Depleted-uranium munitions and fourth-generation nuclear weapons
The reasons why DU weapons have been developed and used is still a puzzle: Prominent international lawyers claim that DU weapons are illegal, metallurgists say that one can develop tungsten alloys that are at least as good if not better and cheaper that uranium alloys, and the first use of DU weapons during the 1991 Gulf War broke a 46 years long taboo against the intentional use or induction of radioactivity in combat.
The paper that André Gsponer, Jean-Pierre, and Bruno Vitale contributed to the Fourth International Conference of the Yugoslav Nuclear Society, Belgrade, Sep.30 - Oct.4, 2002, is therefore of great interest since it sheds a new light on the DU issue in relation to the evolution of modern warfare.
This paper reports on a surprising discovery: While the radioactivity of DU is low, its large scale use (as in Iraq and former Yugoslavia) creates a residual radioactive environment that can be compared to the use of a large number of new type (so-called "fourth-generation") nuclear weapons which are currently under development worldwide (see www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/09/06/1031115939075.html , http://nuketesting.enviroweb.org/hew/News/AnnounceReviews.html ). These weapons would produce much less radioactivity than existing types of nuclear weapons, so that many of them could be used until they produce a total radioactive burden comparable to the expenditure of large amounts of DU.
More precisely, quoting from the abstract of the paper: "... the radiological burden due to the battlefield use of circa 400 tons of DU munitions in Iraq (and of about 40 tons in Yugoslavia) is comparable to that arising from the hypothetical battlefield use of more than 600 kt (respectively 60 kt) of high-explosive equivalent pure-fusion fourth-generation nuclear weapons."
By comparison, the explosive yield of the Hiroshima bomb was about 12 to 15 kt. However, what is even more striking, is that "in order to match the radiological burden due to the combat use of DU in these countries, one could have hypothetically used several thousands precision guided delivery systems, each carrying a fourth-generation nuclear warhead with a yield in range of one to hundred TONS of high-explosive equivalent, instead of the few tens or hundreds of KILOGRAMS of high-explosives currently delivered by these systems"
Since the report is a long technical paper written by physicists for other physicists, most readers may not want to download it except for reading the introduction and the conclusion. It is therefore worthwhile to quote a paragraph from the extended abstract:
"From a strategic perspective, the breaking of the taboo against the intentional battlefield use of radioactive materials, which lasted from 1945 to 1991, can therefore be interpreted as a preparation for the progressive introduction of fourth-generation nuclear weapons whose battlefield use will cause a low (but non-negligible) residual radioactive environment. It can therefore be argued that besides its military function, the use of depleted-uranium in Iraq and Yugoslavia may have served a political purpose: to soften the opposition of the Western public opinion to the induction of radioactivity on the battlefield, and to get the World population accustomed to the combat use of depleted-uranium and fourth-generation nuclear weapons."
In summary, while the authors agree that the radioactivity of depleted uranium is low, their technical analysis gives a lot of weight to the common sense intuition that the battlefield use of DU munitions is a dangerous legal precedent, and therefore a major step towards the combat use of nuclear weapons.
Another paper written by André Gsponer, entitled Nanotechnology and fourth-generation nuclear weapons:, (available at http://www.acronym.org.uk/dd/dd67/67op1.htm) is of interest to anti-DU activists also, where he discusses DU and the political consequence of its use in recent war. "....the use of weapons producing a low level of radioactivity appears to be acceptable, both from a military point of view because such a level does not impair further military action, and from a political standpoint because most political leaders, and shapers of public opinion, did not object to the battlefield use of depleted uranium. These lessons imply a probable military perception of the need for new conventional or nuclear warheads, and a probable political acceptance of such warheads if they do not produce large amounts of residual radioactivity."
The paper also stresses the dangerous legal precedent established by use of DU in combat.
Prof. Andre A. Gsponer, ISRI, P.O. Box 30, CH-1211 GENEVA-12, Switzerland, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Page last updated: January 28, 2003