New Internationalist

Depleted Uranium – the facts

Issue 406

Depleted uranium’s uses

  • Depleted Uranium (DU) is nuclear waste left over after enrichment activities for the nuclear weapons and nuclear power industries. Each kilo of reactor-ready enriched uranium produced leaves behind seven kilos of DU.
  • DU is chemically toxic and radioactive. It is used in armour-piercing munitions because of its very high density – 1.7 times that of lead. DU is also used as armour in battle tanks, ballast in Tomahawk cruise missiles and in small amounts in some types of landmines.
  • The most common non-military use of DU outside of the nuclear energy industry is as ballast in the keels of yachts and as counterweights in forklift trucks. Its use as counterweights in aircraft is falling out of favour – after high-profile health scares following air crashes, such as the Bijlmer air disaster on the outskirts of Amsterdam in 1992 and the 1999 Korean Air crash at Stansted in Britain.
  • Medical applications include radiation shielding for radiography devices. Until the 1970s it was used in dental porcelain.



Who owns DU weapons and who has used them?

At least 18 countries are thought to have weapon systems with DU in their arsenals. These include: UK, US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Oman, 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.

Governments have often initially denied using DU because of public health concerns. Estimates of DU munitions expended run to 280 tonnes in the Gulf War of 1991 by US and UK forces; and 14 tonnes in the Balkans in the latter half of the 1990s by NATO. There was further large-scale use in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but there is little data on this.

It is suspected that the US also used DU in Afghanistan in 2001, although both the US and UK governments have denied using it there. Leaked US transport documents suggest that US forces in Afghanistan had DU weapons,3 and the use of A10 ‘Tankbuster’ aircraft in the country indicates that 30mm DU ammunition continues to be used.

DU arsenals (selected countries)^4^

Britain
The development of the 120mm ‘CHARM 1’ and ‘CHARM 3’ tank ammunition together cost $75 million. The UK also used 20mm shells as part of the US-built Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System until the manufacturer Raytheon stopped producing them after the US Navy cancelled its contract with them.

India
A declassified UK Ministry of Defence paper on DU suggests that India was developing DU weapons in the early 1990s. It is now thought that they are manufacturing 125mm 3BM32 shells under licence from Russia.

Israel
Palestinians allege that Israel has been using ammunition containing DU in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has tanks capable of firing DU rounds, and has received limited exports of US-made DU ammunition.

Kuwait
Kuwait was offered ‘major non-NATO ally’ status by the US in 2004 which allows it to use US Foreign Assistance funds to purchase DU penetrators. Kuwait is thought to have bought 11,336 rounds of 120mm ammunition from US manufacturer Alliant Techsystems.

Pakistan
The Pakistani National Development Complex (NDC) is developing a 125mm armour-piercing projectile with a DU long-rod penetrator for use with T-80UD tanks. The Pakistani Army already possess 105mm DU tank ammunition.

Russia
General Export for Defence manufacture 125mm 3BM32 tank ammunition, containing a DU penetrator. They have also marketed a tank round encased in a DU liner for ‘enhanced killing power’.

Turkey
Turkey bought 22,920 120 mm M833 and 85,451 105mm M774 APFSDS-T DU penetrators from the US in the early 1990s.

United States
The US is by far the largest user of DU weapons. Over the past decade they have bought more than 16 million DU shells and bullets from Alliant Techsystems alone.

China
China has manufactured and deployed a 125mm DU penetrator for use in its tanks.



Who profits?

DU is expensive and hazardous to store, so it is provided at a very low cost to arms manufacturers. They make handsome profits. A single A10 30mm cannon shell retails at $20. Theoretically an A10’s Gatling gun could fire $80,000 worth in 60 seconds (in practice they can only fire for a few seconds at a time).

Arms manufacturer Alliant Techsystems has produced more than 15 million 30mm PGU-14 shells for the US Air Force and over a million 120mm M829 rounds for the US Army. They also produce small-calibre rounds (25mm, 30mm) for guns on US aircraft and fighting vehicles.

In February 2006, the US Army placed an order for $38 million of M829 rounds, bringing the total order from Alliant Techsystems to $77 million for that fiscal year.

Three US companies produce large-calibre DU tank rounds: Alliant Techsystems (120mm shells), Day & Zimmerman/American Ordnance (120mm shells) and the former Primex Technologies, now General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (105mm and 120mm shells). Five other companies – located in France, India, Serbia, the former Soviet Union, and Pakistan – also produce large-calibre tank rounds. China is suspected of having speciality metal machining plants capable of manufacturing penetrators.



Why is DU a problem?

The DU oxide dust produced when DU munitions burn is readily inhaled into and retained by the lungs. From the lungs uranium compounds are deposited in the lymph nodes, bones, brain and testes. The dust can travel many kilometres when re-suspended, as is likely in arid climates.

When penetrators miss their targets (typical of aircraft strikes) they can remain partially intact. In the Balkans more than 31,000 30mm penetrators were fired. UNEP reported that these corroding penetrators were likely to contaminate groundwater and drinking water supplies and should be removed.5

Health effects: radioactivity

The chief radiological hazard from DU is alpha radiation. However, as DU particles decay, both beta and gamma radiation are released, increasing the radiation burden further. Chromosome damage from internalized alpha particles is about 100 times greater than that caused by an equivalent amount of other radiation.

In one day, one microgram (one millionth of a gram) of DU can release 107,000 alpha particles. Each particle is charged with more than four million electron volts of energy; this goes directly into whichever organ or tissue it is lodged in. It only requires 6 to 10 electron volts to break a DNA strand in a cell.6

Internal alpha radiation also has other effects.7 The Bystander Effect – cells adjacent to those struck by alpha particles also exhibit signs of radiation damage. Genomic Instability – the descendants of radiation-damaged cells show increased rates of mutations, the precursor to cancer growth.

Ionizing radiation is a carcinogen at every dose-level; there is no threshold dose and any alpha particle can cause irreparable genetic damage.

Health effects: chemical toxicity

DU is a toxic heavy metal. Cellular and animal studies have shown that uranium is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, immunotoxin, mutagen (agent which changes the genetic information of an organism), carcinogen and teratogen (agent causing malformations of the embryo or foetus).

  • In hamsters, uranium has been shown to bind to DNA strands, where it causes damage through the generation of free radicals.8
  • In rats, it has been shown to damage white blood cells irreparably and alter gene expression.9
  • Two other studies found that uranium can interfere with DNA-binding proteins10 and that particles of uranium have a cancer-causing effect on human lung cells.11

Also DU’s toxicity and radioactivity may combine to create a synergistic effect,12 amplifying each other, thereby increasing the damage caused to cells – resulting in tumours or a range of whole-body symptoms.

DU in the environment

Tests by the US Army suggest that between 18% and 70% of a penetrator dart burns into small particles following a hard impact – this equates to between 900 and 3,400 grams of dust for a 120mm penetrator. Between 50% and 90% of these particles were found to be of respirable size and stayed airborne for many hours after they were produced.13

Research published earlier this year by Leicester University found that, in the 1960s and 1970s, uranium particles from a foundry in Colonie, near New York, had travelled more than six kilometres from source and survived for 25 years. This indicates that people returning to areas contaminated by DU following conflicts will continue to be at risk of inhalation exposure for many years.14



The DU stockpile

  • All countries with uranium enrichment programmes have large stockpiles of waste DU.
  • The industry-funded World Nuclear Association estimated global DU stocks at more than 1.3 million tonnes in 2001 and claims this is growing by around 50,000 tonnes a year.2
  • The manufacturing and use of DU weapons has done little to reduce the volume of these wastes.

Facts researched by Doug Weir of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.



All unreferenced material has been sourced from the database of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons www.bandepleteduranium.org

  1. World Information Service on Energy: www.wise-uranium.org/eddat.html
  2. Bernard Del Frari, ‘The Global Nuclear Fuel Market Supply and Demand 2001-2020’, www.world-nuclear.org/sym/2001/delfrari.htm
  3. Leaked US Army transport letter: www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/113.html
  4. Jane’s information group www.janes.com; Jane’s Ammunition Handbooks 2004 and 2005-06; Dan Fahey, ‘Science or Science Fiction? Facts, Myths and Propaganda In the Debate Over Depleted Uranium Weapons’, www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/pdf/dumyths.pdf
  5. ‘United Nations Environment Programme Recommends Precautionary Action Regarding Depleted Uranium In Kosovo’, UNEP press release, March 2001, http://tinyurl.com/26pfck
  6. R Bertell, ‘Depleted Uranium: All the Questions About DU and Gulf War Syndrome Are Not Yet Answered’, in International Journal of Health Services, Volume 36, Number 3, 2006.
  7. Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE), Final Report, www.cerrie.org, sponsored by the UK Dept of Health and DEFRA.
  8. Stearns et al, ‘Uranyl acetate induces hprt mutations and uranium-DNA adducts in Chinese hamster ovaries’, in Mutagenesis, 2005.
  9. I Dublineau et al, ‘Short-term effects of depleted uranium on immune status in rat intestine’, in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, September 2006.
  10. Hartsock et al, ‘Uranyl Acetate as a Direct Inhibitor of DNA-Binding Proteins’, in Chemical Research in Toxicology, Volume 20, Number 5, 2007.
  11. Wise et al, ‘Particulate Depleted Uranium is Cytotoxic and Clastogenic to Human Lung Cells’, in Chemical Research in Toxicology, 20 (5), 2007.
  12. Presentation at European Parliament 19 July 2005 by Dr Keith Baverstock, formerly of the WHO. Full text: www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/24.html
  13. ‘Summation of ARDEC Test Data Pertaining to the Oxidation of Depleted Uranium During Battlefield Conditions’, US Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC), 8 March 1991; Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium use in the US Army; US Army Environmental Policy Institute, June 1995.
  14. Lloyd Parrish, ‘Several Tonnes of Uranium and a Town called Colonie’, 2007, http://tinyurl.com/2v7g6s

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