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What is Depleted Uranium?

Iraq has used weapons made with depleted uranium.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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Depleted uranium, or DU, is the substance left behind after the enriched fraction of uranium 235 has been removed from natural uranium. When the potential of uranium for power generation and weapons was first realized, depleted uranium was treated as a byproduct of the manufacturing process. However, researchers discovered that since depleted uranium was very dense, it was ideally suited to use in armor and tank penetrating weapons. It also had potential applications as a form of ballast. As a result, depleted uranium began to be actively used, mostly by militaries.

Uranium is a naturally occurring silvery white element with radioactive properties. It has numerous isotopes, including uranium 235 and uranium 238, the isotope which forms the largest fraction of depleted uranium. It is not as radioactive as plutonium, a related element, but it can be enriched by extracting uranium 235 and used for nuclear weapons and power plants. Enriched uranium is strong enough to use in large scale weapons, as was proven in 1945 when “Little Boy,” a nuclear bomb made with enriched uranium, exploded over Hiroshima.

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Many individuals around the world are concerned about the use of depleted uranium in weapons, since it has a potential to contaminate the environment. Radioactivity aside, depleted uranium is a heavy metal, and it can have a serious impact if released in large volume. Weapons made with depleted uranium are also usually mixed with lead and other heavy metals, forming a significant contamination risk. The weak radioactivity of depleted uranium is also an issue of concern.

Weapons made with depleted uranium have been used in Iraq and the Balkans extensively, as well as in more limited forms in other nations. Investigations by international agencies have revealed increased levels of radioactivity in regions where depleted uranium has been used. Tanks destroyed with depleted uranium rounds were often abandoned by the roadside and investigated by members of the local population. The concern is that local people could be exposed to radiation through abandoned military equipment, and many organizations have lobbied for cleanup of equipment contaminated with depleted uranium, as well as a moratorium on the use of the substance. Soldiers are also at risk from depleted uranium, through carrying rounds and being in situations where depleted uranium rounds explode.

No agency regulates the use of depleted uranium weaponry, which is manufactured by numerous nations. It is not technically classified as nuclear or poisonous, although it is clearly toxic. Diverse groups of individuals have suggested that depleted uranium should be more closely regulated and inspected, especially in the United States and Europe. Some people believe that the substance is linked with Gulf War Syndrome, along with rising birth defects in regions where depleted uranium has been used. The link with birth defects has been supported through research conducted by several organizations, including the American military, which suggests that depleted uranium may have an impact on reproductive organs.

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