Poses Significant Dangers
By Vince Calder,
September 19, 2003
front page article headlined: "Justice Department considers action
against ABC over story," appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The
Journal Times. It told how ABC News smuggled 15 pounds of "depleted
uranium" into the United States through the port of Los Angeles
under the noses of U.S. customs and the L.A. port authorities. However,
the article did not explain adequately why the Department of Homeland
Defense and the FBI are so distressed, nor did it explain how this breach
in security relates to homeland security. To understand the serious
implications of ABC's story you have to know what "depleted uranium"
is the metal used to make nuclear weapons and fuel rods employed in
nuclear reactors. But only a tiny fraction, less than 1 percent, of
mined and purified uranium is useable for these purposes. This useable
fraction is extracted and concentrated. What is left behind is so-called
"depleted uranium" - called DU for short. For every pound
of useable product produced, some 200 pounds of "depleted uranium"
are left behind. A number of very major problems are also left behind:
- DU is essentially
permanently radioactive. It gives off radioactive particles at a fixed
rate on any human time scale - decades, centuries, even millennia. A
lump of DU sitting on a table in front of you is harmless. The radioactive
particles that DU gives off are stopped by the thin layer of dead skin
cells that naturally cover everyone's body, so human tissue cells are
said to have a large "stopping power" for these radioactive
particles. However, this same large "stopping power" makes
DU deadly if it gets inside the body. Besides being a chemically toxic
heavy metal, like lead or mercury, a particle of DU inside the body
continuously bombards surrounding live tissues with a barrage of subatomic
particles capable ionizing nearby cellular material and ripping apart
the chemical bonds that hold the cells together. The tracks of destruction
left by these reactive particles can be observed directly under a microscope.
- No commercial applications
have been found for any significant amounts of this leftover DU since
it started to accumulate when the first atomic bombs were made in the
early 1940's. As a result, the U.S. alone has accumulated over two billion
pounds of this commercially worthless DU. In terms of everyday experience
two billion pounds is beyond comprehension. To put this weight of material
on an understandable scale, it is about the same weight six Washington
Monuments, or about 5,000 Statues of Liberty. Some of this inventory
has been given away to allies. This included Iraq when they were an
"ally" against Iran.
- The major uses
of DU are as the tip of armor-piercing artillery shells, ammunition,
and missiles, and as armor plate on tanks and
armored vehicles. What makes DU so effective at piercing armor is that
when it strikes a hard target it ignites like a Roman candle, sharpens
itself like a pencil in a pencil sharpener and, like a hot knife through
butter, melts steel armor or even concrete. It is used as armor plate
because it is the only metal armor that will stop a DU-tipped shell!
However, every time a shell misses its target and falls onto soft desert
sand, or a DU-plated tank or an armored vehicle is abandoned (both occur
frequently) DU is left behind on the battlefield for the taking. These
armor-piercing shells were used in the first Gulf War, in the Bosnian
conflict, and in the present war against Iraq. The bottom line is: DU
is readily and globally available at little or no cost to any terrorists
wishing to acquire it.
- When uranium burns,
the radioactive dust produced is so incredibly fine, it behaves as if
it were a gas. This dust can pass through
military gas masks, so gas masks offer troops no protection, and it
is deposited permanently in the lungs. If swallowed, the dust particles
can be digested and pass into the blood stream, if the dust rubs into
a scrape or wound it can enter tissues directly. Most of these dust
particles are smaller than red blood cells, the smallest cells in the
body, so the radioactive dust freely crosses organ and tissue boundaries.
There is no way to remove them from the body. These ultra-fine smoke
particles are spread by wind, settle out on surface water, and are redispersed
by human activities -- digging, plowing, driving, or even just walking.
This information is neither new nor secret. From the very beginning,
the scientists involved in the making of the first atomic bombs recognized
in detail the potential of uranium smoke as a terrain contaminant and
as an instrument of gas warfare:
To make evacuated areas uninhabitable.
(b.) To contaminate small critical areas such as rail-road
yards and airports.
(c.) As a radioactive poison gas to create casualties among
(d.) Against large cities, to promote panic, and create
casualties among civilian populations."*
- The present danger
is that depleted uranium can be used to make so-called "dirty"
nuclear devices. There is no need to purify or "weaponize"
the uranium. As the makers of the atomic bomb realized in 1943, all
one has to do is wrap DU in a conventional explosive charge and detonate
it. The DU will almost certainly ignite from the heat of the explosion,
and its sub-microscopic radioactive smoke particles will be dispersed
by wind, rain, and fallout, potentially contaminating vast land areas,
lakes, rivers, streams, and water reservoirs.
- It is this ease
of importation and the simple construction of a potential weapon of
mass destruction within the boundaries of the U.S.
that so concerns Homeland Security and the FBI. But from whom are they
keeping the secret? Certainly not potential terrorists, they know how
and what to do. The only conclusion is that the government wishes to
keep the public in the dark, ignorant of the threat facing all of us.
Vince Calder is a
retired research chemist with SC Johnson. He has a Ph.D. from the University
of California-Berkeley in physical chemistry. He resides at 3812 Saratoga