Depleted uranium (DU; also referred to in the past as Q-metal, depletalloy or D-38) is uranium with a lower content of the fissileisotope U-235 than natural uranium. (Natural uranium contains about 0.72% of its fissile isotope U-235, while the DU used by theU.S. Department of Defense contain less than 0.3% U-235). Uses of DU take advantage of its very high density of 19.1 g/cm3 (68.4% denser than lead). Civilian uses include counterweights in aircraft, radiation shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrialradiography equipment, and containers for transporting radioactive materials. Military uses include armor plating and armor-piercingprojectiles.
Most depleted uranium arises as a by-product of the production of enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear reactors and in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Enrichment processes generate uranium with a higher-than-natural concentration of lower-mass-number uranium isotopes (in particular U-235, which is the uranium isotope supporting the fission chain reaction) with the bulk of the feed ending up as depleted uranium, in some cases with mass fractions of U-235 and U-234 less than a third of those in natural uranium. Since U-238 has a much longer half-life than the lighter isotopes, DU emits less alpha radiation than natural uranium. DU from nuclear reprocessing has different isotopic ratios from enrichment–by-product DU, from which it can be distinguished by the presence of U-236.
DU used in US munitions has 60% of the radioactivity of natural uranium. Trace transuranics (another indicator of the use of reprocessed material) have been reported to be present in some US tank armor.
The use of DU in munitions is controversial because of concerns about potential long-term health effects. Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by exposure to uranium, a toxic metal. It is only weakly radioactive because of its long radioactive half-life (4.468 billion years for uranium-238, 700 million years for uranium-235; or 1 part per million every 6446 and 1010 years, respectively). The biological half-life (the average time it takes for the human body to eliminate half the amount in the body) for uranium is about 15 days. The aerosol or spallation frangible of powder produced by impact and combustion of depleted uranium munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas around the impact sites, leading to possible inhalation by human beings.
The actual level of acute and chronic toxicity of DU is also controversial. Several studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents suggest the possibility of leukemogenic,genetic, reproductive, and neurological effects from chronic exposure. A 2005 epidemiology review concluded: “In aggregate the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU.”
- 1 History
- 2 Military applications
- 3 Civilian applications
- 4 Health considerations
- 4.1 Chemical toxicity
- 4.2 Radiological hazards
- 4.3 Gulf War syndrome and soldier complaints
- 4.4 Iraqi population
- 4.5 The Balkans
- 4.6 Contamination as a result of the Afghan War
- 4.7 Studies indicating negligible effects
- 4.8 Atmospheric contamination as a result of military actions
- 4.9 Other contamination cases
- 4.10 Safety and environmental issues
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links