More About Uranium
But not the "lost" fuel rods from Vermont. No, this is about depleted uranium
, the byproduct of uranium enrichment. As mentioned below, most naturally-occurring uranium is in the form of the isotope U-238, which is not well suited to be a fissile fuel. Therefore, for commercial and military reactors, uranium is enriched to separate as much U-235 as is necessary for the desired application (and to almost completely get rid of U-234). The leftover material, mostly U-238 (with that 4.5 billion year half-life discussed earlier), is referred to as depleted uranium, is weakly radioactive, and has a variety of civilian and military uses. It has, of course, gained notoriety as a result of military applications.
DU ammunition, surprisingly, is not another one of the Pentagon's evil offspring. The Soviets were the first to successfully develop DU munitions. However, they restricted its use almost exclusively to armored units. Many countries use DU ammo today, and it is produced by at least 17 countries, including our good friends in Pakistan.
The US, however, has taken the lead in going bananas with DU use. It is used in Abrams, Bradley IFV, and LAV rounds as well as in the armor of newer Abrams tanks. The Navy uses DU ammo in its 20 mm "Phalanx" CIWS and on USMC Harrier jets and Cobra helicopters, while the Air Force puts DU rounds into its A-10 tank-killer aircraft.
DU is extremely good at what it does; it is some 70% denser than lead, and the rounds just knife through armored vehicles. They don't need explosive charges; the kinetic energy brought to target and the properties of the round itself are enough to destroy just about any tank hit. A DU projectile burns and melts as it penetrates steel, becoming 'sharper' rather than blunting. As the projectile passes through armor, the heat build-up causes it to catch fire and disintegrate into fine particles on re-encountering air, causing it to emerge from the other side of the armor accompanied by a white-hot ball of fire and a shower of molten shrapnel (these last two sentences are from wikipedia). Of course, none of this is very good for the actual humans in the tank hit by the DU shell.
The real problem with DU, of course, is that it has just atrocious effects on humans--not just the soldiers in the targeted tanks, but other soldiers (friend and foe) in the area, and, of course, the civilians whose homes and groundwater supplies are on or near the battlefields. It's not the radioactivity of the DU--it's its toxicity. Human bodies don't tend to react very well to the introduction of heavy metals, especially if the metal is in the form of a fine aerosol mist.
Well, that's about enough of that from me. Just so you don't think that the only people opposed to DU are left-wing partisans writing for InterventionMag, I direct you to the following sites:
The Royal Society's DU report
The United Nations Environment Programme
, which has monitored areas where DU ammo was used.
U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute
study, courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists
It doesn't look like DU munitions are going away anytime soon. They're just too damn good at what they do. However, if enough civilian and military pressure can put an end to the use of land mines
, there's hope that DU might end up in a similar position. Unfortunately, the Pentagon, especially under Rumsfeld (R-Idiot), never met a weapons system it didn't like (and the US is not a signatory of the treaty--in fact, the Bush Administration has reneged on the half-measures undertaken by President Clinton during his terms).
Remember all of this in November, folks.