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Depleted Uranium in Modern Warfare- Unethical or Indispensable?

17 Sep

Depleted uranium (DU) is the uranium remaining after the enriched fractions are removed and is most commonly obtained as the byproduct of a nuclear reactor or the manufacture of nuclear weapons. DU is typically about 40% less radioactive than purified natural uranium, however that is still considered to be highly toxic.

According to the most recent statistics available, the countries with the 5 largest stockpiles in the world in order are the US (480,000 t), Russia (460,000 t), France (190,000 t), UK (30,000 t), and Germany and the Netherlands tied for 5th place (16,000 t). DU is about twice as dense as lead and harder than steel. It has numerous civilian uses like being used in the construction of counterweights for aircraft, radiation shields in medical radiation therapy machines, dental porcelain for false teeth(really?), containers for the transport of radioactive materials and most recently in high energy particle experiments. In the military it is highly prized in armor plating and is used in penetrating ordinance because of it’s high density and also due to the fact that it ignites on impact if the temperature exceeds 600°C. It’s now being used widely in both light, medium and heavy machine gun ammunition.

DU munitions are a key aspect of what makes modern, advanced militaries so effective. Most notably, the American M1 Abrams tank is protected by steel encased DU armor and fires DU anti-tank round penetrators which were brutally effective in the massacre of Iraqi tanks and armored targets during both Persian Gulf Wars.  The M1’s armor has proven to be miraculously effective and since it first entered service with the US military, only a handful of tanks have been heavily damaged. And of those few that were damaged, it was often at the hands of an opponent armed with a DU tipped weapon system. The A-10 Thunderbolt is armed with a heavy assault cannon which fires 30mm DU rounds and was used in the First Iraq War, numerous theaters in the War on Terror and NATO peacekeeping missions.

The most common way people suffer health complications from DU is by being in areas where munitions have been used for extended periods. There is a startling lack of knowledge on the effects of exposure to uranium but here are some known facts.

  • There is debilitating damage done to the kidneys, more specifically to the proximal tubules which act as the main filtering component for the kidneys.
  • The inhalation of DU dust particles like one would encounter in plane crashes or munitions impact craters are known to carry a high risk of lung cancer, and if a person has preexisting lung damage then cancer is almost a certainty.
  •  There is also some evidence that DU can accumulate in the central nervous system and impede its functions.
  • In addition to being radioactive, DU is also classified as a toxic metal and since similar substances are known to adversely affect the kidney, brain, liver and heart it is very likely that DU has similar negative properties.
  • It has been suggested that DU may be responsible for Gulf War Syndrome and veterans of the Gulf Wars and Balkan peacekeeping missions have been found to have up to 14 times the normal level of chromosome abnormalities in the genes.
  • People exposed to DU have a significant chance of having children with birth defects.
  • In the aftermath of the large tank battles in the 2nd Iraq War, numerous “cancer fields” have formed where locals salvage scrap metal for a living and hospitals in the area have recorded an dramatic uptick in child leukemia and genetic malformation among children born after the 2003 invasion.

As of yet, there is little other data on the adverse effects of DU on humans since most cases of exposure occur in poor or isolated areas and are not reported or diagnosed by medical professionals.

Results of DU exposure. WARNING: Not for the squeamish. Baby 1. Baby 2. Kid with no arms. Kid. Mushroom head baby. What is this I don’t even. Malformation.

As we’ve seen, DU is a potent tool of modern warfare. Described by some as a “silver bullet”, DU munitions are capable of piercing through almost any armor or obstruction as well as being able to provide the best protection money can buy. When used properly, DU equipped weapons system are capable of sweeping aside lesser equipped armed forces with ease. If you had the stomach to click on all of those links to the photos then I’d really like to hear your opinion on this. Do the consequences of using depleted uranium in weapons outweigh the benefits?

Check out this great article for further reading if you’re interested. Here’s another.

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