Depleted Uranium is a radioactive and toxic killer. It is highly prized by the military and was used extensively in both Gulf Wars against Iraq. It is the ‘dirty bomb’ of choice for both the US and Britain. As a weapon, it is a relatively new choice so there is no international treaty in place to ban it.
Depleted Uranium (DU) is what is left over when most of the highly radioactive types (isotopes) of uranium are removed for use as nuclear weapons or fuel. Because of its high density, DU is used in armour-piercing munitions and armoured protection for tanks and is also used in to build stabilisers in airplanes and boats. Like uranium, lead and tungsten, DU has a chemical toxicity can cause health problems in high doses (though outside the body cannot cause harm.) There are two types of DU: clean and dirty. Clean DU is a by-product of Uranium-235 from the production of fuel or weapons. Dirty DU is the detritus of reprocessed reactor fuel. It is called dirty because it is likely to have been contaminated with plutonium.
Uranium was discovered in 1789 by Martin Klaproth, a German chemist, in the mineral called pitchblende. It was named after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered eight years earlier. Uranium was apparently formed in supernovae over 6 billion years ago (the Earth itself is a mere 4 billion years old). While it is not common in the solar system, its radioactive decay provides the main source of heat inside the earth. It is also known to be the cause of planetary wide phenomena such as convection and continental drift.
Australia is the leading producer of uranium with approximately 30 percent of the world’s resources. The other major exporting countries are Canada, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Namibia, Brazil and the USA. Uranium averages about 2.8 parts per million of the earth's crust. Traces of it occur almost everywhere. It is more abundant than gold, silver or mercury, about the same as tin and slightly less abundant than lead. It was first discovered in Australia in the 1890s but it was not until seventy years later that Australia began to emerge as a potential major source of uranium for the world's nuclear electricity production. Uranium is sold only to countries which are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and so the main export markets are the US, the EU and Japan. John Howard's government is currently negotiating to sell uranium to India despite it not being a signatory to the NNPT.
Depleted uranium was first stored in stockpiles after the Second World War when the US and the USSR were getting serious about nuclear production. In the 1970s, the Russians had developed new armour plating for tanks which western weapons could not penetrate. The Americans decided DU would be just the solution to the problem. Not only was it effective, but thanks to the stockpile, it was cheap and readily available. Its first use in war was probably the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict. It was used extensively in the 1991 Gulf War and it was at this time that the health consequences of DU were becoming apparent.
Inside the human body, it forms into soluble uranium salts. They are excreted in urine but some of it accumulates in the lungs, bones and tissues. It can cause kidney damage. Scientists believe it is a contributing factor in Gulf War Syndrome whose symptoms include immune order deficiencies, chronic fatigue and birth defects. The British medical journal, the Lancet, has reported an eightfold increase in the death rate of Iraqi children since 1993 (though mustard gas might also be a culprit). The UN Human Rights Commission passed motions in 1996 and 1997 to urge all countries to stop producing weapons of mass destruction. DU weaponry was on the list.
The US position is to continue to use DU where necessary. A factsheet from the US “Deployment Health Support Directorate” states that the health risks from DU are due to its properties as a heavy metal and not due to its ‘low’ radioactivity. Its official position is that "no human cancer of any type has ever been seen as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium".
Professor Doug Rokke disagrees. He is the ex-director of the Pentagon's depleted uranium project and he now calls for the banning of DU. He told the Guardian "a nation's military personnel cannot wilfully contaminate any other nation, cause harm to persons and the environment and then ignore the consequences of their actions". He called it a crime against humanity and said the US and the UK should recognise the immoral consequences of their actions and assume responsibility for medical care and thorough environmental remediation. "We can't just use munitions which leave a toxic wasteland behind them and kill indiscriminately," he said. “It is equivalent to a war crime.”