Depleted Uranium

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Depleted Uranium (DU) is a waste product left over when uranium is "enriched" to produce fissionable material for nuclear reactors and weapons. It consists of uranium from which most of the fissionable isotopes (uranium 235 and 234) have been removed. DU contains 99.5% Uranium 238.


While the term 'Depleted' implies it isn't particularly dangerous, DU is a chemically toxic, radioactive, heavy metal [1] and as such is potentially hazardous to human health. It is widely believed that exposure to Depleted Uranium, especially when ingested or inhaled as a particulate, causes severe long term health effects in humans. The size of the effect and the political significance of it, however, are in dispute. DU is an extremely dense material. (1.7 times as dense as lead) It is also pyrophoric and as such combustible when in contact with air.


DU is currently used by the defense industry in the manufacture of armor piercing munitions and anti-tank projectiles. It is also used in the manufacture of tank armor. At least 17 countries are thought to have weapon systems containing DU in their arsenals. These include: UK, US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, China, India and Taiwan. Many of them were sold DU ammunition by the US while others, including France, Russia, Pakistan and India are thought to have developed it independently. [2]

In addition, DU is increasingly showing up in a variety of civilian products. It is used as ballast in ships and airplanes. It is used in boat keels, flywheels, and even in gyroscopes and helicopter rotors. Also DU is used as radiation shielding in radioactive material transport containers. [3]

Health Concerns

Current health concerns center around the effect on the human body of nano-sized ceramic particles of uranium oxide (U238) that are released in the air when DU munitions are used on the battlefield.

In a 1999 paper for a Hague Peace Conference, Dr. Rosalie Bertell laid out a concise explanation of the potential dangers of DU exposure.

"Uranium oxide and its aerosol form are insoluble in water. The aerosol resists gravity, and is able to travel tens of kilometres in air. Once on the ground, it can be resuspended when the sand is disturbed by motion or wind. Once breathed in, the very small particles of uranium oxide, those which are 2.5 microns (one micron = one millionth of a meter) or less in diameter, could reside in the lungs for years, slowly passing through the lung tissue into the blood."[4]

Dr. Asaf Durakovic, founder of the Uranium Medical Research Center continues the case, stating that in the course of one year, 1 milligram of depleted uranium emits 390 million alpha particles, 780 million beta particles and associated gamma rays. This is over one billion high energy, ionizing, radioactive particles and rays which can produce extensive biological damage to ovaries, lungs lymph nodes, kidneys, breast, blood bones,stomach and fetuses.

Supporters of DU weapons argue that the dangers of DU, particularly from radiation, are not as catastrophic as experts such as Dr. Bertell and Dr. Durakovic think. But many of these arguments lean heavily on two studies by the Rand Corporation which were commissioned by the Department of Defense in 1999. [5] [1]

However, critics of these studies contend they are flawed because they use existing data from natural and Depleted uranium which assumes a particle size much larger than that actually produced when DU weapons explode and burn. (A good presentation of this controversy can be seen in the award winning documentary "Beyond Treason".) [2] An independant study published in "Military Medicine" in Aug 2, 2003 examines the issue of exposure to DU in greater depth. [3]

The health concerns, particularly for those living in Iraq, are particularly acute due to the young ages of those exposed. In a recent article, Sherwood Ross quotes noted anti-nuclear crusader Dr. Helen Caldicott:

Much of the DU is in cities such as Baghdad where half the population of 5 million people are children who played in the burned out tanks and on the sandy, dusty ground... Children are 10 to 20 times more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. My pediatric colleagues in Basra, where this ordnance was used in 1991, report a sevenfold increase in childhood cancer and a sevenfold increase in gross congenital abnormalities.[4]

Although the Department of Defense continues to deny DU's health risks, it's own actions belie such claims. In a May 15, 2003 Christian Science Monitor article, Scott Peterson reports that in Iraq, "Six American vehicles struck with DU "friendly fire" in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump."[5]

DU Weapons

Companies involved with manufacture of DU weaponry include:

Alliant Techsystems

"Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is the largest supplier of all munitions to the U.S. Department of Defense, and works on many DoD contracts, including large and small caliber munitions employing depleted uranium penetrators" [6]

The DU penetrators were manufactured by Nuclear Metals in Concord Massachusetts and shipped to TCAAP for ATK to assemble. Nuclear Metals is now the Starmet Corporation. [7] Reporter Hillary Johnson picks up the story:

"But while defense contractors profit handsomely, their neighbors are exposed to radioactive waste. Starmet Corp. -- among the Army's largest supplier's of DU weapons -- dumped 400,000 pounds of uranium and heavy metals into an unlined holding pond in Concord, Massachusetts, polluting soil and groundwater. Faced with a massive cleanup, Starmet filed for bankruptcy last year -- leaving taxpayers with cleanup costs estimated at $50 million. Cleanup at the Twin Cities Army Ammunitions Plant in suburban Minneapolis, littered with DU shells manufactured by Alliant, is expected to cost $235 million." Hillary Johnson, Rolling Stone, October 2, 2003

At the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) ATK said it used DU provided by the government to melt and cast DU for its penetrators (Jim Persoon, NRC meeting 3/31/2004 Arden Hills, MN). And while clean up and decomissioning of ATK's license at TCAAP is still ongoing, pollution elsewhere continues. "Alliant Techsystems said it received new contracts in excess of $38 million from the U.S. Army's Armament Research Development and Engineering Center at the Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. Under the contracts, Alliant will provide 120 millimeter tactical ammunition for the Army's M1A1 main battle tanks. Deliveries will be completed by November 2005. The project manager of Maneuver Ammunition Systems manages the contract for the Army and Marine Corps." -Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE April 7, 2004 p. D2

As Alliant has removed all references to uranium or depleted uranium in its public notices, web pages and press releases, we can at this point only infer that the newest contracts are for uranium weapons or penetrates that contain uranium 238.

In case you wonder why DU never turns up on Army or regulatory websites about TCAAP, such as EPA [8]- Minnesota Pollution Control Agency MPCA doesn't even have a website on Minnesota's largest superfund site-: EPA contends, that DU did not get released into the environment, despite clear evidence to the contrary ( soil via sewer, air). Hence in EPA logic DU "clean" up is not part of the Superfund program at TCAAP. Neat! NRC contends no release in excess of their limits was found. With 350 supersacks of debris and soil of the demolished DU room awaiting disposal in Andrews, TX one can only wonder what this doublespeak means. Environmental crime in the US goes largely unpunished.

DU penetrators

In the U.S., it looks like uranium handling was controlled by the Dept. of Energy, at least until the "United States Enrichment Corporation's privatization (July 28, 1998) per USEC Privatization Act (Public Law 104-134, Sec 3109, paragraph (a)(3))."[9]

The U.S. Department of Energy "is committed to exploring the safe, beneficial use of depleted uranium and other materials resulting from conversion of depleted UF6 (e.g., fluorine and empty carbon steel cylinders) for the purposes of resource conservation and cost savings compared with disposal. Accordingly, a Depleted Uranium Uses Research and Development Program has been initiated. This program will explore the risks and benefits of several depleted uranium uses, including uses as a radiation shielding material, a catalyst, and a semi-conductor material in electronic devices."

Health Studies

While the government and the Department of Defense continues to deny DU poses health risks, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest the contrary.

Studies done by The Uranium Medical Research Center in Afghanistan are showing very high levels of "non-depleted" uranium in people, and bomb craters, there.[10]

Out of the 700,000 US veterans of the first Gulf War more than 240,000 are on permanent medical disability and 11,000 are now dead! [11]

A special investigation by Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News has found four of nine soldiers of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard returning from Iraq tested positive for depleted uranium contamination. They are the first confirmed cases of inhaled depleted uranium exposure from the current Iraq conflict. After repeatedly being denied testing for depleted uranium from Army doctors, the soldiers contacted The News who paid to have them tested as part of their investigation.[12]

An April 14, 2007 study by researchers at the University of Southern Maine concluded that "exposure to particulate DU may pose a significant genotoxic risk (risk of genetic mutation) and could possibly result in lung cancer."[13]

In a paper to be published in the 2007 issue of the scientific journal Science of the Total Environment, a team led by Professor Randall Parrish of Leicester University found high concentrations of DU particles in soil, stream sediments and household dust in the vicinity of the site of a DU weapons factory in Colonie New York, 23 years after the plant closed, despite massive clean up efforts by the US Army corps of engineers. The team also found that traces of DU contamination still remain in the urine of former workers and neighbors of the plant.[14]

There is also no shortage of personal anecdotal evidence of personal trauma associated with DU. [15]

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all is the sheer number of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts suffering physical ailments. In an April 12, 2007 article, Robert C. Koehler examines the issue:

We know about the VA scandal, the great betrayal, but what almost no one talks about are the numbers. According to Veterans Administration figures from last November, 205,000 GIs who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, a third of the total, have sought medical care, for such problems as malignant tumors (1,584), endocrinal and metabolic diseases (36,409), nervous system diseases (61,524), digestive system diseases (63,002), musculoskeletal diseases (87,590), and mental disorders (73,157), among many other conditions. One of the largest categories is "ill defined," a.k.a. mystery conditions (67,743). In comparison, a relatively small number (35,765) have sought VA care for injuries.[16]

Often lumped together under the convenient "catch all" heading of Gulf War Syndrome, it is highly likely that at least some of these illnesses are due to DU exposure. As the effects of DU contamination take up to ten years to manifest themselves, it is also likely the number of veterans requiring medical care will be higher than that from previous conflicts.



  1. Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, "What is Depleted Uranium?", accessed December 2007.
  2. International Coalition to Ban Depleted Uranium, "Uranium Weapons Summary: A concise guide to uranium weapons, the science and their legal status", November 22, 2007.
  3. SPI SUpplies, "SPI-Chem™ Depleted Uranium Products", SPI, accessed December 2007.
  4. "Gulf War Veterans and Depleted Uranium", Hague Peace Conference, May 1999. (To (You can view Bertell interviewed on Youtube here).
  5. Naomi H. Harley, Ernest C. Foulkes, Lee H. Hilborne, Arlene Hudson and C. Ross Anthony, A Review of the Scientific Literature As it Pertains to Gulf War Illness, RAND, 1999.

Iliya Pesic,"Depleted Uranium: Ethics of the Silver Bullet" Santa Clara University.

"Depleted Uranium Munitions: Nuclear waste as a Weapon", Military Toxics Project, June, 2003.

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