Depleted Uranium – Just a Matter of Time

Depleted Uranium Mortar

Depleted Uranium Mortar

What is depleted uranium and is it a danger to the environment?

Natural uranium consists of a mixture of three radioactive isotopes which are identified by the mass numbers 238U (99.27% by mass), 235U (0.72%) and 234U (0.0054%).

Its main use is for nuclear power plants.  However, the 235U isotope is preferred.  An enrichment process takes place to extract this given type.

The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched fraction contains three times less 235U than in its original state.(3)   It may also be contaminated in much the same way as blood is contaminated with HIV by using dirty needles.

In this case contaminated by using the same equipment used to reprocess  spent uranium fuel.  This contamination may include small amounts of plutonium, americium and neptunium and the fission product, technetium-99 (4)

These elements are not only highly radioactive, but highly poisonous as well.  The toxicity of plutonium is among the highest of any element known.(5)

Is there much waste from the use of nuclear fuels?

As only a small amount (235U) of the original uranium is required, typically a nuclear plant can churn out nearly 48 tons of waste each year(6)

Where is it stored?

There are two types: high level waste and low level waste.

The regulatory definition of high-level radioactive waste includes only irradiated fuel and the liquid and sludge from  reprocessing fuel to recover plutonium (including solids resulting from stabilization of reprocessing wastes).(7)

High level waste is very radioactive and so requires special shielding during handling and transport.

Since the only way radioactive waste finally becomes harmless is through decay (which for high-level wastes can take hundreds of thousands of years) the wastes must be stored and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection for the public for a very long time.(8)

It is generally accepted that the final waste will be disposed of in a deep geological repository.  Areas currently being evaluated for storage of nuclear waste are space, under the sea bed, and large stable geologic formations on land.  Long term storage on land seems to be the favorite of most countries, including the United States.(9)

Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation.

This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools.

Low-level waste is typically stored on-site by licensees, either until it has decayed away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash, or until amounts are large enough for shipment to a low-level waste disposal site in containers approved by the Department of Transportation.(10)

Some landfills are currently inactive due to severe waste-containment problems and radioactive leakage. Waste containers in near-surface landfills are prone to corrosion, particularly in moist climates. (11)

Under pressure from environmental groups, many nuclear companies have been ordered to clean up their sites.

However, this is can prove costly.

Costs for clearing  U.S. uranium-contaminated sites over the next three decades have been estimated at between $373 billion and $1.694 trillion.(12)

The U.K.’s nuclear waste clean-up program could cost more than £70bn, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.(13)

Why the concern about clean up operations?

How radiation gets to the body

How radiation gets into the body

When radioactive waste mixes with water, it is ferried through this water cycle.  Radionuclides in water are absorbed by surrounding vegetation and ingested by local marine and animal life.

Radiation can also be in the air and can get deposited on people, plants, animals, and soil.  People can inhale or ingest radionuclides in air, drinking water, or food.(14)

It could stay in a person for much longer than a lifetime depending on the half-life of the radiation. The half-life is the amount of time it takes for a radioactive material to decay to one half of its original amount. Some materials have half-lives of more than 1oo,000 years.(15)

Because it takes radioactive products hundreds of thousands of years  to decay, high-level waste and spent fuel must be handled and stored with care and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection for a very long time.(16)

What class of  waste is depleted uranium?

On Jan. 18, 2005, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that depleted uranium is a low level waste.

In March 18, 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted the Staff Requirements memorandum  recommending that the agency continue to consider depleted uranium as Class A low-level waste (that is the least hazardous category).(18)

So, if it’s classed as a low level waste, can it be recycled in other industries?

Yes, and it has been for many years, most notably the arms industry.

Depleted uranium has peaceful applications also, such as counterweights in aircraft, racing sailboat keels and as a material used in hospitals for shielding x-rays or gamma radiation from equipment used for radiation therapy.

UT0060364In the arms industry, depleted uranium is used in armor-piercing ammunition because it has a high density (1.7 times that of lead), and is also used for military armor to reduce the effect of other conventional munitions.

Due to the pyrophoric nature of uranium metal and the extreme temperatures generated on impact of depleted uranium ammunition on a hard target, it ignites and produces an aerosol of fine particles of uranium oxides if the temperature exceeds 600°C.

It is assumed that a large fraction (50 to 96%) of the aerosol consists of respirable particles that could enter the lower respiratory tract and cannot be expelled, these contain uranium.(19)

How long have these weapons been around?

The U.S. started research, development and experiments on the military application of depleted uranium in the 1950’s as a cheap method of disposing of its huge stockpile of  material resulting from the assimilation of nuclear arms.(20)

How much DU is around?

Depleted uranium is also stockpiled in the U.K., France, Germany, China, and other nations. (21)

In the United States: 700,000 metric tonnes are currently stored in cylinders at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth.

In the UK, NL: 38,000 metric tonnes

In France: 119,900 metric tonnes (23)

How much DU has been used in open practice?

Precise and up-to-date numbers are hard to come by.  However, the following table 1 shows known amounts of at least 386,100 kg have been used on testing grounds in recent years.

Table 1 – US Proving Grounds with DU Test Firing Ranges

Ethan Allen Firing Range
1969 – 1973

 

Lake City Ammunition Plant (Missouri)

 

China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center (California)

 

NM Institute of Mining & Technology (New Mexico)

 

Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico)

 

Jefferson Proving Ground (Indiana)

 

Aberdeen Proving Ground (Maryland)

 

Gunnery Ballistic Facility
High Explosive Test Area
1973 – 1978
at present

 

Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada)
since 1982

 

Total (known) amount DU fired

 

386,100 kg

4,500 kg
until 1985 3,500 kg
10 years 11,300 kg
since 1972
100,000 kg
1982 – 1988 69,000 kg
70,000 kg
100,000 kg
27,800 kg
River Nith estuary

The estuary of the River Nith, opening into Solway Firth south of Dumfries.

In the UK, the British Army fired/fires DU ammunition at their test sites near Eskmeals and Dundrennan.

In 2001, the British MoD acknowledged that about 6,000 120 mm shells have been fired into the Scottish Solway Firth, close to the village of Dundrennan since 1982 equating to more than 20 tonnes of depleted uranium. (24)

What about DU usage in wars?

In the 1991 war with Iraq, the United States fired 320 tonnes of depleted uranium munitions.  In the 2003 Iraq war they used as much as 2,000 tonnes.(25)

645 out of 2058 US tanks used in the Gulf were fitted with DU armor .(26)

In the former Yugoslav conflict,  Bosnia was hit by three tons of depleted uranium NATO shells in 1994-1995.

In the Afghanistan conflict it has been estimated between 500 – 600 tonnes have been used. (27) Table 2 shows its different types of use:

Table 2. Deployment of DU munitions

Afghanistan 25 and 30 mm shells, bunker busting bombs and missiles [GBU-28, 15,24,27,31 and 37, AGM-130C] F-15E, B-2, A-10, AC-130 Spooky, and Apache helicopter [AH-64], GBM-109 Tomahawk and AGM-86D CALCM cruise missiles 500-600

While the exact figures are hard to come by the available estimates do give the reader an understanding of the large amounts of DU being used.

Is DU exposure safe for civilians and those that handle it?

This is where it becomes difficult to gain a clear understanding especially when there is a conflict of interests involved. Bear in mind that in most cases munitions companies get DU free.  Nuclear companies are only too happy to off load their waste.  If DU was found to endanger life then governments would be liable, so there are rarely any government or industrial funded reports supporting its hazards.

Many studies that substantiate DU dangers are often discredited.

At the moment there is only very limited animal and human data on the radiological and chemical toxicities of DU, but there is much more abundant evidence from the exposure to natural uranium, particularly in terms of its chemical toxicity.

Reproductive toxicity of uranium in a recent Chinese study includes chromosome aberrations in spermatogonia, causing DNA alterations in the spermatocytes and strand breakage in sperm. (28)

Recent German studies on uranium miners describe changes of immune system.  Alterations of chromosomal and endocrine alterations are found in Namibian miners.  All studies are in general agreement regarding the toxic properties of uranium compounds for the human population.(29)

Gastrointestinal absorption of uranium isotopes is relatively low in the adult human organism but still presents a considerable biomedical hazard because of their long half-lives, nephrotoxicity, and retention in skeletal tissue.(30)

Studies have also provided conclusive evidence that uranium, as one of the toxic agents affecting renal tubules, was a major kidney poison in the category of tubular toxins, with action similar to mercury and chromium. (31)

What about DU?

Although the most characteristic response to DU exposure either short or long term is renal dysfunction, uranium is also localized within the central nervous system, testes, lymph nodes, and spleen, suggesting the potential for uranium to cause health problems at these sites.  Uranium-induced pathological changes in the testes and thyroid glands have been documented. (32)

Some studies also indicate that immune cells are also involved in DU toxicity.  Macrophages can actively internalize the uranium, with the subsequent occurrence of cell apoptosis suggesting a possible role for DU in the development of a cancer and autoimmune diseases.(33)

However, some studies have suggested (compared with other heavy metals) that DU is much less toxic to cells than mercury, whereas lead and vanadium have approximately the same toxicity as DU.(34)   (For more reading on uranium health studies)

So whose advice does the government follow?

The World Health Organization (WHO)?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), under most circumstances, use of DU will make a negligible contribution to the overall natural background levels of uranium in the environment. (35)

It states a recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report giving field measurements taken around selected impact sites in Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) which indicates contamination by DU in the environment was localized to a few tens of meters around impact sites.(36)

Contamination by DU dusts of local vegetation and water supplies was found to be extremely low.  Thus, the probability of significant exposure to local populations was considered to be very low.(37)

However, these claims of low level risk by WHO were challenged by one of its employers who conducted research into the issue.

A study by Dr Keith Baverstock and two other leading radiation scientists cautioned that children and adults could contract cancer after breathing in dust containing DU.

But the report was blocked from publication by the World Health Organization (WHO) which employed Dr Keith Baverstock as a senior radiation adviser.  He alleges that it was deliberately suppressed, though this is denied by WHO.

Blackstock presented his study to the Belgian Defence commitee in 2006.

Baverstock also believes that if the study had been published when it was completed in 2001, there would have been more pressure on the US and UK to limit their use of DU weapons in the continuing war, and to clean up after wards.

He stated  “Our study suggests that the widespread use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq could pose a unique health hazard to the civilian population.”

“There is increasing scientific evidence the radio activity and the chemical toxicity of DU could cause more damage to human cells than is assumed.”

While he was a member of staff, WHO refused to give him permission to publish the study.  Baverstock suspects that WHO was leaned on by a more powerful pro-nuclear UN body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).(38)

These claims, however, were dismissed as “totally unfounded” by WHO.  “The IAEA role was very minor,” said Dr Mike Repacholi, the WHO coordinator of radiation and environmental health in Geneva.  “The article was not approved for publication because parts of it did not reflect accurately what a WHO-convened group of international experts considered the best science in the area of depleted uranium,” he added.

Baverstock’s study pointed out that Iraq’s arid climate meant that tiny particles of DU were likely to be blown around and inhaled by civilians for years to come.  It warned that, when inside the body, their radiation and toxicity could trigger the growth of malignant tumors.

The study suggested that the low-level radiation from DU could harm cells adjacent to those that are directly irradiated, a phenomenon known as “the bystander effect”.  This undermines the stability of the body’s genetic system, and is thought by many scientists to be linked to cancers and possibly other illnesses.

In addition, the DU in Iraq, like that used in the Balkan conflict, could turn out to be contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive waste.  That would make it more radioactive and hence more dangerous, Baverstock argued.

“The radiation and the chemical toxicity of DU could also act together to create a ‘cocktail effect’ that further increases the risk of cancer.  These are all worrying possibilities that urgently require more investigation,” he said.

Following military use, DU will be distributed in the environment either as the metal in anything from whole armaments to fragments and shards, or as oxide particulates with diameters ranging from the order of microns to nanometers.  The dissolution of the metal into aqueous solution will be a slow process, leading to the contamination of groundwater and soils over a period of several hundred years.(39)

Is this significant?

Maybe if you live in Dundrennan.

The two firing ranges used by the MoD for DU munitions research are the Dundrennan Firing Range in Dumfries and Galloway, SW Scotland, and the Eskmeals Firing Range in Cumbria, NW England (Figure 1).  Soils and biological (plant and earthworm) material were sampled at these ranges during June-August 2005.(40)

The test program at the Dundrennan Firing Range began in 1982 and involved strength of design and firing accuracy trials for DU projectiles.  The DU shells were fired from fixed positions into soft, hessian target screens mounted in gantries along the cliff-top facing the Solway Firth.

The projectiles were intended to pass through the screens unhindered and continue out to sea before striking the water several kilometers offshore.  Sampling focused around the two firing points where most of the testing on the range occurred, known as Raeberry and Balig Guns.

MoD records indicate that from an approximate 1800 firings, 71 malfunctions (where DU shells broke up when fired) occurred during testing.

DU shells or shell fragments struck target gantries resulting in possible DU contamination of surrounding soil.  A control site (Raeberry Gun West) was selected on the basis that it was located upwind (prevailing wind direction is WSW to ENE) of the firing site and therefore should have received little or no DU contamination.

Upwind sites to the west of Raeberry Gun (sites West and Tank) showed no evidence of DU contamination, while sites I and J revealed that significant DU contamination was present both behind and on the downwind side of the firing position.

Of all the soils examined, the highest contamination observed was at the Waste Storage Area, where U concentrations exceeded 18000 mg kg-1.

Earthworms collected from Raeberry Gun soil samples also displayed isotope mass ratios strongly affected by DU  reflecting soil uranium concentration.

Furthermore, plants and earthworms collected from above and within contaminated soils, respectively, also had uranium isotopic signatures strongly influenced by DU, indicating that DU was indeed assimilated into biological tissues.(50)

This also raises the question of what is happening to the 1000’s of shells fired into the water?  The report at the beginning of this article highlighted evidence of munition erosion.  Is the same happening in the Solway Firth with implications for the estuary of the River Nith?

Estuaries provide habitats for a large number of organisms and support very high productivity.  Estuaries provide habitats for many fish nurseries, depending upon their locations in the world, such as salmon and sea trout.  Plankton are key primary producers in estuaries.(51)

Are people in nearby Dundrennan being affected?

The Dumfries and Galloway Health Board reported a cluster of childhood leukemia in its area as early as 1993.

In 2005, Green Party Members of the Scottish Parliament asked the Common Services Agency (CSA) of the NHS in Scotland for leukaemia data.  The request was refused because it was alleged that releasing it would allow patients to be identified.

In 2006, the Information Commissioner, and then the Court of Session, found that with appropriate safeguards to preserve patient confidentiality, there was no reason why the data should be kept secret.  They ordered its release.

In June, 2007, it was reported that the CSA was appealing to the House of Lords to overturn the decisions of the Information Commissioner and the Court of Session.

In the meantime, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published a paper by Scottish Cancer Registry officials.

It set out to examine the hypothesis that radioactive pollution in the sea is causing an excess risk of leukaemia.  Not surprisingly, they claim that risk near the sea is no greater than inland.

Formal analysis of cancer registration data provides no statistically significant evidence of an increased risk of childhood leukemia in the vicinity of the Solway Firth coastline of Dumfries and Galloway Health Board area.

On re-examination and interpretation, it was found by people unconnected to the government, that once the confounding influence of the Chernobyl accident is taken out there is a clear trend of higher risks near the sea. (52)

What about soldiers in conflict who are coming into contact with DU?

A study, “An Analysis of Uranium Dispersal and Health Effects Using a Gulf War Case Study,” performed by Sandia scientist Al Marshall, employed analytical capabilities used by Sandia’s National Security Studies Department and examined health risks associated with uranium handling.

Marshall’s study concluded that the reports of serious health risks from DU exposure are not supported by veteran medical statistics nor supported by his analysis.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

However, a study that comprised of Swedish military and rescue services personnel involved in UN missions in Bosnia and Kosovo from 1989 to 1999 showed that the overall cancer incidence (34 cases) was slightly higher than expected (28.1 cases).  The highest incidence rate was observed for testicular cancer (8 observed vs. 4.3 expected) in military personnel.

An increased incidence rate of testicular cancer had already been reported in another study on Swedish military personnel.(53)

Yes, but testicular cancer is also on the rise in the general public of Scotland yet there has been no armed conflict there.

While, in general, Scottish men have cancer rates up to 26% higher than their English counterparts and Scottish women are 23% more susceptible to the disease,  the most recent increases involve incidence rates of cancers of the womb (11 per cent) and testes (17 per cent).(54)   Whether this is related to exposure to elevated DU levels remains to be seen.

Any more evidence of dangers of handling DU?

Port Hope, until recently, was the largest producer of depleted uranium metals used by the joint Canada-U.S. program involving Defense Research and Development Canada and the Royal Military College’s Depleted Uranium weapons development program.

Port Hope supplied the 30 mm DU metal rods that were used by the U.S. and its coalition partners in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Afghanistan. (55)

They tested human urine samples from exposed workers.  This was carried out in one of the world’s top radioisotope labs in Germany, and the analysis of the findings was presented to the European Association for Nuclear Medicine (EANM).  The study findings were successful peer reviewed and presented in October to the EANM Annual Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark.

They confirmed the presence of long term contamination in Port Hope by industrial and military uranium.  Study participants were found to be internally contaminated with radioactive substances. (56)

What about civilians exposed in war zones?

depleted uranium baby defects

depleted uranium baby defects

In Iran the rate of birth defects, after increasing ten-fold from 11 per 100,000 births in 1989 to 116 per 100,000 in 2001, is soaring even further.

Dr Nawar Ali, a medical researcher into birth deformities at Baghdad University, told the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) last month: “There have been 650 cases [birth deformities] in total since August 2003 reported in government hospitals.

Six years ago, the College of Medicine at Basra University carried out a study into the rate of cancer among children under the age of 15 in southern Iraq from 1976 to 1999.  It revealed a  change between 1990 and 1999.

In the province of Basra, the incidence of cancer of all types rose by 242 percent, while the rate of leukemia among children rose 100 percent.

Children living in the area were falling ill with cancer at the rate of 10.1 per 100,000.  In districts where the use of DU had been the most concentrated, the rate rose to 13.2 per 100,000.(57)

Has there been any attempts to ban DU?

On the 2nd of July, the Belgian Parliament unanimously approved a law forbidding the financing of the manufacture, use and possession of depleted uranium weapons.  Belgium is now the first country to prevent the flow of money to producers of uranium weapons. The law complements the country’s ban on their manufacture, testing, use, sale and stockpiling which came into force on June 21st.

The companies who produce these weapons are readily supplied with capital by large financial groups – capital that makes the production of these weapons possible.  The research report ‘Too Risky for Business Financial Institutions and Uranium Weapons.’ shows that 47 financial institutions are currently investing in producers of uranium weapons.

Three US stock market listed companies: Alliant Techsystems, GenCorp and General Dynamics, are supported by financiers from Canada, the US, Japan, Great Britain, France, Germany, Taiwan, Singapore and Italy.

In the period July 2004 – June 2007, these institutions guaranteed credit facilities worth a total of at least 3 billion US $. The financial institutions have also underwritten the issuing of 4.2 billion US $ in bonds and 120 million US $ in shares in these companies.(58)

Various financiers also hold significant shareholdings in the producers of uranium weapons. (59)

On 1 November, 2007, a UN resolution was passed.

The resolution entitled ‘Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium’ was passed by 122 votes to six at the UN First Committee in New York; with 35 abstentions.  The resolution urges UN member states to re-examine the health hazards posed by the use of uranium weapons.

Here’s how the voting went:
For: 122 countries (including Japan)
Against: 6 countries (US, UK, France, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Israel)
Abstentions: 35 countries

There you have it.

Despite all concerns and evidence suggesting that there may be something dangerously detrimental to human health by the use of depleted uranium in munitions, certain countries continue to avoid the issue.  It does raise questions of conflict of interests.

Is there collusion between financial institutions, the armed forces,  nuclear industry and governments and the main users of uranium whereby the continued use of DU is a convenient exercise for all concerned?

Apart, of course, from those that are exposed to DU through contamination.

It beggars belief that the government puts its own armed forces at risk for the sake of convenience.  A convenience that dumps dangerous waste material through conflict onto another mans land.

For at risk those soldiers are especially if they continuously fire these munitions and have a continued presence in areas of contamination.

If the government is putting its own troops at risk, it does not give much hope for the rest of the environment.

Perhaps when the armed forces of these countries that continue to use DU munitions find out the what’s happening inside their bodies, they may refuse to take up arms. Then, and only then, will countries that use and manufacture these weapons sit up and take notice.

Until then, compulsory Geiger counters at fish and food markets in Scotland?

Related articles,

What Is Depleted Uranium?

Uranium and the Secret Society

Did Missing Chalk River Physicist Know Too Much?

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Ann Margrain

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