavy metal, like lead or mercury, a particle of DU inside the body continuously bombards surrounding live tissues with a barrage of subatomic particles capable ionizing nearby cellular material and ripping apart the chemical bonds that hold the cells together. The tracks of destruction left by these reactive particles can be observed directly under a microscope.
US Dilemma: 2 Billion Pounds of DU Waste
No commercial applications have been found for any significant amounts of this leftover DU since it started to accumulate when the first atomic bombs were made in the early 1940's. As a result, the US alone has accumulated over two billion pounds of this commercially worthless DU.
In terms of everyday experience two billion pounds is beyond comprehension. To put this weight of material on an understandable scale, it is about the same weight six Washington Monuments, or about 5,000 Statues of Liberty. Some of this inventory has been given away to allies. This included Iraq when they were an "ally" against Iran.
The major uses of DU are as the tip of armor-piercing artillery shells, ammunition, and missiles, and as armor plate on tanks and armored vehicles. What makes DU so effective at piercing armor is that when it strikes a hard target it ignites like a Roman candle, sharpens itself like a pencil in a pencil sharpener and, like a hot knife through butter, melts steel armor or even concrete. It is used as armor plate because it is the only metal armor that will stop a DU-tipped shell!
However, every time a shell misses its target and falls onto soft desert sand, or a DU-plated tank or an armored vehicle is abandoned (both occur frequently) DU is left behind on the battlefield for the taking. These armor-piercing shells were used in the first Gulf War, in the Bosnian conflict, and in the present war against Iraq. The bottom line is: DU is readily and globally available at little or no cost to any terrorists wishing to acquire it.
When uranium burns, the radioactive dust produced is so incredibly fine, it behaves as if it were a gas. This dust can pass through military gas masks, so gas masks offer troops no protection, and it is deposited permanently in the lungs. If swallowed, the dust particles can be digested and pass into the blood stream, if the dust rubs into a scrape or wound it can enter tissues directly.
Most of these dust particles are smaller than red blood cells, the smallest cells in the body, so the radioactive dust freely crosses organ and tissue boundaries. There is no way to remove them from the body. These ultra-fine smoke particles are spread by wind, settle out on surface water, and are redispersed by human activities -- digging, plowing, driving, or even just walking.
This information is neither new nor secret. From the very beginning, the scientists involved in the making of the first atomic bombs recognized in detail the potential of uranium smoke as a terrain contaminant and as an instrument of gas warfare: "(a.) To make evacuated areas uninhabitable. (b.) To contaminate small critical areas such as rail-road yards and airports. (3.) As a radioactive poison gas to create casualties among troops. (4.) Against large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations."*
DU as a ‘Dirty’ Weapon
The present danger is that depleted uranium can be used to make so-called "dirty" nuclear devices. There is no need to purify or "weaponize" the uranium. As the makers of the atomic bomb realized in 1943, all one has to do is wrap DU in a conventional explosive charge and detonate it. The DU will almost certainly ignite from the heat of the explosion, and its sub-microscopic radioactive smoke particles will be dispersed by wind, rain, and fallout, potentially contaminating vast land areas, lakes, rivers, streams, and water reservoirs.
It is this ease of importation and the simple construction of a potential weapon of mass destruction within the boundaries of the US that so concerns Homeland Security and the FBI. But from whom are they keeping the secret? Certainly not potential terrorists, they know how and what to do. The only conclusion is that the government wishes to keep the public in the dark, ignorant of the threat facing all of us.
Vince Calder is a retired research chemist with SC Johnson. He has a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in physical chemistry.