Depleted Uranium: The Hysteria Rolls On

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use depleted uranium (DU) as ammunition because of its potential value as an energy source. Other than that, its substantial advantages as a penetrator for defeating armored targets are likely grossly outweighed by the value of the propaganda weapon we hand to our enemies when we use it, not to mention the massive cost of litigating cases brought by lawyers who are well aware of the potential value of DU hysteria for lining their pockets. That hysteria lost touch with reality long ago, and continues to grow. A glance at the facts should be enough to cure anyone of an overweening faith in the intelligence of human beings.

The basic propaganda line relating to DU weapons is that a) Great increases in cancer and other health problems are experienced in areas where they are used, and b) Most of these health problems are due to radioactivity from DU.  The professionally pious have devoted a great deal of webspace to the subject, typically short on facts but with lots of pictures of terribly deformed infants and, as usual, featuring themselves as noble saviors of humanity. Those with strong stomachs can find examples here, here and here. It’s all completely bogus, but the truth has never been more than a minor inconvenience for ideological poseurs.

The World Health Organization, public health arm of the UN, an organization that has not been notably chummy with the US of late, debunked the DU hysteria in a report that appeared in 2001 (click on the link to see the document). Quoting from the report,

For the general population it is unlikely that the exposure to depleted uranium will significantly exceed the normal background uranium levels.

Measurements of depleted uranium at sites where depleted uranium munitions were used indicate only localized (within a few tens of metres of the impact site) contamination at the ground surface.

General screening or monitoring for possible depleted uranium-related health effects in populations living in conflict areas where depleted uranium has been used is not necessary. Individuals who believe they have been exposed to excessive amounts of depleted uranium should consult their medical practitioner for examination, appropriate treatment of any symptoms and follow-up.

The potential external dose received in the vicinity of a target following attack by DU munitions has been theoretically estimated to be in the order of 4 μSv/year (UNEP/UNCHS, 1999) based on gamma ray exposure. Such doses are small when compared to recommended guidelines for human exposure to ionizing radiation (20 mSv/annum for a worker for penetrating whole body radiation or 500 mSv/year for skin (BSS, 1996).

Of course, the poseurs dismiss such stuff with a wave of the hand, claiming that, for reasons known only to them, the authors of the report suppressed damning evidence, or didn’t consider certain miraculous processes whereby the DU can be transported into the bodies of its victims without showing up in urine samples.  If one points out, for example, that natural background radiation in places such as Iran and India is much higher than any increase due to DU in the places where all the birth defects and illness is supposedly taking place, without ill effects to the local populations, they merely reply that the DU is carried on insoluble particles, that are infinitely more dangerous than natural uranium.  If it is pointed out that, in that case, it would actually be much more difficult for DU to cause birth defects because the rate at which the body carries insoluble compounds to the vicinity of the reproductive organs is an order of magnitude less than for soluble uranium compounds, or that it is much more difficult for insoluble compounds to get into the food chain, they quickly change tack.  Suddenly, the DU becomes soluble, and the circle is squared. 

A moment’s rational consideration of the facts demolishes the DU hype.  For example, it is claimed that 320 tons of DU were used in the Gulf War in 1991 and 1700 tons in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Those numbers pale in comparison to the approximately 9000 Tons of natural uranium and 22400 tons of thorium currently released each year from the burning of coal.  Much of this material is pumped directly into the atmosphere in the form of particulates that easily enter the lungs.  It is far more likely to contaminate nearby population centers in this form than the byproducts of DU munitions.  Coal consumption in China alone is over 2 million metric tons per year, resulting in the yearly release of about 3000 tons of uranium and 7450 tons of thorium.  There have certainly been health problems downwind of these plants, but they’ve been due to plain old-fashioned air pollution.  There have been no massive increases in birth defects or radiation-related cancer, flying in the face of claims about DU’s supposedly demonic power to sicken and kill.  Uranium absorbed in the body will show up in the urine, whether it is ingested in soluble or insoluble form.  Yet, despite massive screening of military veterans, ongoing studies find no persistent elevation of U concentrations beyond that found in the general population other than in soldiers actually hit by DU fragments or involved in friendly fire accidents.

Studies of uranium miners confirm the absurdity of the inflated DU claims.  Exposure to increased levels of uranium dust has not been associated with increases incidence of cancer, even in older miners.  Increased levels of lung cancer in such workers certainly have been detected, but it is associated with the breathing of high concentrations of radon in confined spaces.  The contribution of DU to radon gas concentrations in the atmosphere in Iraq is utterly insignificant compared to natural seepage from the earth and release by coal plant pollution.  Meanwhile, massive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, the sabotage and burning of hundreds of oil wells after the first Gulf War, and the release of a host of carcinogenic chemicals in the process of oil production are somehow never considered as possible contributors to illness and birth defects, unless, of course, they happen to fit another narrative.

In a word, the DU propaganda is nonsense, but that doesn’t keep it from being effective.  Other than that, because of DU’s potential value as a fuel in future breeder reactors that will be available to us without the environmental and health hazards of mining new uranium, we are almost literally shooting silver bullets.  Under the circumstances, one wonders what possible justification there can be for the claim that the advantages of continued use of DU munitions outweigh the drawbacks.  Why are we working so hard to confirm the familiar claim that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron?

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

One thought on “Depleted Uranium: The Hysteria Rolls On”

  1. Dude,
    Using a study from 2001? Check out the newer studies that actually conclude that elements within DU are mutagenic and carcinogenic. One would like to believe that the writer would input his/her due dilligence into researching before reaching a conclusion/hypothesis. This blog entry is only as much of a speculative nature as are the ideas you oppose. On a different note, I do enjoy your writing style. It is quite pleasant! <–(Sincerity)

    Best Regards,

    Rusty Stafford

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