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Depleted uranium
January 9, 2006 1:32 AM   Subscribe

Dirty bombs, dirty missiles, dirty bullets: “Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” - Henry Kissinger, quoted in “Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed Its Own POW’s in Vietnam”
posted by sundaymag (46 comments total)

 
Henry Kissinger hates America first.
posted by I Love Tacos at 1:56 AM on January 9, 2006


Looking up the Kissinger quote, it is from Chapter 5 in “Final Days” [of the Nixon admin] by Woodward and Bernstein:



Not that K didn't say that, but apparently W&B got that from Al Haig.

Anyhoo the alleged facts as presented in the article are certainly scary. DU has 40% of the radioactivity of natural U, btw, and all the chemical poisoning issues of similar heavy metals.

This is why armed action is a last resort in the modern world.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 2:12 AM on January 9, 2006


My first comment was a flippant remark, meant to underscore the fact that the Kissinger quote distracts from the real discussion here.

Upon further consideration, I've changed my mind. DU has been controversial for a long time, and there has been little effort made to debate the usefulness versus the harm. Kissinger has almost nothing to do with DU, but these days it seems almost impossible for this sort of discussion to attract attention on merit alone.

Here's to hoping that the Kissinger non-sequitor will help lead the way to a well-considered policy on the use of DU.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:12 AM on January 9, 2006


This is why armed action is a last resort in the modern world.

I wish this was true.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:13 AM on January 9, 2006


Vietnam was a chemical war for oil,...

Say what?
posted by alumshubby at 2:56 AM on January 9, 2006


Say what?

the mekong delta sits atop the largest untapped oil fields in the world.

pre-war planning documents show that's what the u.s. was after.

because of environmental disasters like halong bay, the vietnamese understand how tapping mekong oil would destroy agriculture in a third of their country.
posted by 3.2.3 at 5:10 AM on January 9, 2006


The Mekong delta sits atop the largest untapped oil fields in the world

I've never heard of that before. I did know about the oil deposits offshore in the adjacent South China Sea, notably in the Spratlys and the Paracels (where the next big naval showdown will occur if there isn't a regional conflict over Taiwan first). Googling "mekong delta" + "oil deposits" seems to be getting mainly references to the offshore deposits, although you're aware of "planning documents" I know nothing of.

It's somewhat depressing to think of the inevitable unhappy choices that Peak Oil is going to force on the region.
posted by alumshubby at 5:30 AM on January 9, 2006


In a group of 251 soldiers from a study group in Mississippi who had all had normal babies before the Gulf War, 67 percent of their post-war babies were born with severe birth defects.

Not that exposure to "depleted" uranium is not a big issue, this article's treatment borders on the hyserical.

More sober analysis done by the Uranium Medical Research Center on military personnel exposed to DU dust in Afghanistan shows concentrations of radioactive isotopes 100 times greater than "natural." This is still well under what is considered hazardous.

The average annual dose received due to natural radiation is like 300 mREM per year. Another 50 or so mREM is due to man-made radiation, so the total average dose received by inhabitants of the Earth is 350 mREM per year. 100 times this amount is still 100 times less than the 5 REM occupation limit.

This is not to say that this is not a problem, or that there are other, e.g. chemical toxicity, problems associated with exposure to DU. The science is complicated enough without shrill reporting.
posted by three blind mice at 5:45 AM on January 9, 2006


military personnel exposed to DU dust in Afghanistan shows concentrations of radioactive isotopes 100 times greater than "natural." This is still well under what is considered hazardous.

First up, your math would seem to be off by a factor of 1000... 350 mREM * 100 = 35000 mREM = 35 REM = 7 * occupation limit. (m = milli = * .001). I'd tend to question that DU dust is really 100 times worse that background; if it was, it would cause way much more pain that it appears to have done.

Second, this language (which sounds very much like an earlier "DU is safe to put on your breakfast cereal" whitewash by RAND; not enough coffee yet to look it up this morning, but I'm reasonably certain I saw it in the blue a few years ago) ignores two salient points:

1. Uranium is a heavy metal, and has similar biological effects to other heavy metals. Lead and mercury, for instance, also have severe developmental effects on fetuses and infants, though I'm a little unclear on the exact biology and chemistry behind heavy metal poisoning. Ignoring the radiological effects completely, it's still not at all fun stuff.

2. What makes DU dust so dangerous is not the "depleted" part, or even the "uranium" part, but the "dust" part. You inhale it and it stays in your lungs basically forever. You're getting 35 REM right up against living tissue. Without your epidermis to block the U-238 -> Th-234 alpha decay, that's going to hurt a lot more.
posted by Vetinari at 6:13 AM on January 9, 2006


bah. s/that/than/g as appropriate.
posted by Vetinari at 6:19 AM on January 9, 2006


Vietnam was a chemical war for oil,

Huh?

But since 1991, the U.S. has staged four nuclear wars using depleted uranium weaponry,

What?

I stopped reading at that point.
posted by delmoi at 6:58 AM on January 9, 2006


Context is everything.

And believing everything you read without concern for context makes you a NYTimes Liberal.
posted by HTuttle at 7:00 AM on January 9, 2006


Vetinari nails it. The occupational radiation limits are set assuming you recieve a "whole body" dose from outside the body. Breath in uranium dust, however, and its alpha emissions are no longer stopped by your outer shield of dead skin.

I do have two problems with the article though. One, if radiotoxicity were the primary concern, we would see a significant increase in lung cancers, not birth defects. Birth defects suggest heavy metal poisoning.

The second thing, that pisses me off royally is HOW FUCKING HYPOCRITICAL this line of protest is. The military's job is to blow shit up as best they can. Uranium is the best material there is for making armour penetrating shells. You can't authorize invasion and then worry that the war is putting "our guys" at risk. You cant worry about the health of soldiers as they lobs white phosphorous at civilians. I mean christ!
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:08 AM on January 9, 2006


Here is the state of Mefi discussion on DU:

January 23, 2001 - USA's Depleted Uranium Weapons
October 12, 2002 - Medical consequences of attacking Iraq
November 19, 2002 - Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq
February 12, 2003 - It's not just for bullets anymore
June 5, 2003 - Holy Heavy METAfilter poisoning Batman! (about army DU related training video)
April 6, 2004 - Gas masks, get your gas masks here... (about the amount of DU used in Iraq)
September 3, 2004 - The 10 big stories the national news media ignore ... 4. High uranium levels found in troops and civilians

Also, May 27, 2005 - The U.S. removes the nuclear brakes and September 12, 2005 - Pentagon Revises Nuclear Strike Plan, which digress into discussions of DU starting at the linked comments.

There were a couple more mentions, of course, but they seemed peripheral. I might get around to reading up on these links, but if others could use it to create some content rich comments it would be great!
posted by Chuckles at 7:09 AM on January 9, 2006


Ugh, that formatting looks terrible!
posted by Chuckles at 7:10 AM on January 9, 2006


DU in the semen of soldiers internally contaminated their wives, partners and girlfriends.

Muntant babies for all?
posted by Atreides at 7:13 AM on January 9, 2006


Thanks for the links Chuckles.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:15 AM on January 9, 2006


Apparently the 25mm cannon on the M2 Bradley was able to destroy Iraqi T-72 tanks. The T-72 was the state of the art Soviet tank of the 1970s.

At face value this points to DU being astonishingly effective. There may be all kinds of other factors though - inferior product sold to Iraq, poor maintenance, more exotic projectile than DU, etc. etc. - and the story might not even be true...
posted by Chuckles at 7:20 AM on January 9, 2006


(you might want to correct your tag, since golfwarsyndrome may be hell on your handicap score, it's probably not what you were referencing)
posted by Ynoxas at 7:27 AM on January 9, 2006


Thanks vetenari. My math was way off, but this still does not seem to be a level at which serious short term effects would be seen - as claimed by the article.

Popular Ethics makes a good point that internal exposure is different than whole body exposure - although nearly half of the background radiation is radon gas which IS absorbed internally. Smoking 20 cigarettes a day results in an annual exposure of 5300 mREM into a smoker's lungs.

It's a risk, but maybe not the biggest risk on the battlefield.

Compared to the carnage caused by mines and other nasty things left on the battlefield, perhaps DU is not the most pressing concern.
posted by three blind mice at 7:35 AM on January 9, 2006


And believing everything you read without concern for context makes you a NYTimes Liberal.

Grow up.
posted by I Love Tacos at 8:00 AM on January 9, 2006


And believing everything you read without concern for context makes you a NYTimes Liberal.

Like Judy Miller?
posted by delmoi at 8:17 AM on January 9, 2006


One, if radiotoxicity were the primary concern, we would see a significant increase in lung cancers, not birth defects. Birth defects suggest heavy metal poisoning.

Exactly. If lead were denser and had a higher melting point (i.e., if lead atomized on impact the same way DU does), we'd have noticed ordnance-related inhalation injury a century ago.

Although, given U238's low decay rate (half life is something like four billion years), we'll probably end up seeing higher lung cancer rates in Gulf War veterans later in their lives.
posted by Vetinari at 8:59 AM on January 9, 2006


(from the article:)
“And unfortunately, the DU radioactive dust will be carried around the world and deposited in our environments just as the “smog of war” from the 1991 Gulf War was found in deposits in South America, the Himalayas and Hawaii.
In June 2003, the World Health Organization announced in a press release that global cancer rates will increase 50 percent by 2020.”

Which I suppose is the connection.
...still, that phalanx is pretty cool.

I don’t know. I suppose the point here is Kissinger et. al. don’t think of the lives of the troops - and by extension everyone - and use weapons indiscriminately. Weapons that have side effects that affect the greater region and perhaps the world.
(I suspect there is more contamination of the environment going on than just DP)
But given the point here - what would be the alternative? Simply not use DP? It’d be nice to include it in arms limitation treaties, but lots of reasons that probably won’t happen. You’d need the juice to force the issue.

Sue?

Probably the most efficacious and final method would be to come up with something that renders DP less effective. Armor of some sort. A force field. Dunno.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:26 AM on January 9, 2006


Probably the most efficacious and final method would be to come up with something that renders DP less effective. Armor of some sort.

Armor made of DU would probably do the trick. Of course, then the tank would be too heavy to move.
posted by Vetinari at 10:11 AM on January 9, 2006


"But since 1991, the U.S. has staged four nuclear wars using depleted uranium weaponry, What?... I stopped reading at that point."

dude, i can just see, you actuially stopped reading on 9/11.
posted by sundaymag at 10:41 AM on January 9, 2006


Chuckles - Are you sure they didn't use TOW missiles against the T-72s?

Vetinari - Some composite armour in modern MBTs already includes DU inserts.

btw - Tungsten makes a good DU replacement and gets rid of the whole toxicity issue. Still, it'd be nice if we didn't have to run off and shoot people every so often. That'd probably bring those deaths right down.
posted by longbaugh at 11:03 AM on January 9, 2006


Uh, googling, tungsten is toxic too, esp. as dust or embedded shrapnel.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:16 AM on January 9, 2006


My bad Xeny - scratch the part where it says toxicity and replace it with radioactivity.

If only I weren't a feckin' eedjut in a hurry.
posted by longbaugh at 11:44 AM on January 9, 2006


longbaugh, a friend was telling me about an account he heard, presumably directly from some soldiers, either in a chat room or a news story. The effect of the 25mm was the only reason it was worth repeating at all, so I am sure he meant what I relayed above. It is at least third hand information at this point though, so...

Actually, I'm not sure it should be as surprising as it seems. The 30mm on an A-10 is known to be capable of destroying tanks, of course it would typically be hitting thinner top armour, and it must have a much higher muzzle velocity too. The story about the Bradleys would have taken place 10-100 times closer to target than an A-10 would ever get though. Who knows...
posted by Chuckles at 12:20 PM on January 9, 2006


Tungsten is also expensive.
posted by daver at 1:17 PM on January 9, 2006


Tungsten is also expensive.

Giving DU to the military not only saves the nuclear industry from the high cost of having to dispose of it as radioactive waste, it also saves the military from having to spend lots of money to buy metal for munitions!

It's win-win!
Er... wait...
posted by -harlequin- at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2006


-harlequin-: Giving DU to the military not only saves the nuclear industry from the high cost of having to dispose of it as radioactive waste

Depleted uranium is not made from radioactive waste. It's the uranium that can't be used in a reactor because it's not radioactive enough. Five Fresh Fish is right: These weapons are bad enough without you inventing reasons.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:25 PM on January 9, 2006


I bet Henry Kissinger wouldn't have the balls to fly all the way to Seattle and say that to an ex-soldier's face! GRRRR!

Oops. I did it again.
posted by Decani at 3:56 PM on January 9, 2006


Popular Ethics:

No, DU is the uranium that is left over from the enrichment process. It is not unuseable because it's "not radioactive enough", but because it is depleted of U235. (Furthermore, radioactivity is not even what makes something useful in a reactor - indeed, the most radioactive stuff in a reactor is usually completely unuseable as fuel).
DU is of no use to the industry and must be disposed of. That makes it a waste product, and it is radioactive, which makes it radioactive waste.

You seem to be confusing radioactive waste from the enrichment process with radioactive waste from the fission process. Spent fuel is only a (nasty) subset of "radioactive waste".

What reason do you think I invented? My observation reflects the political and financial realities of the arrangement.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:57 PM on January 9, 2006


For the record, the "radioactive waste" designation is also used for low level contaminated objects, such as used protective worker garments, cleanup gear, etc. You can't dump that stuff in the local landfill like you can most NORM.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:15 PM on January 9, 2006


It is not unuseable because it's "not radioactive enough", but because it is depleted of U235.

...and U235 is substantially more radioactive than U238, having a half-life of 0.7GY instead of 4GY.

U238 isn't inherently useless to nuclear power plants. When hit by a neutron, it transforms into fissile Pu239. ISTR that the resulting Pu239 generates a notable minority of power in nuke plants.

And DU has uses outside of power plants and munitions, such as a ballast / balance-control material. It's not just "waste."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:53 PM on January 9, 2006


Well, it kills those damned psychlos at least.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:59 PM on January 9, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe:

You're quibbling. It's a waste product of the industrial process and we all know it. As we have both commented, if you're lucky you can get someone to take some of it off your hands, but anything that you can't, you have to pay the $$$ to dispose of it as radioactive waste.

That's the point being made - the military takes material off the hands of the industry that the industry would otherwise have to pony up the $$$ to dispose of as radioactive waste. Hence it's win-win for those organisations.

Of course you can find the odd uses for DU, but the reality is that, without the military use, you'd be looking at radioactive waste facility fees.

It's either give it to the military, or pay the costs of disposing of it as radioactive waste.

You know this to be true.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:12 PM on January 9, 2006


Caveat: As per the topic, this regards the USA. Different countries have different disposal regulations.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:16 PM on January 9, 2006


Well, given that you know what I know to be true, and what I don't know to be true, I'll just leave to to argue with whatever imaginary version of me it most pleases you to argue with.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:45 PM on January 9, 2006


It is not unuseable because it's "not radioactive enough", but because it is depleted of U235.

I admit to being too lose with my words. By "not radioactive enough" I meant "unsuitable for non-breeding fission", as ROU_X clarified.

We are quibbling, but it's important to debate the issue on it's merits. The unqualified term "Radioactive Waste" carries too much baggage when talking about DU, since, as discussed above, its toxicity is more chemical than radiological.

Not that the disposal of DU from enrichment facilities isn't a matter of some controversy. There are shady ethics involved when selling any controlled substance to the military to make weapons.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:58 PM on January 9, 2006


ROU:

For the record, I never wanted to argue in the first place. I was dumbfounded that I got flamed for (of all things) using the right terminology, in what was intended to be a humorous post.
I guess it came across as sarcastic, I should use smileys more. :-)

Popular Ethics:

I agree about arguing the merits, but I differ on aspects of your approach to it. If "radioactive waste" has baggage, then reserving use of the word to mean only the worst of the worst seems (to me) likely to only confirm and increase that baggage. Many organisations are putting a lot of effort into communicating that "radioactive waste" doesn't necessarily mean "instant death". (This is also why I made a bit of a fuss on the implication that reactor fuel comes from materials that exceed some threshold of radioactivity. I just think it more useful (and accurate) to indicate fuel usefulness being a structural property of the material, rather than one of being dangerous (radioactive) enough to work).
I am also unsure as to whether there is any moral difference as to what kind or level of radioactive waste DU is - if the munitions involved smaller quantities of nastier fission daughters, or if vaster quantities of lightly contaminated worker's gloves had useful armor-penetrating properties, in terms of the moral issues it seems fairly equivalent in each case. This in turn suggests to me that even if granting that the use of the term "radioactive waste" should be qualified in most curcumstances, the use of DU as a weapon might not be one of them.

Related - I'm not sure why you think the heavy metal toxicity is more dangerous than the radioactive - maybe you know something I don't, but I vaguely recall from what few studies were unclassified and weren't PR or damage-control crap, that I'd looked at a fair time ago, too much here is simply unknown. The biggest factor in how harmful it is, seems by far to be the name of the organisation behind the study :-)
However, since alpha is orders of magnitude more destructive to cells than gamma radiation, having emitters in your lungs where it can reach cells strikes me as a serious concern (for the long term). I would think that while you may sicken, you're highly unlikely to die from the toxicity of battlefield inhaled DU, however the raised risk of lung cancer 20 years down the track would seem to have a not insignificant chance of genuinely managing to pop your clogs.
I guess it depends. The short term is where the drama and glamor and established-cause action is. But long term is more what I'd personally worry about.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:53 PM on January 9, 2006


Popular Ethics:

BTW, in case it didn't come through in my reply above, due to my own quibbles, you can summarize that response as "fair enough." :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:35 PM on January 9, 2006


-harlequin- I never wanted to argue in the first place. I was dumbfounded that I got flamed for (of all things) using the right terminology, in what was intended to be a humorous post.

My apologies. I didn't really want to argue either, but I let my defender-of-pedantry personality get the better of me. Your points have been well made.

If "radioactive waste" has baggage, then reserving use of the word to mean only the worst of the worst seems (to me) likely to only confirm and increase that baggage. Many organisations are putting a lot of effort into communicating that "radioactive waste" doesn't necessarily mean "instant death"...if the munitions involved smaller quantities of nastier fission daughters, or if vaster quantities of lightly contaminated worker's gloves had useful armor-penetrating properties, in terms of the moral issues it seems fairly equivalent in each case.

OK. So, um... that's my argument washed away.

Related - I'm not sure why you think the heavy metal toxicity is more dangerous than the radioactive - maybe you know something I don't, but I vaguely recall from what few studies were unclassified and weren't PR or damage-control crap, that I'd looked at a fair time ago, too much here is simply unknown.

The article made allegations of increased birth defects amongst children of Gulf War vets. Most of the studies I've read suggest that birth defects do not occur in humans subjected to a radiation dose any more frequently than those with only background exposure. There are lots of conflicting papers on this matter, but I'm deferring to the canononical hiroshima studies) Heavy metal poisoning, however, has been linked to birth defects.

I started by condemning people who debate what kind of bullet they've been shot with, and then proceeded to do the same. I apologize. Let me return to my stronger point: The best way to avoid health impacts is to refrain from starting a war.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:56 PM on January 9, 2006


The best way to avoid health impacts is to refrain from starting a war.

Can't argue with that :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:05 PM on January 9, 2006


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