DU: Depleted Uranium

Jesse Bransford



This represents a two-part inquiry into the legacy of a now 60 year-old polemic: will we or will we not destroy ourselves with all of the nuclear technology we have acquired and continue to research and develop?

The idea that we can destroy ourselves is still (seemingly) as impenetrable as it was on August 6 1945 when we delivered an atomic weapon onto foreign (and hostile) soil. The questions raised since our entry into the atomic age have only complicated our thinking about living and dying on this planet and in this universe, and yet many of the systems which control, maintain and use this power seem antiquated and ill-equipped to wield this power. What amazed me when I first started this line of inquiry is how little our attitude towards nuclear weapons has changed: They are very bad things that we nevertheless continue to research and develop. The paradox they represent (the ability to make something that can unmake everything) is a nasty little thorn that when examined reveals very dangerous problems within our present a priori notions of politics, the state and the individual, problems that must be addressed.

Rather than start with the familiar historical problems associated with the nuclear bombings of 1945 (attacks if you like, at least congress had formally declared war at that moment in time), I have chosen to begin with a relatively esoteric legacy of the ‘atomic age,’ but be assured, I will return to the larger issue at hand. Before I can talk of the world’s entry into the atomic age I must talk of how we have learned to use this not-so-new power and to whom we have relegated this power. I must talk of depleted uranium munitions.

I. The (Video Game) Reality of Depleted Uranium

I first learned of Depleted Uranium munitions (DU from here forward) in 1997 by playing the computer game Quake II:

“The Rail Gun fires depleted uranium coated ferrous slugs at super high velocities. Take note of the distinctive blue corkscrew trail of smoke caused by the projectile – or better yet, see how many scumbag Stroggs it goes through before it hits concrete.”

I obviously thought the weapon in question was fantastical – not for the moniker ‘rail gun’ – I had learned of the theoretical possibility of the rail gun from William S. Burroughs. What I thought was improbable was the idea of depleted uranium as munitions. A few years ago, looking for images of the aforementioned rail gun, I googled the phrase “Rail Gun Depleted Uranium.” As with most search engine answers, I got far more than I bargained for.

Depleted uranium had been a potential material for the military from the moment enriched-uranium had become an industry, ca. 1950. We have been using DU since then.

So it turns out DU is real. And unlike the GI’s returning from Iraq who realize that there is a universal difference between video game combat and real combat, the military and the government refuse to acknowledge that there are any bad effects of it’s use in actual combat. But what is DU exactly, and why am I about to go on a rant about it?

Depleted Uranium

DU is a refined by-product of naturally occurring uranium. Raw or natural Uranium ore is comprised of three isotopes of uranium, D234, D235, and D238. The isotopes required for commercial use (mostly in reactors) are U234 and U235. This is the ‘fissionable material’ that went into the first nuclear bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The refinement process extracts much of this isotope (but not all) from the raw uranium, leaving two types of uranium: a uranium ore with a significantly lower content of U234 and U235 and one with a higher content. The uranium with the higher content is referred to as enriched uranium (what the so-called ‘rogue states’ are trying to procure). The uranium with the lower content is called depleted uranium, of which there is considerably more after the refining process.

DU is a ‘waste material’ or by-product of the refinement process. It is less radioactive than ‘weapons grade’ uranium, but it is still weakly radioactive and treated initially as industrial (and radioactive) waste.

The average mental conception of how the nuclear industry treats ‘radioactive material,’ is very naive. The idea that these by-products are put into specially treated drums and shipped to remote corners of the country and (however sloppily) buried is actually the last step in a long series of scientific investigations into further use values for this material. Just as the timber industry uses the wood pulp generated as a by-product of making wood boards for paper and other particle-based materials, so too has the nuclear industry sought ways to use these left-over materials. Even the nuclear industry recycles.

Depleted uranium, in addition to being weakly radioactive has several properties at a glance:

1. DU is extremely heavy and dense (uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element and is 1.7 times more dense than lead)
2. DU burns at a temperature of 1132ºC (a relatively low temperature for a metal)
3. DU is significantly less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium

Scientists were keen to utilize the first and second properties listed, while it seems to me mistaking the term ‘less radioactive’ with ‘not radioactive’ in point three.

Industrial Applications of DU (to date)

Disregarding DU’s (however mild) radioactivity, its weight/density and flammability have been used for a variety of military and nonmilitary purposes:

• Ammunition

DU munitions are primarily anti-tank munitions although several of the ‘bunker buster’ missiles and bombs are said to also use DU. The mass and density of DU ‘penetrator’ rounds make them frighteningly effective and deadly. The density of the uranium increases the maximum velocity of the shell or round increasing its ability to penetrate the heavy armor of tanks. At impact the round penetrates the armor, melts, explodes and burns. We will return to the fact that the uranium burns.

• Tank Armor

One of the only metal dense and strong enough to prevent DU projectiles from penetrating tank armor is… DU. Most of the current US tank deployments contain DU armor.

• Radiation Shielding

Although DU is still radioactive, it is many hundreds of times less radioactive than many of the pollutants created other by kinds of nuclear industry. Because of the material’s density, it is an excellent container for these materials (it’s density prevents the radiation from escaping the container) and is used in making containment drums and in lining containment structures

• Aircraft Counterweights

Many modern aircraft require counterweights to balance payload/fuel storage parts of the craft with the airframe. Helicopters in particular require these weights. With its density, DU is used in many military and non-military aircraft (Early model Boeing 747s contain more than 700 pounds of DU in the wings as counterweights).

What has been systematically ignored (and some claim censored) in all of the governmental and industrial information provided in ‘official’ material concerning the safety of DU material is the fact that DU is still much more radioactive than most industrial materials, but also that when DU burns, it becomes an aerosol powder of depleted uranium, uranium oxide, uranium trioxide, and a mixture of several compounds of various other uranium oxides (also known as yellow cake). The chemistry and toxicity of these compounds varies (uranium oxide is the least toxic, though still not good, and uranium trioxide is the most toxic, very bad in fact). ‘Yellow cake’ is often cited as a possible ingredient in a RDD (radiological dispersal device, a dirty bomb). In the form of dust or powder, these materials are dangerous and become more dangerous the more a person is exposed to them. The Dutch Laka Foundation, a nuclear weapons watchdog group, estimates that the United States left behind 300-800 tons of aerated DU and uranium oxides in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a result of the first Gulf War. Other sources put that number much higher.

DU and Gulf War Syndrome, Rising Cancer Rates

To date DU munitions, armaments and counterweights have seen active duty in theatres of conflict worldwide, but studies of their effects have been undertaken only in Iraq and Kosovo. It is becoming increasingly clear that several of the health syndromes associated with these areas of conflict (Gulf War Syndrome, Balkan Syndrome) as well as the documented rises in cancer rates of the same areas have some relation to the increase of aerosol radioactive material caused by the use of DU. Whether or not there is a direct link to these illnesses and the use of DU material, the need for an empirical ‘link’ between them is foreshadowed by the medical evidence that these materials could create such syndromes and would most certainly contribute to a rise in cancer rates. The lack of hard scientific fact about radiological contamination is evidenced in that the bulk of the scientific research of the effects of radiation on human physiology is still based on the studies performed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Very few if any of the long term effects on human physiology were predicted or even expected prior to those bombings. Again it seems that the scientific possibility of unforeseen human carnage is not enough to sway the advancement of military technology.

DU and Biopolitics

Most international governmental organizations (including the United Nations) condemn the use of DU for military ends and many classify its use with the use of chemical, biological and radiological weapons. This condemnation comes after the technology has been proliferated and an entire industry created. Once an industry is in place it is historically difficult to dismantle it (the tobacco industry, for instance). It seems that by developing these technologies in secret (and increasingly with little government oversight) the state and military organizations create, over and over again, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If new scientific/military technologies were subjected to the scientific rigor of new medical technologies, DU would be unavailable, even with a prescription. The idea that weapons should answer to the same code of responsibility as medicine may seem ridiculous, but without an ethical ground of responsibility for these new technological developments, we take one step toward nuclear annihilation. Ostensibly the reason humanity survived the cold war is because both sides knew their use would be more destructive than anyone wanted, perhaps ultimately destructive. This restraint is clearly a demonstration of an ethical sense of responsibility on someone’s part.

The use of DU munitions, should their long-term effects be even slightly of the order its critics suggest, disrupts the simple cause-and-effect relation upon which so-called conventional warfare is presupposed, in the same way that the use of nuclear weapons did in the Cold War, but we are already using these weapons widely. If firing a single round of ammunition, the purpose of which is to kill an ‘enemy’ at a distance in space also kills/maims other people in time, these effects must be taken into account when they are used (similar arguments have been used, with more success, regarding the use of land mines). If the use of DU munitions contaminates water and soil and increases cancer rates in any degree, how is it different in any sense from the use of nuclear weapons. Why have we not immediately pulled DU materials ‘off the market?’

The present day paradox of military responsibility is clearly illustrated in Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, which suggests a frightening relationship between the sovereignty of the state and sovereignty of the body of the individual, stating that the two traditional categories were commingling and thus becoming inseparable. With this new idea of the political it becomes evident that the ethics of responsibility in medicine should by definition be the same ethics of responsibility in warfare. The state’s maintenance of the health of its population and the exercise of sovereignty over that population are the same concern. Thus, using force that will potentially kill and disable the population and land seeking to be ‘liberated’ is what has historically prevented the widespread use of nuclear weapons. By presenting DU as a ‘conventional’ weapon, the military is able to make a ‘product’ that is ‘consumed’ widely and therefore profitable. However, because DU is not a ‘conventional’ weapon, its use creates a break in the logic that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons. Thinking in Foucault’s terms of the biopolitical, the use of DU in military operations clearly shows the overlap between a states ability to kill its population and its duty to protecting its health. Unfortunately, the former seems to be taking precedence over the latter.

Quake 2 Instruction Manual, 1997 id software, inc.
Zajic, Vladmir S, Review of Radioactivity, Military Use, and Health Effects of Depleted Uranium 1999. http://vzajic.tripod.com/
Just how much less radioactive DU is a somewhat a confusing question, but Zajic’s article clearly states that DU is 65,000 times more radioactive than lead. Everything is slightly radioactive.
Zajic, ibid.
Laka Foundation Report, http://www.laka.org/
The US Government and the WHO claim there is no relationship between DU usage and Gulf War Syndrome or the rise in cancer rates in Kosovo and Iraq.
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality Volume I: an Introduction, 1978, Vintage Books. See in particular Part Five: Right of Death and the Power of Life.
That this is the case is explained as a foregone conclusion of the politics of the West in Georgio Agamben’s text Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1998 Stanford University Press
List Of Treaties Relevant To The Question Of Legality Of DU Weapons, http://www.idust.net/Law/Treaties.htm