Depleted Uranium: The Myth that Won’t Go Away

The issue of whether or not depleted uranium (DU) from U.S. Army tank shells poses a health threat to our troops and civilians in Iraq is in the news again. Reports by the New York Daily News earlier this week purport that some members of the New York Army National Guard are suffering skin rashes that may be linked to DU exposure.

Before we delve into these reports, however, let’s review what science knows about DU.

Uranium is one of the more abundant materials in the Earth’s crust. It is present in most rocks and soils as well as in many rivers and seawater. Useable uranium occurs naturally in nature as a pitchblende ore. Pitchblende is mildly radioactive, which means that it spontaneously emits alpha particles. The level of radioactivity is very low, however, so there is no threat from mining and transporting the ore, and in any case, alpha particles, which are nothing more than helium atoms stripped of their two electrons, pose no threat outside the body.

The uranium normally extracted from pitchblende consists of a mixture of two different forms of uranium, called isotopes: Uranium-235 (U235) and Uranium-238 (U238). About 99.3 percent of this extracted uranium is U238; only about 0.7 percent is U235, along with a vanishingly small percentage of four other isotopes. U235 is the basis of most current nuclear power generation.

Depleted Uranium results from the enriching of this natural uranium. Since most nuclear reactors use U235 to produce energy, natural uranium has to be enriched so the percentage of U235 is sufficiently high for a reaction to take place. Uranium used in civilian reactors is enriched to about 20 percent U235, but submarine power plants use Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) with at least 50 percent U235, and weapons-grade HEU is 90 percent or more U235.

When the 0.7 percent of U235 is removed from natural uranium, what remains is a silvery, very dense metal consisting of U238 plus a small percentage of U235 and a negligible percentage of the four other isotopes. We call this Depleted Uranium or DU.

Notice two things here: (1) “Natural” uranium is more radioactive than DU, because the ingredient with the higher level of radioactivity has been almost entirely removed from DU; (2) Since natural uranium is, itself, not dangerous, then the resultant DU must be even less dangerous. Notice also, that DU is very dense.

From actual measurements, if a tank crewman were to stay continuously inside a “heavy armor” tank that uses DU armor panels, fully loaded with only DU ammunition, with the gun pointed to the rear to maximize any exposure – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – he would receive only about 25 percent of the permitted annual dose. Since nobody sits inside such a tank 24/7 for an entire year, exposure levels from realistic times, such as 900 hours per training year, are about the same dosage you might receive from cosmic radiation on a round-trip between New York and Los Angeles.

These are proven facts. They result from actual measurements that anyone can reproduce. They are not open to discussion, argument, or conjecture. They are what they are, and nobody can change them.

When Staff Sgt. Ray Ramos developed a skin rash, and exhibited symptoms of weakness as reported in the New York Daily News, doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center conducted a biopsy that revealed his rash came from Leishmaniasis, a disease spread by Iraqi sandflies, and contracted by hundreds of G.I.s in Iraq.

However, Ramos and several of his buddies from the 442nd Military Police Company thought they might have been contaminated by DU, and requested urine analyses. The Army refused to conduct these expensive tests, but when they eventually were conducted by an outside agency and paid for by the Daily News, traces of DU were found in some, but not all, of them.

So what? No matter what anybody says, there simply isn’t any way for DU to cause the symptoms Ramos was experiencing. Neither I nor the Army doctors are taking issue with the fact of his symptoms. After all, the rash was plainly visible. The point is, however, whatever caused it, it couldn’t have been DU.

The Daily News reported that Dr. Asaf Durakovic and his colleague Prof. Axel Gerdes conducted the independent tests from which the Daily News drew some of its conclusions.

Durakovic is a nuclear medicine expert who used to work for the Army before he got involved with what I call the Anti-Nuclear Coalition (ANC). Gerdes is a geologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt who specializes in things “nuclear.” He too is active in the ANC.

The ANC is a loosely knit informal group of organizations that share several commonalities. Among these is a total rejection of anything nuclear.

The ANC consists primarily of left-wing, pseudoscientific environmental organizations whose core membership draws on the disaffected fringe elements of our society. Unfortunately, these organizations have large membership rolls made up of ordinary people who do not understand the nature of radioactivity, the greenhouse effect, atmospheric ozone, or the myriad of other causes championed by the ANC. Consequently, members are duped into supporting with their dollars and their votes scientifically untenable positions staked out by the ANC.

Over the past decades, the ANC has conducted a vast public campaign to frighten people about radiation. Its efforts have been so successful that, for example, the Germans have given up their nuclear power generation option for the time being, and most Americans and Europeans will tell you, if asked, that nuclear power is too dangerous to justify its use.

Scientists like Durakovic and Gerdes have become very large fish in a very public bowl, where they are able to push their private agendas under the guise of legitimate scientific research and popular support. They know perfectly well the minimal danger DU really poses, but why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of research money, publicity, and political power?

Interestingly, there really is a potentially significant danger posed by DU, a toxic chemical problem very similar to that posed by lead when lead and lead oxide particles are inhaled or otherwise ingested into the system. Because lead is so soft, it is not a practical material for armor. DU, on the other hand, is very, very dense and hard, so it makes an ideal material both for armor and for shells designed to pierce armor.

When a DU shell partially vaporizes on impact, or when DU armor similarly vaporizes when struck, some of the resultant particulate material can and does find its way into the bodies of those nearby. Normally, the body readily flushes this material right back out, but if the contamination is sufficiently dense, then problems can develop. Note, however, that these problems have nothing to do with radiation – it is strictly a chemical problem, one that is well-understood and easy to control.

The ANC is scaring the general public and many uninformed soldiers and their families with its well-funded propaganda campaign against DU. It has been so successful that last year the European Parliament called for a moratorium using DU.

The important thing for everybody to understand is that no one anywhere is trying to hide anything – there simply is nothing to cover up. When Army physicians resist testing for DU related radioactive contamination, the only reason is that they already know DU is not a problem. Far better that they probe into the real causes of whatever afflicts men and women returning from the front.

“DU poisoning” is analogous to “lead poisoning” from the old West. The only real danger is when a DU bullet pierces armor to penetrate a body – hopefully one of the bad guys. Such DU doses are nearly always fatal.

Chasing the DU myth is a silly waste of time. Our troops in Iraq have many concerns, from the terrorists and insurgents attacking them to a number of legitimate health concerns such as Leishmaniasis. DU is not one of them.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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