Depleted uranium

Depleted uranium or DU is a byproduct of nuclear energy generation and nuclear weapons manufacture for which other uses have been found.  Uranium is a dense, toxic metal.  DU is not as radioactive as natural uranium; it emits about 60% as much radiation as natural uranium.  Radiation is highly toxic.  It causes serious health problems like cancer and horrific birth defects.  Severe exposure can be fatal.

DU is also incredibly dense — 68% denser than lead — and its military uses include weapons designed to pierce armour.  Bullets, missiles, grenades, mines and cluster-bombs containing depleted uranium can penetrate almost anything — so-called ‘bunker-busters’.

US soldiers shelter from the dust churned up by a helicopter, June 2005 (image: www.chinook-helicopter.com)

US soldiers shelter from the dust churned up by a helicopter, June 2005 (image: www.chinook-helicopter.com)

Where DU weapons are used, the DU ignites and turns to powder.  This radioactive dust spreads over a wide area where it can be inhaled and contaminate water and food.

Affected areas remain radioactive for a very long time.  DU has a half-life of 4.468 billion years, which means it will be that long before it is half as radioactive as it is today.  So while radiation levels decline over time, it takes such a long time as to be, for all practical purposes, permanent.

Russia and the United States both use DU weapons and both have invaded Afghanistan in recent decades.

A manual written for German soldiers fighting in Afghanistan warns them of the dangers of DU in the environment, describing how the US has used DU there:

“During the Operation Enduring Freedom in support of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban Regime, US aircraft used, amongst others, armour-piercing incendiary munitions with a DU core. Because of its pyrophoric [flammable] character, when this type of munition is used against hard targets (e.g. tanks, cars) the uranium burns. During the combustion, toxic dusts can be deposited, particularly at and around the targets, which can then be re-suspended easily.”

Prof. Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire says DU munitions have been “used extensively for destroying underground facilities and caves” in Afghanistan.  He argues that “DU munitions must be considered weapons of mass destruction insofar as the consequences of their usage are indiscriminate.”

A 2005 study by the Canada’s Uranium Medical Research Centre found the uranium exposure of people living in the Afghan city of Jalalabad was between 16 and 80 times higher than the average UK resident.

In October 2010 the First Committee of the UN General Assembly called on users of depleted uranium to disclose to affected states the location and quantity of DU weapons used.  Australia abstained from voting on this non-binding resolution.

Australia is the world’s 3rd biggest producer of uranium, with 23% of the world’s reserves.  Over 90% of it ends up as depleted uranium.  Australia is not thought to possess or use DU weapons.