Depleted uranium

Depleted uranium is a by-product of the production of uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants. It is used, for example, in aircraft counterweights and in the keels of sailboats. In addition, depleted uranium is used in munitions and missiles designed to destroy heavily armoured targets, such as tanks. Depleted uranium is used for its density and mass, not for its radioactivity.

Uranium is a toxic heavy metal. When it enters the human body, it causes more harm precisely because of its toxicity than because of its radioactivity. Depleted uranium mainly contains the isotope uranium-238, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Radioactive decay is very rare and the substance is only slightly radioactive. Depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium or enriched uranium.

Depleted uranium emits alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Alpha radiation is only relevant if the substance enters the body by inhalation. Beta radiation only exposes the skin, and its effects are more limited than that of alpha radiation. Gamma radiation is penetrating and causes exposure also externally. However, the gamma radiation emitted by depleted uranium is relatively weak.

Depleted uranium in crisis areas

Soldiers, peacekeepers and the civilian population may be exposed to depleted uranium in crisis areas.

When hitting a heavily armoured tank, the uranium heats up and catches fire. The combustion generates fine uranium dust, which can be transported into the lungs by inhalation. Soldiers may be exposed to uranium dust inside a destroyed tank or in its immediate vicinity immediately after destruction.

Uranium dust settles relatively quickly on the ground and binds to other materials on the ground. Small amounts can re-emerge in the air through dusting of the surface of the earth, which may expose people in the area. With the rains, the dust is also washed deeper into the soil.

It is very difficult to locate uranium warheads which have hit the ground with radiation meters. At a distance of approximately half a metre, the dose rate of radiation is at the level of background radiation. The ground layers attenuate radiation, so it is often impossible to locate the warheads which have sunk into the ground based on radiation. Warheads should be collected, especially from residential areas and children's playgrounds. However, in many areas, clearing is difficult due to the risk of mines.