Word About Uranium

Uranium is the 92nd element of the periodic table. Each atom of uranium has 92 protons packed within its nucleus, and around that nucleus orbits 92 electrons. In nature, uranium is found in three varieties — three isotopes — that differ from one another by the number of neutrons sharing their respective nuclei. Uranium-238 possesses 146 neutrons, uranium-235 possesses 143 neutrons, and uranium-234 possesses 142 neutrons. The uranium found in the Earth’s crust is a mixture of these three isotopes. 99.28% of the uranium found in nature is uranium-238. 0.71% is uranium-235. And 0.0058% is uranium-234.
In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman split the uranium atom. During the following year, it was discovered that the fission of uranium released neutrons that could proceed to split further uranium atoms thereby initiating a chain reaction that liberated the energy bound within the atomic nucleus. Preliminary investigations into the possibility of creating an atomic bomb revealed that such an explosive chain reaction required a mass of uranium enriched to the point where it contained uranium-235 in a concentration of approximately 90%. On the other hand, the sustained chain reaction within a nuclear reactor required uranium fuel slightly enriched to a concentration of approximately 3-6% uranium-235. Prior to the fabrication of the first atomic bomb during World War II, industrial processes were developed for accomplishing the incredibly sophisticated feat of separating atoms of uranium-235 from those of uranium-238 — a difference in weight of a mere three neutrons. The pure uranium that was fed into this enrichment process was made up of the three isotopes in the same concentrations as the uranium found in nature. Flowing out from the process were two products. One was enriched uranium containing the required concentration of uranium-235 for nuclear reactor fuel or a nuclear weapon. The other was depleted uranium, uranium whose U-235 content had been depleted from 0.71% to approximately 0.2%. Over the decades, the United States has accumulated an enormous quantity of depleted uranium, by some estimates equaling approximately 700,000 metric tons.
All atoms of uranium are radioactive. At some point in their lifetime, they spontaneously undergo radioactive decay and emit subatomic particles and energy from their nuclei. When this process occurs in the crust of the Earth, it is of no consequence to life. Decay while the atom is entrapped within the body of a living organism, however, is altogether different. When the radiation from a radioactive atom is released into a biological medium, it creates damage to the molecular structures that make up that living system. Living organisms possess natural repair mechanisms that are immediately activated when this type of injury occurs. The central problem in the science of radiation protection is to determine the dose of radiation and the rate of delivery that can be successfully managed by these repair mechanisms before irreparable harm is caused which, in time, manifests itself as altered functioning and ill health.
Uranium-238, which makes up over 99% of depleted uranium, decays very slowly relative to other radioactive isotopes. As an example, if you start with 1,000 atoms of iodine-131, over a period of eight days half of those atoms will undergo radioactive decay, emitting radiation into the surrounding medium in the form of particles and energy. Those 500 decaying atoms are transformed into the stable isotope xenon-131. With the passage of another eight days, half of the remaining 500 atoms of iodine-131 will decay, leaving only 250. This process continues every eight days, halving the remaining quantity of iodine until no more remains. In contrast, the half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years. Starting with a sample of 1,000 atoms, it takes 24,000 years for 500 of those atoms to undergo radioactive decay, another 24,000 years for a reduction to 250 atoms, and so forth. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4,500,000,000 (4.5 billion) years. Despite this long half-life, uranium incorporated into the human body is not radiologically benign. A tiny uranium particle one micron in diameter — one millionth of a meter — consists of hundreds of billions of atoms. Within this vast quantity, individual atoms are decaying on a regular basis, emitting radiation into the cells immediately surrounding the particle. Nevertheless, because uranium decays so slowly, the vast majority of health physicists are of the opinion that, in the concentrations likely to develop within the human body, it presents no hazard to health.
During Operation Desert Storm, the Iraq war of 1991, the United States deployed a new type of munition containing depleted uranium. This unique form of ammunition was heralded by the Pentagon as a superweapon of miraculous capability. Due to uranium’s high density, rounds made of the metal can slice through any type of armor, rendering all tanks and land vehicles, airplanes and ships, vulnerable to penetration and destruction. There is only one drawback to this new weaponry. Uranium is pyrophoric. The high heat of impact sets it ablaze. The resulting inferno liberates huge quantities of microscopic uranium particles into the air which, if inhaled by soldiers on the battlefield or civilians downwind, can pose a detriment to health.
The Department of Defense of the United States has repeatedly affirmed that weapons containing depleted uranium present no radiological hazard to human health. In agreement with this assessment, a number of highly prestigious organizations from around the world have published studies declaring that the radioactivity of uranium represents no cause for concern. These include the National Research Council, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Rand Corporation in the United States, the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, NATO, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program.
These official proclamations vouching that it is safe to scatter uranium dust over the surface of the Earth emit the stench of political propaganda. The science of radiation protection as it applies to internal contamination by uranium does not support the party line being peddled. The issues are far from being as clear-cut as the august authors of the official reports want us to believe. In fact, a great deal of evidence exists that suggests that uranium weapons can produce significant damage to health in those who inhale the radioactive aerosols.
The dispersal of radioactivity across the homelands of human populations is a direct challenge to the whole of humankind to come to terms with the true nature of uranium weapons. Either these armaments are as safe as their defenders claim, or they are recklessly and indiscriminately hazardous to human health. If the first option is true, we can rest easy in the knowledge that humankind and the biological integrity of our planet are being protected by the weaponeers and the scientific organizations that speak on their behalf. If the latter option proves true, it will bear ample testimony to the fact that humanity has indeed been the victim of an anthropoid ravish. It will indicate that all those highly trusted and respected institutions that issue defenses of militarized uranium are, like an omnipresent dark brotherhood, trafficking in falsehood so as to disguise the momentous misdeeds of those who field these weapons. The stakes being played for in the dispute over the safety of depleted uranium weaponry are these: Which version of reality will gain ascendancy?