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Depleted Uranium FAQ
Robin Rowland, CBC News Online

1. What is depleted uranium?

Depleted uranium is still uranium. There are three types of uranium, U238, U234 and U235. Uranium 234 and 235 are fissionable material, the kind used in bombs. Depleted uranium is what is left over when the U234 and U235 are removed. The remaining U238 is still radioactive.

2.Why is it used in weapons?

A DU round is made from the leftover U238. The killing punch comes from the solid depleted uranium metal rod in the shell. A 120-mm tank round contains about 4,000 grams or 10 pounds of solid DU. A DU rod is very dense - about 1.7 times as dense as lead.

3. Has DU been used in combat?

In the Gulf War, the U.S. fired as many as a million DU rounds, leaving a battlefield littered with 1,400 wrecked radioactive Iraqi tanks.

During the 78-day Kosovo War in 1999, the U.S. fired 31,000 rounds of DU at Yugoslav armoured vehicles and tanks. There are reports that the U.S. fired 10,800 DU rounds during combat in Bosnia during the air campaign in 1994 and 1995.

 

 
Depleted uranium shell
Depleted uranium shell
4. What happens when a shell explodes?

At high speed, DU slices through tank armour like a hot knife through butter, triggering the explosive content and creating a fire hot enough to melt aluminum. The depleted uranium also burns on impact, creating flying bits and dust that are toxic and radioactive with a half-life of 4.2 billion years.

5. How dangerous is depleted uranium?

Most scientists say the level of radioactivity in depleted uranium is low, lower than naturally occurring uranium in the environment.

However, DU can be dangerous once it has been used on a battlefield. Then DU can be considered both a chemical and toxic waste hazard, and a radiation hazard.

If a chemical form of DU that is soluble in water is present, then the DU can be either absorbed by breathing or by ingestion. That could cause heavy metal chemical toxic effects in the kidneys.

If the areas are contaminated by uranium oxide, then the hazard comes from inhaling the dust. The dust could be deposited in the lungs and could, over a long period, be a cause of lung cancer.

Most scientists say that large exposures would be needed to cause a significant increase in the risk.

Military authorities at the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence say depleted uranium does not pose a significant danger.

As for Canada, Brig.-Gen. David Jerkowski told CBC News in 1999 that, "Our soldiers are not at risk. There are other risks that are much greater than depleted uranium: there are many, many more threats out there: landmines, diseases, reptiles. It depends on where we work in the world, and there are many greater risks than that."

In Canada, Britain and the United States, veterans' groups have disagreed, saying that what was called Gulf War Syndrome and the recent appearance of what is being called Balkan Syndrome could be the result of exposure to depleted uranium.

6. Are governments reluctant to investigate the problem?

Military planners originally said that because the risk was so low, investigating depleted uranium was not worth the cost. A full scientific study would require screening all soldiers who had served in a combat zone where DU was used over a long period of time. To be scientifically valid the study would also have to track an equally large group that had not been exposed

Now as more veterans groups put pressure on governments, investigations are beginning.

 

7. What is happening now?

There has been controversy over the use of depleted uranium since the Gulf War. Recent reports of deaths and illness among NATO troops who served in Kosovo as peacekeepers have heightened the dispute over the effects of depleted uranium.

  • Italy began pressing NATO for an investigation of depleted uranium and for a moratorium on the use of DU weapons after at least six Italian soldiers who had served in the Balkans died of leukemia.

  • The Belgian Defence ministry says 1,600 soldiers have complained about headaches, trouble sleeping and problems concentrating. Nine soldiers have been diagnosed with lung, skin and blood or brain cancer. Five have died.

  • The French National Assembly has started a parliamentary investigation into Gulf War and Balkan Syndrome. There are reports that five French soldiers who served in the Balkans now have leukemia.

  • The Netherlands has reported several cases of leukemia among its troops.

  • Spain has reported eight cases of cancer.

  • Portugal has reported one death.

  • Portugal, Norway and Greece have begun a mass screening of soldiers who served in the Balkans.

  • Germany, Italy, Belgium and Portugal are demanding that NATO begin a full investigation of Balkan Syndrome and possible connections to depleted uranium.

  • The United States has warned against what it calls "hysteria." "As far as I have been told there is no scientific evidence that would link to a health hazard," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters.
    Defense Secretary William Cohen said: "We have found no scientific link between depleted uranium and leukemia as some have alleged." At a Pentagon briefing, Cohen said, "I suppose if there were any deficiency to be found it would be in [the] failure to pick up fragments of destroyed vehicles or tanks in which the depleted uranium projectiles were used." "But beyond that I think adequate warnings were given and there is a very low risk of coming into contact with this provided there is sufficient protection taken."

  • The World Health Organization says studies in Kosovo show no rise in the rates of leukemia among the Albanian population in the province.

  • Russia has reported no evidence of leukemia among its troops that have served in Kosovo.


 

 

 

 
External links (will open in a new window)


Depleted Uranium


Activist

Environmental Ruin in Iraq
Page on environmental problems in Iraq from the Iraq Action Coalition, an activist group, with links to information on depleted uraniuim use in the Gulf War.
WISE Uranium Project - Home Page
European site on various uses of uranium, includling the military use.
Current Issues - Depleted Uranium
Bibliography and links for military use of depleted uranium
Depleted Uranium Weapons Threatens Environment in Kosovo Region
Press release from the Sierra Club of Canada criticizing use of depleted uranium in the Kosovo war.
Depleted Uranium – commercial dross or military gold ?
Page of information on depleted uranium from the site created by the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Depleted Uranium
Page of links on depleted uranium from the US-based Rural Alliance for Nucleaer Accountability
Metal of Dishonour
Page from an activist organization, The International Action Centre, promoting a book on depleted uranium called Metal of Dishonour
Government
UNHCR: Human Rights and Toxics:
Copy of a statement on depleted uranium from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as posted on the activist Human Rights Interactive Page.
Depleted Uranium Hexafluoride Management Program
U.S. government site covering depleted uranium management
US Office of Nuclear Energy Science & Technology
U.S. Dept. of Energy
Depleted Uranium Work
List of research projects on depleted uranium at Los Alamos National Laboratory
Depleted Uranium Disassembly Facility
Page from the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Grounds on disassembly of depleted uranium weapons.
NRPB Background Information on Depleted Uranium
British page advising people working in Kosovo to beware vehicles hit by depleted uranium rounds.
British Ministry of Defense policy statement on testing of veterans for depleted uranium exposure






From The National:
Silver Bullet: Depleted Uranium
read on>

January 4, 2001
Investigation into 'Balkan Syndrome' widens read on>

February 7, 2000
Military will examine depleted uranium tests read on>

September 22, 1999
Waters off Halifax conceal radioactive shell casings read on>

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Veterans misled about depleted uranium poisoning, say experts
Last Updated: Tue Nov 14 17:23:27 2000

MANCHESTER, U.K. - Canada's veterans who think they were poisoned in the 1991 Gulf War and in the Balkans can't trust the government when it says they're fine, said scientists at an international conference.

 

Many veterans think they are being made sick by their exposure to depleted uranium, a nuclear waste product found in some weapons used by NATO countries.

The Department of National Defence says tests it performed show no contamination.

But when CBC showed the test results to scientists at the International Conference against Depleted Uranium in Manchester, U.K. last week, they all said the testing was inaccurate and the results are useless.

"They've not looked with the right instrumentation," said Dr. Malcolm Hooper, an adviser to Britain's Gulf War veterans. "They've not reported accurately their own results and they've used the wrong paradigm to interpret the data."

All of which is to say that the tests done on 85 urine samples – which DND says show the soldiers had less uranium in their systems than people in the general population have – are wrong from start to end.

The labs doing the testing weren't properly equipped to detect depleted uranium at all, said Hooper. Whole uranium occurs in the body naturally, and is easier to detect than depleted uranium.

"They're incompetent tests," said Rosalie Bell, a Canadian epidemiologist. "Our military men deserve better than that."

Dr. Chris Busby, another epidemiologist from Wales, says the tests and their conclusions are being "economical with the truth."

But that doesn't surprise Hooper, who says many governments are hoping to avoid the costs of providing compensation packages to people poisoned by depleted uranium.

 

Written by CBC News Online staff

 


Kelly Ryan reports for CBC Radio


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