The United States government admits using depleted uranium both in tank armour and tank-pierccing shells because of its excellence in forging tough material cheaply. But it says use of the material should not be dangerous.
Washington has released a good deal of information on depleted uranium because of pressure from lobby groups of American veterans who fought in the war.
Here are just two excerpts from government documents related to depleted uranium which can be found at the GulfLINK website set up by the U.S. Department of Defence for Gulf War veterans.
The findings presented below address the four areas of concern that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (OASA) Installation, Logistics and Environment (IL&E) tasked AEPI to study in response to the Senate Appropriations Committee report:
A battlefield may be contaminated with many dangerous things. The impact of DU contamination on the battlefield is a new issue and is not well-defined. Relative to many other hazards, such as unexploded ordnance, the hazards from DU contamination are probably small; however, additional environmental modeling and data are needed to support this judgment.
DU remediation technologies involve one or more of the following processes: excavation and earth moving, physical separation, chemical separation, and in-place stabilization. Very few remediation technologies have actually been used to clean up DU-contaminated sites. The Army continues to identify and evaluate alternative remediation technologies.
No available technologies can significantly change the inherent chemical and radiological toxicity of DU. These characteristics are fundamental to the element uranium.
The Army has implemented range management and DU recovery systems and is improving these systems. The Army is also developing models to better describe the environmental fate and effects of DU. DU migration on test ranges in the United States appears to be insignificant because the soil and water conditions on the ranges tend to prevent formation of soluble DU.”
Depleted uranium has been blamed as one of the possible environmental factors that may be responsible for the illnesses of Gulf War veterans. Exactly what is depleted uranium and how was it used in the Gulf?
Depleted uranium is the metal residue left when natural uranium is refined to remove the fissionable isotope used in nuclear reactors and weapons. During Operation Desert Storm, DU was used on tank armor and for tank rounds (artillery) because it could penetrate armor better than other less dense materials. By using these DU weapon systems, the Army gave its soldiers
better protection from enemy action and greater confidence in their ability to engage in and survive combat.
Does depleted uranium pose a health risk to humans?
Depleted uranium (DU) sealed within M1A1 tank armor poses no health risk to humans. The level of natural radiation a person sitting in or on a tank is exposed to is less than the radiation one receives during a transatlantic flight or from wearing a wristwatch. The major toxicity of DU is from its chemical rather than its radioactive properties. Radiation exposure from intact
DU munitions and armor is minimal and within accepted standards. The radiological hazard of depleted uranium is negligible. The depleted uranium in these rounds is exactly the same uranium as that found naturally in soil and rocks. This is the same uranium that has been linked to the release of radon. The international committee on radiation protection does not list depleted uranium as a health hazard. The handling or storing of the staballoy munitions does not constitute a hazard since their radiation emission levels are very low.
What authority licenses the Army to use depleted uranium?
The Army has 14 Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses to possess DU. Twelve of these are for developing, testing and deploying munitions and armor containing DU. Several contractors are also licensed to use DU at Army ammunition plants, firing ranges and other locations. Additionally, Army Regulation 385-16, System Safety Engineering and Management, implements the
Department of Defense's system safety policy. It prescribes policies and procedures and identifies responsibilities to ensure that the Army identifies hazards in its systems and facilities and properly manages their risks. Army policy requires commands to
implement system safety engineering and management responsibilities throughout the life cycle of each Army system and to document each system's safety. This regulation applied to the M1A1 tank and the munitions containing DU.
Did the Army test depleted uranium prior to its use?
Prior to fielding the M1A1 Tank and staballoy munitions (munitions containing depleted uranium), controlled burn tests were conducted in the U.S. to determine the hazards of depleted uranium burning at high temperatures. Such a temperature would have to be sufficient to melt steel. In the event of such a fire a small fraction of the material may be dispersed into the atmosphere as a depleted uranium oxide fume or smoke and hence could be inhaled by persons situated immediately downwind of an accidental fire or explosion involving depleted uranium ammunition. However, the risk of consequent damage to the health of members of the public would be very low.
The test demonstrated that there is no danger whatsoever beyond an explosive safety radius of 800 feet. In addition, the penetrators did not burn and an airborne aerosol was not formed.”