July 15, 2004

What's that, Depleted Uranium??? 

Long ago I promised a post about Depleted Uranium and all the rumors and plain absurdities around it. Now the time has come, but I don't know if this article will be the same well-thought document I had in mind at the beginning, because I have lost enthusiasm. Let's face it, people with the proper knowledge, and people who think that war is a legitimate way to settle disputes, already accept the use of DU ammo - they might not like it, or propose restrictions, but won't propose a ban or similar stuff.
The anty-war crowd, on the other hand, have already decided that war is crime (or a sin) by itself, and who wages war is an unredeemeable criminal. So no matter the facts you can show, no matter the context and the pros-cons balance, they always have something to whine about. It can be DU, Napalm, precision ammunitions, Blackout Bomb (CBU-94), or anything else, but they will whine and call it a "war crime".
So, even putting things in the proper context (the context of war, that is never nice by definition) and producing an extensive list of facts on DU is not going to change a lot.

Depleted Uranium is not used in anti-armor ammunition just for the hell of it, or counting on its radioactive characteristics. Uranium is a very dense and hard metal, and also has other metallurgical properties that make it the ideal choice for a penetrator. In fact, the penetration capability is directly proportional to the kinetic energy of the rod, and inversely proportional to its cross-section. In practice, for the same speed, a thin and heavy penetrator will perform better than a fat and light one. Uranium is also self-sharpening - the point of the penetrator will not blunt, and pyrophoric: it will spontaneously chatch fire when fragmented upon impact. A detailed hystory of the military use, and more facts about DU - also about its medical effects - are published on the Globalsecurity website: Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium is also comparatively cheap, given that it's a by-product of uranium enrichment and it has only a few competitive uses (and again military, like armor plates and counterweights in military aircrafts). DU does not pose any significant radiations risk: it shows a very low specific activity (radiactive emissions per unit weight of material), and its alpha and a few beta emissions are stopped by just a few centimeters of air. Thus, any claim that the US military is "radiating" the Iraqis or its own soldiers is bunk - or at least a gross imprecision.

On the other hand, uranium (like many more heavy metals) is chemically toxic.
However, there is a fundamental difference: while radiations can harm at distance (high-energy gamma rays can penetrate hundreds of meters of air), a toxic chemical must enter one's body to exert its effects. Whole penetrators, or big chunks of uranium metal are thus not dangerous, while fine uranium oxide dust (produced by the combustion of the metal) can be. Also uranium fragments embedded in the tissues constitute a risk, but it's quite straightforward that only a a small number of people can be interested by such situation - namely, people who are in on nearby a target hit by a DU round. Dust and fragments buried in the soil can contaminate local aquifers, as it is stated in the DoD report by Col. J.E. Wakayama. Anyway, other scientific reports (1, 2, 3) state that DU poses only a minimal risk - however, all these documents suggest decontamination and monitoring of the sites.

Is then the use of DU munitions legitimate? Well, I think so. Not for fun or "just because", but when it's imperative to quickly defeat armored targets, DU is perfectly legitimate. Afterwards, the force that used it should clean-up and take measures to minimize contamination/exposition, especially for the local population.
There are also claims (mostly originating from a single person, Dai Williams), that the latest generation of ground-penetrating bombs and missiles use depleted uranium alloy casings. These claims have found no oficial confirmation. It might be true, but the tone of these papers is the same of all the anti-war chants: illegal weapons, war crimes, thousands of civilian deaths... (no-one could confirm these deaths, though). Other bunk articles call DU "nuclear waste": that may be technically true, but it's clearly a way to give a certain spin to the story. There are even suggestions of nuclear reactions... These are well-known techniques of dishonest debating: you take the worst possible outcome and present it as the sure and certain outcome. Example: the possible underground water contamination by uranium becomes a certain fact causing thousands of deaths.

All this howling about the weapons used in war is, frankly, bullshit: if there are hostiles in a bunker or cave, you bomb them with whatever you have in your inventory suitable to do the job. The only criteria are cost/benefit evaluations, not principles or ideals. I do not exclude even chemical agents or nukes, if the situation is a real bitch (although the USA is destroying its chemical agents stockpile). Because not defeating the enemy can be an even worse outcome. WW 2 caused massive environmental pollution - even radioactive pollution in Japan - but I can not see the catastrophe that should have happened. Might it be that certain claims are grossly overinflated?


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