DU Nuke War



The ‘Slow-kill’ Left Behind

‘Depleted’ Uranium Weapons

Uranium is the heaviest metal existing in nature. Atoms of uranium are not only the heaviest but also the largest and the most unstable of any element. These characteristics explain the interest in using uranium as a fissible material or fuel in nuclear reactors. In fact, it's an isotope or variant of uranium that's used in nuclear fission. This isotope, U235, is highly unstable and therefore easily broken apart, releasing high levels of energy.

U235 is present in mined uranium at the rate of only about 0.7 percent. So to get one kilogram of the fissible U235 it takes literally tons of mined uranium. The rest of the uranium, which is U238, is without interest, at least for applications in nuclear energy.

In practice, the natural uranium is enriched to a level of U235 high enough to sustain a nuclear reaction (3%). But because of the great disproportion between the two isotopes, the production of the fissile U235 results in a by-product of huge quantities of non-fissile U238, or depleted uranium--DU for short.

Though depleted of U235, U238 still retains all the chemical properties of natural uranium, such as its heaviness. Bars of U238 have a density nearly twice that of lead, which in fact is what uranium would become after radioactive decay, lasting nine billion years. And because of a plentiful supply, it sells at about 8 times less than tungsten, the next least costly heavy metal. Because of its great heaviness and its low price, this material has been used as ballast or counterweight in industrial machines, in aeronautics and in ship building. Its been used in jumbo jets, for example, to get an even weight distribution on the aircraft.

It's also used in weapons. It’s used in armor, in so-called tank-busting shells, and in large, "bunker buster" missiles--which carry a couple of tons of DU and can penetrate thick concrete walls.  [9kg U235]  Actually, before this metal can be used in such weapons, there's a metallurgic process that's necessary to increase its rigidity. That's because another unusual property of uranium is that although it may be heavy and dense it's not very hard. So in fact alloys like titanium are added to strengthen it. The tips of the shells are probably alloyed with a metal of high rigidity--such as beryllium.

Beryllium is not radioactive in its elemental form, but it is highly toxic. Uranium itself IS radioactive, in all its forms. It's both a chemical and a radiological poison.

Most radiation emitted from depleted uranium can be blocked inside a casing or cover. When it's used in arms however, the material is combusted or burned. It starts to burn on impact or on detonation. When it hits its target, which may be heavily populated areas--as well as tanks, or bunkers--then it's reduced to fine particles which can be breathed in. Radioactive particles that contaminate whatever they contact: dust, rain, groundwater, food. Once inside the body, the radiation cannot be blocked and is continually absorbed, even after the death of the victim, from cancer.

So are we really talking about nuclear weapons here? Now nuclear weapons are classified as those that use nuclear fission or fusion. Nuclear bombs. This is not the case with DU weapons.  That's why they can be sold as non-nuclear or conventional arms. But their use HAS been called "nuclear war by other means." Because you still get radioactive fallout and its long-term, lethal effects if it enters the body. A new kind of fallout, that doesn't rain from the sky, but is delivered by missiles.  So no, not nuclear weapons, but radioactive fallout-- without the mushroom cloud. Weapons of mass destruction.

The use of beryllium as an alloy in DU weapons would contravene a chemical arms treaty that every country making these arms has signed. They're sold fairly freely without their exact composition being specified. Tests have been done to monitor their use in war zones. Some studies have indicated the presence of U236*, which is worrisome. U236 doesn't exist in natural or depleted uranium. It exists in spent fuel--enriched uranium that's been used in a nuclear reactor. In other words, reprocessed or treated nuclear waste. Dirty uranium. A waste product, which arms makers get for free. Nuclear waste, which contains traces of even more dangerous by-products such as plutonium, which has also been detected.

Now even if the DU were clean, or natural, you'd still have the damaging health effects of depleted uranium alone, as I mentioned...If a single particle of DU dust is breathed in, it causes cancer as well as genetic mutation.

The fallout stays radioactive for a period twice as long as the earth is old. Nine billion years. And there's no known method of de-contamination. Only prohibitively costly clean-up. Yet thousands of tons of DU have been dropped by NATO in countries that have been attacked with it. Something like how the Romans salted the land of their rivals in Carthage. To render it sterile. But here you have uranium dust which poisons the land, the people, and their offspring. Sad to say, but it's meant to ensure foreign access to valuable natural resources or strategic areas into the future. That’s the world we live in, under capitalism.

So what you have here in fact is a  so-called “slow kill” of affected civilians and soldiers in the war theatre because the result is not immediate. And there's the legal loophole. The victims develop fatal cancers later on, from exposure to contaminated food or water, for example. The effects are seen across generations, with a high incidence of birth defects. A 'pre-emptive strike' you might say, as the Nazis did at Nuremberg trying to justify their wars of aggression.

To come back to the legal implications, surprisingly, while there's a ban on chemical poisoning of soldiers there is none on radiation poisoning of civilians. The international treaties banning chemical weapons, like toxic gas, and biological weapons, like viruses, don't apply to weapons using radioactive material.

As for nuclear weapons, you have a test ban treaty and a non-proliferation treaty, but no international ban on their use. There you would have universal condemnation though in the court of world opinion. Because the devastation is immediate. It’s more obvious. That’s why there’s a political restraint on overt nuclear attacks, making the use of radiation as a weapon a covert affair.

A new class of directed energy weapons uses non-ionizing radiation, like microwaves. I don’t believe there’s any international arms control agreement yet in place to ban the use of these incapacitating ‘non-lethal’ weapons, which are used for covert repression of political dissidence through remote torture.

Unfortunately, there may be no specific ban in international law on using radiation as a weapon. But there ARE legal protections that exist, at least on paper, such as the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Conventions on Human Rights, which outlaw torture, wars of aggression, the targeting of civilians, and genocide.

* Dirty Paducah DU used in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq: See De la réalité des armes  à l’uranium appauvri, Robert James Parsons, Le Monde Diplomatique, March, 2002


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