VETERANS FOR PEACE
WHAT IS DEPLETED URANIUM (DU)?
Uranium contains more than 1 type of atomic structure, called an isotope. NATURAL URANIUM includes 3 isotopes, one of which is much more radioactive - called Uranium235 - that is concentrated to make ENRICHED URANIUM for use in nuclear reactors or A-bombs. The waste material left over from enrichment is called DEPLETED URANIUM (depleted of the ‘hotter’ U235).
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission definition of DU http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/glossary/depleted-uranium.html
Uranium with a percentage of uranium-235 lower than the 0.7 percent (by mass) contained in natural uranium. (The normal residual U-235 content in depleted uranium is 0.2–0.3 percent, with U-238 comprising the remaining 98.7–98.8 percent.) Depleted uranium is produced during uranium isotope separation and is typically found in spent fuel elements or byproduct tailings or residues. Depleted uranium can be blended with highly-enriched uranium, such as that from weapons, to make reactor fuel.
For further details on source; uses; health effects; toxicological and radiological concerns; and ‘current’ issues). see Background Information on Depleted Uranium and Fact Sheet on Depleted Uranium and Other Waste Disposal.
There is an important distinction between uranium left over from enriching uranium, and the “depleted” uranium used to make DU MUNITIONS, because they include waste from nuclear reactors.
Waste streams from spent nuclear reactors contain small, but very important, amounts of much more radioactive elements PLUTONIUM, NEPTUNIUM and AMERICINIUM, suggesting DU MUNITIONS ARE NOT ALWAYS “DEPLETED” URANIUM.
As early as January 2000, the DOE admitted that its DU munitions are spiked with plutonium, neptunium and americium "transuranic" (heavier than uranium) fission wastes from inside nuclear reactors. The health consequences here are fearsome: americium -- with a half-life of 7,300 years decays to plutonium-239, which is more radioactive than the original americium.
DU "contains a trace amount of plutonium," said the DOE’s Assistant Secretary David Michaels, who wrote to the Military Toxics Project's Tara Thornton January 20, 2000. "Recycled uranium, which came straight from one of our production sites, e.g. Hanford [Reservation, in Richland, Washington], would routinely contain transuranics at a very low level...." Michaels wrote. "We have initiated a project to characterize the level of transuranics in the various depleted uranium inventories," he said.
Dr. Von Hippel says in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that plutonium-239 is 200,000 times more radioactive than U-238. Plutonium "is probably the most carcinogenic substance known," according to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER, writing in his 1992 book Plutonium. http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0709-07.htm