What is Depleted Uranium?

The misnamed 'Depleted' Uranium is left after enriched uranium is separated from natural uranium in order to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. During this process, the fissionable isotope Uranium 235 is separated from uranium.  The remaining uranium, which is 99.8% uranium 238 is misleadingly called 'depleted uranium'.  While the term 'depleted' implies it isn't particularly dangerous, in fact, this waste product of the nuclear industry is 'conveniently' disposed of by producing deadly weapons.

Depleted uranium is chemically toxic.  It is an extremely dense, hard metal, and can cause chemical poisoning to the body in the same way as can lead or any other heavy metal. However, depleted uranium is also radiologically hazardous, as it spontaneously burns on impact, creating tiny aerosolised glass particles which are small enough to be inhaled.  These uranium oxide particles emit all types of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma, and can be carried in the air over long distances. Depleted uranium has a half life of 4.5 billion years, and the presence of depleted uranium ceramic aerosols can pose a long term threat to human health and the environment.

In the 1950's the United States Department of Defense became interested in using depleted uranium metal in weapons because of its extremely dense, pyrophoric qualities and because it was cheap and available in huge quantities.  It is now given practically free of charge to the military and arms manufacturers and is used both as tank armour, and in armour-piercing shells known as depleted uranium penetrators.  Over 15 countries are known to have depleted uranium weapons in their militaray arsenals - UK, US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq and Taiwan - with depleted uranium rapidly spreading to other countries.  Depleted uranium was first used on a large scale in military combat during the 1991 Gulf War, and has since been used in Bosnia in 1995, and again in the Balkans war of 1999.

A sub-commission of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed a 'rapporteur' to investigate the use of depleted uranium weapons among other types of weapons, after passing a resolution which categorised depleted uranium weapons alongside such as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, napalm, and cluster bombs as a 'weapon of indiscriminate effect'.

Depleted uranium is also used in civilian products.  For example, it is used as ballast in aeroplanes (having disastrous consequences in 1992 when an El-Al jet crashed into flats near Amsterdam - depleted uranium was also involved in the recent Stansted Korean Air crash - see CADU News issue 3 for full report).  It is also used in some hospital equipment.  The alarming Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) objective which will allow the 'recycling' of low-level radioactive waste in to consumer goods has also raised concerns that depleted uranium may be used in this way.

Making weapons and other items out of the waste products of the nuclear business is a very 'convenient', very cheap, but potentially deathly way to get rid of the nuclear waste stockpiles