Laka and depleted uraniumBesides nuclear energy Laka has developed much expertise in the field of depleted uranium (DU). This nuclear waste product is used in numerous civilian and military products, particularly in counterweights and antitank shells respectively. In the nineties Laka played an important role in the discussions about the plane crash with the El Al cargo-Boeing in Amsterdam Southeast (4 October 1992) and the presence of the DU counterweights in this plane.
Laka has published in many newspapers and magazines or was involved in publications on the civilian or military use of DU in the Netherlands or abroad. Also has been cooperated with numerous book projects, research projects, tv documentaries and conferences. Laka published investigative reports on the consequences of the plane crash in Amsterdam Southeast. It writes regularly articles and other publications on the use of DU in weapon systems and the health risks for local citizens and soldiers. Laka is seen worldwide as one of the most important information sources on DU.
What is depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium (DU) is a by-product of the enrichment process of 'natural uranium'. Natural uranium is won from uranium ore (see also the part on the nuclear chain). Natural uranium consists of 0.7% fissionable uranium, while most types of nuclear power stations need enriched uranium that contains a few percent of fissionable uranium. During the enrichment process besides enriched uranium also 'depleted' uranium is produced, a product at which the content fissionable uranium has been decreased to only 0.2 or 0.3 per cent.
So the term 'depleted' doesn't mean that it contains a small amount of uranium or that it shouldn't be radioactive. It only has reference to the percentage of fissionable uranium-235. Just like natural uranium DU consists for the greater part of non-fissionable uranium-238. Especially the five big nuclear weapons states United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France have huge amounts of DU. The high enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons contains 90 per cent fissionable uranium. The production of this high enriched uranium is therefore accompanied by the production of large amounts of DU.
DU is not always considered nuclear waste. If the price of natural uranium is high, it can be economically attractive to re-enrich DU to natural uranium that consequently is used again as a raw material for further enrichment. To save high storage costs, DU (just like lead and cadmium it made part of the heavy metals) is used in all kind of branches of the civil and military industry. DU is a silver-white metal with special properties. The density is around one and a half times bigger than lead. In opposite to other heavy metals DU has a low burning temperature. In finely divided presence it can be ignited spontaneously at room temperature.
A well-known civil application of DU is the use as a counterweight in planes. At the 1992 Amsterdam plane crash of an El Al cargo-Boeing 747 around 152 kg of DU was lost. Possibly it has been burnt in the sea of flames. In the military industry DU is especially applied in antitank shells and in the armour of tanks or other armoured vehicles.
The application in counterweights and munitions is an alternative for the use of tungsten, which has a density almost equal to DU metal. Tungsten, however, is more expensive than DU. The nuclear industry wants to get rid of DU to save storage costs. The US Army and arms industry started with the design and development of antitank shells with a core of DU in the 1960s. In the 80s this technology outstripped the tungsten technology.
From a military strategic point of view the impact of DU shells is much bigger than the tungsten ones. During the 1991 Gulf War the US Army, and the British Army to a lesser extent, used 315 metric tonnes of DU against the Iraqi armoured divisions. After this war more and more Iraqi citizens and Gulf War veterans became ill. Besides other possible causes the use of DU is considered as one of the greatest culprits.
In 1999 DU was also used by NATO in the war against former Yugoslavia (especially in Kosovo), but also already in 1994 and 1995 in Bosnia, and again in the 2003 Iraq war by the US Army and the British Army.
In 2004 the British stopped the production of DU antitank shells, because the Germans succeeded to produce tungsten antitank shells that appeared to be more effective that the DU ones.
As long as DU shell remains intact it isn't really harmful, except when it is held for a longer time or when oxidation takes place a the surface. Besides alpha radiation from uranium-238 there has to be also taken into account the bèta radiation and gamma radiation from the decay products of uranium-238: thorium-234 and especially the bèta radiation of protactinium-234.
The most risky appearance of DU is in the form of dust particles. When a DU antitank projectile hits a target a cloud of dust saturated with tiny particles of uranium oxides is formed. Most of these particles are hardly soluble. If these particles are inhaled they stay in the lungs for many years, from which lung cancer can be developed in the longer term. Gradually they migrate to other parts of the body, at which they also can damage other organs or tissues, like the kidneys or the brain. Finally the DU end up in the bone, by which the bone marrow and consequently the immune system is damaged. Alpha radiation has only a short reach, but in the body the reach of these very energy rich alpha particle is sufficient to harm body cells and tissues.
'Experts' often compares DU with the uranium minerals that is present around us in very tiny amounts, in the air, water, soil and in the human body. Such a comparison is not right, because the uranium around us, present by nature doesn't accumulate in the body, while this is just what happened with DU oxides. There are no natural analogues of DU oxides in nature. The use of DU, for instance on the battlefield poses serious risks for the local population as well as for the soldiers.
At the publication section you will find a lot more information on depleted uranium