Depleted uranium is also referred to as Q- metal, D-38 or Depletalloy. The uranium has a lower content of isotope compared to other natural uranium.
Depleted uranium may be a by-product of resulting from the production of uranium which needs to be used as fuel. This takes place in the reactors used to manufacture nuclear weapons. The process produces uranium that has a higher concetraion of lower mass number uranium. This is the uranium isotopes that are known to support fission and chain reaction. Depleted uranium emits fewer alpha particles compared to the natural uranium.
Facts about Depleted Uranium
The DU that is used in the munitions contains 60 % of radioactive material found in any natural uranium.
DU can affect the functioning of the brain, the liver, the kidney, the heart and other system of the body if one is exposed to it. The body requires at least 15 days to be able to eliminate half the of any amount that can find its way to the body.
If depleted uranium is burnt, it can contaminate a fairly large area and lead to a possible inhalation by people can be fatal.
If one is exposed to DU , it can affect the reproductive system and have a neurological effect especially if the exposure is chronic.
Human risks having birth defects in the offspring if they are consistently get exposed to DU.
Depleted uranium is denser than lead but is slightly less dense than tungsten and gold. Because of this density, it can suitably be used in armored tanks and can be sandwiched between sheets of armor plate. It can also be used in fission bombs. The fact that depleted uranium is a good penetrator because of its sharpening and flammable characteristics it is used in weapons and missiles. When it hits hard targets such as armored vehicle, its nose fractures, remains sharp and releases heat energy. This makes it ignite into fire. If it hits a vehicle, it can make can lead to an explosion. This is why it is used by the US army in making cannons employed on the M1 Abrams tank. Between17 to 20 countries are believed to use weapons that utilize depleted uranium in their arsenals. These countries include the U. S, the UK, France, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, India, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Taiwan.
Any weapon made using Depleted Uranium is classified as a weapon of mass destruction or weapons that are considered to have indiscriminate effect that can cause superfluous injury. Thus many states have been urged to curb production and use of such weapons. DU is considered hot and dangerous and warrants protection. Unfortunately, weapons that contain DU are new and that there is no existing treaty that regulate prohibit and limit its use. Even though, there is no specific treaty that bans the use of DU projectiles and already, there are debates and concerns regarding the impact and use of the projectiles. It is expected that in future, there will be a consensus on the use of such projectiles. Read here more about Depleted Uranium Disposal.
Depleted uranium has a high density that is why it is primarily used as shielding material for radioactive materials as well as ballasts. Some of the examples include counterweights, sailboat keels and shielding used in industries radiography cameras. These cameras include high activity gamma radiation source. The DU is used in the cameras to protect and shield people from gamma source.
Uses of DU
DU is also used in manufacturing of dental porcelain that stimulates fluorescence of a natural tooth. It is also used in laboratory or as a coloring matter for porcelain and glass.
It can also be used in the production of enamel glass even though such use has been discontinued.
Depleted uranium is also used in aircraft. The trim weights are used to stabilize the wings of planes such as the Boeing 747-100 which may contain between 400 to 1500kg of DU. However, such use posses’ risks such as polluting the environment when there is a crash and the possibility of oxidizing into a fine powder in fire. This is why the new Boeings have discontinued such use.
DU was used to make boats that were used for racing because of its high density. It was used to make a keel that was thinner and less resistant. Hence making the boats good for competition, unfortunately, such use was later replaced by a standard lead keel.
According to the US nuclear regulatory commission, industrialists are allowed to possess depleted uranium to be used for authorized purposes. However, registration is required along with the commitment of not abandoning the material after such use.
Dangers of DU
DU particles are dangerous, they are toxic and when they enter the body, they can easily damage body organs. The particles can be inhaled or consumed in food and water and cause suffering. Thus the utilization of DU can pollute the environment and cause adverse health effect. Studies show that no claim of human cancer has been observed as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium. Doctors working with the British army have shown that exposure to depleted uranium increases the risks of lymph, lung and brain cancer. Further uranium dust inhalation has a long term effect on a person. Thus extra care should be taken when working with DU and proper assessment of sites struck with depleted uranium is necessary.