Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Depleted Uranium munitions.

with 5 comments

This is not a post about nuclear energy. It’s a post about the use of Uranium in munitions. Now, I’m not pro- or anti- Uranium weapons. If there’s a credible case to be made that they have significant on-going indiscriminate health effects on civilians, and on military personnel for that matter, and on the environment, then they probably shouldn’t be used, just because they’re cheaper and a bit better than the Tungsten alternatives. We have better things we could be using that Uranium-235 for, anyway. I’m more interested in seeing an end to War in general to seeing and end to the use of Uranium in weapons.

Here’s what captured my interest. Some work from our friends over at the Low Level Radiation Campaign, looking at the use of Uranium in weapons by the Israeli military in Lebanon. These guys are rather famous for a bit of fringe science, in some cases, but on this issue, I found what they have to say interesting.

Now, at face value, I trust the numbers they’re presenting here. I’m confident that the people who these people consult with, who have access to the gamma spectrometers, mass spectrometers and the like, know how to use these instruments.

Now, they’re reporting samples containing Uranium with Uranium-238 and Uranium-238 atoms in, say, a 108:1 ratio. That corresponds to a Uranium-235 concentration of about 0.9% by mass – greater than the 0.72% or so that you’ll find in nature, so they’re calling it enriched uranium.

Now, there is no factory that churns out 0.9% enriched U-235. There’s no technological, scientific or industrial application, in nuclear engineering or anything else, that uses such uranium. And there’s absolutely no way, that I can understand, that it makes sense to manufacture a munition from such material, as opposed to Depleted Uranium, or at least Natural Uranium. It won’t give you a better armour penetrator, and it’s energy intensive and expensive to enrich Uranium – plus, U-235 is a valuable nuclear fuel!

Israel doesn’t have a large (actually, they don’t have any) nuclear power program, and they are not expected to have surplus depleted uranium laying around. From our limited knowledge of their nuclear weapons technology, it is reasonable to assume that their fission weapons are based on plutonium, and that they are not enriching large quantities of Uranium for the weapons industry. It is interesting to ask where these weapons are coming from – where is the Uranium, with what may be a slightly enriched isotopic composition – coming from?

The only thing that came to my mind that this material could be is reprocessed Uranium, seperated from used reactor fuel. A quick look at Wikipedia (I don’t have any better reference for that number at the moment) tells me that used fuel contains Uranium with a U-235 concentration of, at most, about 0.83%.

The figures that they give on pages 3 and , of U-238:U-235 atomic number ratios of 113, 117, 123 and 133 correspond to Uranium-235 compositions, by mass, of 0.87%, 0.84%, 0.80% and 0.74% , and seem to give support to this theory.

But the authors of this document have gone looking for Plutonium-239, Pu-240 and Cs-137 to determine if this material came from used nuclear fuel – which is obviously not going to tell us anything, as I doubt anybody is going to make munitions out of straight unprocessed used uranium fuel. Obviously, these different chemical elements are seperated during nuclear reprocessing. I would not expect any such material to contaminate the seperated Uranium in detectable quantities.

What they should be looking for – the clear signature of reprocessed Uranium as distinct from natural Uranium, enriched or not – are the Uranium-236 and Uranium-232 isotopes, which do not occur in nature to any appreciable degree, although they are produced in Uranium-fuelled reactors.

The ICPMS and nuclear spectroscopy techniques employed in this study would be perfectly suitable for looking for such nuclides.

Interesting stuff.

I’m not discounting what they say completely at this stage, but I’d like to see more independent study and review along these lines.


Written by Luke Weston

September 21, 2007 at 2:51 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I believe that both the Lebanese Army and a private contractor paid for by the United Nations checked in Lebanon for evidence of Israeli use of depleted Uranium, and found none. Natural Uranium, with 0.7% U235 can be used as reactor fuel in CANDU reactors. 0.9% U235 would work very well in A CANDU. Using CANDU fuel in weapons would be idiotic. The whole thing is a typical canard from the anti-Semitic, Israeli demonizing fringes. As they say it Arkansas, pay it no never mind.

    Charles Barton

    September 25, 2007 at 6:18 pm

  2. You would be wrong. First of all, “anti-Semitism” and criticism of Israel are two different issues. We are talking about whether Israel used DU. They certainly used it in the “bunker-busters” provided by the US. Israel received over 100 of these bombs that are loaded with DU.

    Secondly, if Israel used any anti-armor 20mm ammunition supplied by the US then in fact it contains DU, even as the US is phasing out the use of DU in favor of tungten shells for their 20, 25 and 30mm cannons.

    Lastly, Israel is being condemened not just by many countries for it’s use of cluster bombs but also by progressive Jewish organizations in the US.


    David Walters

    September 30, 2007 at 11:16 am

  3. I feel the paper and analysis is all wrong. To be sure, I ran it past the best analytical Health Physicist I know. His comments are (which I fully concur with):

    “The paper is very poorly constructed and would not stand the scrutiny of a peer review
    The use of 3 times SD as a Limit of Detection is imprecise. See ANSI N13.30 for more details
    They conveniently do not specify an MTL(Minimum Testing Level). I don’t believe they understand detection limits
    They are very bad in how they are portraying detection limits.
    The data is very poorly arranged. They have omitted concentration units from the results in Table 3
    Also, who in their right mind would waste EU material in a penetrator. It is just too expensive
    I will have to work some numbers, but in general I do not put a whole lot of stock in the document. It appears to be a hit piece that is trying to move people to a specific preordained conclusion. It also seems to be very light on data that would allow validation of results.”

    The measurement of such low levels of radiation has huge imprecision, and this analysis of the U-238/235 relative concentrations is poorly done. The measurements and numbers are likely correct, but the analysis of the measurements is wrong.

    Larry Grimm

    October 4, 2007 at 3:37 pm

  4. Another comment: the “science” in this document is definitely challengable. Clearly the authors are omitting, adding, or do not understand what data needs to be incorporated into the analyses. The levels of airborn Uranium that they come up with are enough to make a lot of people very sick or dead. Nothing in the article passes any reasonable test of scientific accuracy or validity. The fact that they state it is not a scientific paper, but they give it the appearence of a scientific paper, is a classic political ruse. You would be sadly wrong to put any credence in the paper’s science – it is a political papaer.

    Larry Grimm

    October 4, 2007 at 4:37 pm

  5. I really find the “depleted uranium” bull to be extremely offensive and angering, especially when they show pictures of deformed kids and such.

    The reason is that there have indeed been increases in birth defects and major health issues in places like Iraq. This isn’t that surprising. People are under the stress of attacks; oil wells have been set ablaze, the health care system is in shambles, nutrition is probably not the best, Saddam deployed chemical weapons in the late 1980’s which he may well have burned in the desert upwind from villages.

    These health problems are REAL and TRAGIC, and we owe it to people in areas like this to provide any help possible and to determine and correct the causes of poor health. But it’s not DU. We know that based on all modern toxicology and health physics. And the Depleted Uranium stupidity is a read haring which only hurts the cause of using science and sound logic to try to improve life.

    My state recently enacted a bill to provide for uranium testing and monitoring of veterans. Right like there aren’t enough veterans with real problems. Like there isn’t already enough strain on the system to pay for their care. Now scared vets are coming in to get tested for something that isn’t causing the health problems when the funds could actually help our servicemen and women with real issues that effect their wellness.

    To me, it’s shameful to exploit the problems of war-torn nations and the health problems they experience to further a cause. Really, I tend to be of a science-mind, but this… it honestly infuriates me. The anti-DU pushers (Caldicott) should be ashamed of themselves. It’s reprehensible.


    October 21, 2007 at 5:25 am

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