The Weaponisation and Commercialisation of Depleted Uranium

Military Properties of DU
Future Threats on an Unprecedented Scale
Civilian Usage



Military Properties of DU

DU has characteristics that make it extremely attractive to the military. It is in cheap and plentiful supply, extremely dense (twice as dense as Lead) and hard, such that DU-tipped projectiles can penetrate armoured steel and reinforced concrete. In the 1970s, Pentagon weapons designers also discovered its pyrophoric properties, whereby it becomes white hot and ignites on impact. Burning at several thousand degrees Celsius (the temperature at the surface of the sun), a DU projectile literally melts its way through the target. Uranium can also be engineered to be self-sharpening so that when it hits a target, it retains its punching point as material erodes off the warhead (unlike tungsten rounds, which tend to mushroom on impact). To this day, no armoured plate can withstand this "dart of fire".

Thereafter, the US army began to use DU as kinetic-energy penetrators (so called, because they do not contain an explosive charge, but rely solely on their mechanical force, to pierce the target) - effectively cylindrical rods of solid DU metal, inserted in the nose cone of shells, missiles and bullets.
Eager to exploit this silver bullet and to empty its expensive DU storage tanks, the US government began giving DU away cheaply, to the military and to arms manufacturers. Over a dozen countries now possess DU ammunition, including the US, UK, France, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece and Turkey.
DU was first used on the battlefield in the 1991 Gulf War (although many reports speak of Israel as having used American prototypes in the 1973 October war), and has thus irreversibly blurred the distinction between conventional and non-conventional warfare.

One of the biggest culprits is the American ground-attack warplane, the A10 "Warthog". It is armed with a 30mm Gatling gun that can fire 3900 rounds per minute, one in six of which is an explosive incendiary, while the other five contain a 300g DU penetrator. This means that each A10 can release 975 kg of DU per minute, but they normally fire in bursts of 100-200 rounds (thus releasing "only" 25 to 50 kg per burst).
Prior to Gulf War 2, the other major acknowledged DU munition was the 120-mm tank round, which contains about 4 kg of solid DU.
DU is also used in tank armour, which is why US tanks proved virtually impervious to Iraqi gunners during the Gulf War (while correspondingly, the US's DU ammunition rendered Iraqi tanks about as protective as the cardboard mockups which Iraq so widely employed as decoys).

30mm DU bullet (as fired by an A10)
           
30mm bullet after use - note exposed DU core

 

Future Threats On An Unprecedented Scale

Recent investigations by the independent British researcher, Dai Williams, have revealed a terrifying picture of massive new DU-based "bunker-busters" (or more formally, hard-target guided smart bombs).
His January 2002 report, reports the existence of a classified "dense metal" in the new generation of bunker busters, that is twice as dense as steel, and hence can only be Uranium or Tungsten (with the latter being too expensive to buy and manufacture). This allows warheads of the same length and weight to be 30% slimmer (more like explosive spears than bombs) thus penetrating much further.
He therefore suggests that some of these warheads contain over a thousand kg of DU each (eg. the GBU-128, with 1,500 kg of DU), and the new hardened cruise missiles also contain several hundred kg of DU, and he notes the largest non-nuclear device in the US arsenal, the 20,000-pound "Big BLU", containing over 5 tonnes of DU, which came into service in early 2002.
Williams also concludes that the use of DU in existing weapons is more widespread than was believed, including the widely deployed Maverick and Hellfire air-to-ground missiles (up to 30 kg of DU each) and some anti-tank cluster bombs.
One further implication of a DU warhead, is the probability of 100% combustion into the lethal uranium oxide cloud, as opposed to the kinetic DU penetrators used in A10 bullets and tank shells, "only" 20% to 50% of which are aerosolised on impact.

These new bunker busters were first widely used in Afghanistan in 2001, but prototypes were probably used on Yugoslavia (and maybe Iraq too, in the December 1998 'Desert Fox' bombardment, or since).

Dai Williams' report was reviewed by Robert James Parsons in Le Monde, March 2002
Williams published a follow-up report in September 2002, focussing on the dangers of a future DU war on Iraq.

So-called 4th-generation nuclear weapons are currently under development around the world and these are pure-fusion (or sub-critical fission) devices with low radiation fallout. There are fears that the radiation from DU munitions may be used to camouflage their eventual use. More pertinently, the use of DU in Iraq has already broken a 46-year taboo on the use of radioactive weapons, and set a dangerous precedent, thus softening up public opinion for a further ratcheting up of nuclear weaponry on the modern battlefield.
A research paper submitted by Swiss scientists to the Yugoslav Nuclear Society in October 2002, suggested that the radiological burden due to the battlefield use of 40 tonnes of DU munitions is comparable to that arising from the hypothetical battlefield use of more than 60 kilotons worth (equivalent to 5 Hiroshimas) of 4th-generation nuclear weapons.
 

Civilian Usage

DU has even been used in civilian products, eg. as ballast in aircraft. This can have serious and long-lasting consequences, as in 1992, when an Israeli El-Al cargo jet containing up to 400kg of DU in its structure (only 150kg of which was recovered afterwards), crashed into a block of flats in Amsterdam - although there are many theories about what was on that plane (incl Sarin components and DU missiles), and Mossad were first on the scene, to remove bits of evidence (see Laka and WSWS reports, following 1999 inquiry).
The Korean 747 which crashed near Stansted airport in Essex in December 1999 also contained several hundred kg of DU, while the unknown DU content of the hijacked planes crashed in New York on Sep11 is a possible culprit for the so-called "WTC cough".
In the 1980s, Boeing discontinued the use of DU (for the 747 at least) and replaced it with tungsten, but many older models remain in service around the world.

In most civilian uses, the danger from U238 arises principally when it catches fire, and oxidises (thus releasing its deadly particle cloud).


As an aside, let me now point out the existence of a 1996 European Directive on radiation safety standards (Council Directive 96/29/Euratom: Directive on Radiological Protection), which provides for the deregulation of radioactively contaminated materials from nuclear power stations, bomb factories etc, so long as they aren't too 'hot' - that is, if their radioactivity is below certain "safe" thresholds, as defined by pro-nuclear organisations such as Euratom and the IAEA.
This Directive specifically allows 'cleared' materials - and the radioactivity they contain - to go for unregulated recycling, reuse or disposal. The US has introduced parallel legislation, and the US Dept of Energy proposes to use DU in roads and structural materials.
After the Green Group in the European Parliament failed to amend this Directive, they called a conference in Strasbourg to discuss the issue, and as a result, the EU created the ECRR, to carry out further research on this topic.
Refer to The Low Level Radiation Campaign for more information on the dangers of low-level radiation - especially their Health Effects.

Dr Rosalie Bertell's 1985 book, No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, was a seminal work on the dangers of low-level man-made radiation, which analyses the damage done by what is regarded as "acceptable" background radiation produced by modern industry, and illustrates how statistics on its negative effects are badly skewed by discounting most of the indirect harm it causes, thus tilting cost/benefit analyses towards conclusions favourable to the nuclear industry.
We always have to remember that the future generations on this planet are not nebulous, we are right now carrying them in our bodies, they don't come from out of space! They come from the sperm and the ovum that are right now living in the bodies of people living on this planet. If we destroy that, we have no way of putting it back together again - Dr Bertell in Oslo, 1990.
She has attributed 1.3 billion worldwide casualties (deaths and sicknesses), to nuclear plants and atmospheric testing - The Ecologist, November 1999
 
 
 


   CONTENTS