“Depleted” uranium weapons are incendiary weapons using the pyrophoric (incendiary) property of uranium (or thorium, or sometimes even plutonium) and its great density to destroy armour and bunkers. At the impact, or at the explosion, the radioactive material takes fire, with temperatures that can reach 5000°C. A cloud of radioactive dust is spread around the impact and can diffuse widely in the atmosphere (radioactive dust was found in Aldermaston, UK, during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars).
The dust is highly radioactive – it spits alpha particles that, nondangerous outside the body, are highly obnoxious inside, once the dust is inhalated or ingested. According to calculations by physicist Maurice-Eugène André, a 1 micron particle of U238 spits in one year 60 milliSieverts, and a cluster of particles of 5 microns 7,5 Sieverts, which is vastly above admitted thresholds, even for a nuclear industry worker. And the contamination with uranium 234 should be taken into account, to multiply by two these numbers. Note that uranium is a heavy metal which stays for long in the body and is able to travel in the body, it can easily reach the brain or the genital apparatus for instance.
Why one would use a non-depleted uranium, more radioactive ? Because it seems that radioactivity improves the incendiary effect of the weapon. Indeed, whatever is radioactive is hot, and the more radioactive the hotter. We use plutonium 238 in the electrogenerators of satellites because it is incredibly hot and can produce energy this way. Of course uranium will never be as hot, but if we take into account the case of Doug Rokke, in which 0,1% U234 was found (and U234 is 18 000 times more radioactive than U238), that’s quite an energy.
Asking myself whether U238 had really the incendiary properties it is said to have everywhere (in weapon patents), I found an experiment at the Center of Atomic Studies (CEA Cadarache in France) where they heated a very thin (3mm) DU plate in a flame for one hour at 500°C and it did not burn. According to a chemist interrogated in the Lille University, the latent heat brought on by isotopes more radioactive than U238 is the activation energy needed to break the “barrier of potential” that’s in the middle of the road to combustion. It’s the “spark”. I’m not saying that U238 is not pyrophoric, I’m just saying that the more radioactive the uranium, the more pyrophoric it is.
Whatever, this implies the use of uranium more radioactive than depleted uranium, and thus more dangerous for health. Let’s remind us that Asaf Durakovic finds in Iraq a contamination by non-depleted uranium, twice as radioactive.
There are at least (!) three relevant texts in international law :
- Article 35 of the Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which says that
It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.
2. Articles 51 and 54 of the same Protocol, which outlaw indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, and destruction of food, water, and other materials needed for survival. Indiscriminate attacks include directly attacking civilian (non-military) targets, but also using technology such as biological weapons, nuclear weapons and land mines, whose scope of destruction cannot be limited
3. The Convention on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction which clearly says that :
“Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately: (a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
The current view on “depleted” uranium weapons has been driven by the belief they include only U238, whose radioactivity is quite low. This has caused a lot of debate (people claimed such weapons were not very dangerous). The indiscriminate effects caused by its use should nevertheless be enough to convince them of the opposite, because the radioactivity where it’s used can reach 3 milliSieverts / hour (i.e. a chest tomography every two hours – that’s the radioactivity found in Iraq near destroyed tanks). Moreover, the use of thorium, an element much more radiotoxic than uranium, should achieve to convince them.