Term Paper: Environmental Impact of Depleted Uranium Ordinance

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Environmental Impact of Depleted Uranium Ordinance

Introduction and Outline of the Main Issues:

Ever since the introduction of nuclear power generation in the first series of nuclear reactors of the 1960s, nuclear waste disposal has been a very serious environmental concern. Nuclear materials emit multiple spectra of radiation, via Alpha,

Beta, and Gamma particles; equally significant is the fact that the half-lives of Uranium isotopes are in the range of several billions of year range. As a result, uncontrolled, unregulated, and irresponsible disposal of nuclear waste represents incredible potential for environmental damage and human illness and mortality from the well-known medical consequences of certain forms of exposure to radiation emitters.

The main source of radioactive waste are the byproducts generated by mining of natural Uranium ore, enrichment of natural Uranium ore to approximately 4%

U235 for civilian use, and reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel cells for civilian use and for high enrichment to weapons grade of approximately 90% U235. Natural

Uranium is almost 99% U238 and substantially less than one percent U235, required for both fissionable nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor power plant cores (Diehl, 1999).

The mining process releases large amounts of pulverized, aerosolized Uranium dust into the air, accounting for the extremely high rates of radiation-caused illnesses within the Uranium mining industry

The process of enrichment of natural Uranium which is mostly unusable U238) into low enriched Uranium and Highly enriched

Uranium235 also produces large amounts of radioactive waste, such as Thorium232 whose half-life is even longer than Uranium (Diehl, 1999).

The cores of civilian and military reactors consist of enriched Uranium in several different forms such as pellets or longitudinal rods suspended in a fluid moderator to slow regulate the neutron emission rate (Rennie, 2003). When the fissionable nuclear fuel is spent, the core material is reprocessed and re-enriched to produce new fuel cells as well as highly-enriched Uranium for nuclear weapons of war. In the United States, the spent fuel is also reprocessed into Plutonium-239, for use in thermonuclear weapons. Besides the spent nuclear fuel from civilian reactors, U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers also feature nuclear reactors whose cores must be replaced and reprocessed regularly.

The main final byproduct of nuclear waste from all these sources, as depicted in the diagram below, is known as Depleted Uranium (DU). (USDE, 2007)

In the 1970s, the United States started experimenting with military uses of depleted Uranium, mainly as several different types of combat aircraft ordinance and artillery. Large civilian passenger aircraft also use depleted Uranium as a source of counterweight that is economical both financially, as well as in its relative volume, owing to fact that Uranium is one of the heaviest substances for its size. While depleted

Uranium has virtually the same radiological profile as natural Uranium, it is, nevertheless, known as a low-level Alpha particle emitter (Rennie, 2003). Consequently, it is safe to work around, even for extended periods of time.

However, even low Alpha particle emitters are deadly when they are introduced to the body internally, whether by oral ingestion or by exposure to aerosolized particles sufficiently small in size to be inhaled and absorbed into the lung tissue. Whereas external exposure is considered benign, it is known that, on average, approximately one or two tissue cells out of every 100,000 becomes a malignant cancer once exposed to radioactive particles through internal ingestion or inhalation (Bertell, 1999).

Depleted Uranium Ordinance:

Depleted Uranium is particularly good for use in projectile weapons for several reasons: as mentioned, it is an extremely heavy and dense material. This high density generates the tremendous kinetic energy of DU munitions compared to conventional munitions made from lead or even tungsten. Whether employed in its role as 25 mm cannon ordinance used in defensive armament on Bradley Fighting Vehicles or in 120 mm DU artillery shells fired by Abrams M-1 tanks and Howitzers, it increases the effective range very significantly. On a battlefield, the advantages are obvious, just by virtue of this element alone (Jackson, 2006).

Notwithstanding the improvement in kinetic energy release, the principle value of DU munitions has more to do with the physics of its combustion on contact with a target.

Conventional ballistic projectiles of all sizes deform into the characteristic "mushroom" shape on impact. Depleted Uranium munitions generate such high temperatures on impact that they penetrate even the thickest armor of any tank and instantly vaporize anyone unlucky enough to be inside, even setting the hardened steel of the tank itself on fire.

So devastating is high caliber DU cannon fire that throughout for the last decade of the Cold War, it played a crucial role forming the basis of U.S. tactical strategy against otherwise overpowering numbers of tanks capable of being fielded by the Soviet Union in Western Europe. Since 1977, the a-10 Thunderbolt II (AKA "Warthog") produced by Fairchild Republic was the cornerstone of U.S. tactical defenses in Europe. The a-10 was literally designed around its gun, a twenty-foot-long 30 mm, multiple-barrel rotating gattling gun capable of firing as many as 4,000 DU rounds per minute (Jackson, 2006). The designated role of the a-10 was "tank killer," a role for which it was immensely well suited by virtue of its DU ammunition which could pulverize any tank ever made with a single burst of fire.

In Pentagon circles, the a-10 and its DU ammunition was specifically credited for having shortened Operation Desert Storm by destroying Iraqi tanks in very large numbers before they could even deploy against U.S. forces. Likewise, the extended range and devastating power of DU artillery shells and Abrams M-1 tank shells allowed their crews to fire at and destroy Iraqi armor long before coming into range of their longest-range weapons (Jackson, 2003)

Depleted Uranium ordinance again played a vital role in NATO operations in Bosnia as well as in Kosovo, where NATO a-10s destroyed more Bosnian armor than any other weapon system.. After nearly thirty years of service, the a-10 reached the end of its service life in 2002, and is currently in the process of being decommissioned as a ground attack plane and refitted for use in other roles that do not subject its airframe to the intense maneuvers necessary in its ground attack role (Jackson, 2006).

Paradoxically, the military use of depleted Uranium presented something in the way of a partial "solution" to the problem posed by nuclear waste disposal issues, albeit with a macabre twist. Firing DU rounds on enemy soil is an indirect disposal of nuclear waste that originated as byproducts of nuclear power plant fuel cell reprocessing and of domestic natural Uranium ore enrichment. From the militarily perspective, this aspect of employing DU munitions is another benefit, but it raises significant ethical issues relating to the environmental impact of saturating the earth with radioactive waste, even on enemy territory.

Ethical Concerns:

The first extensive use of DU munitions was by U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf

War. Short as it was, we expended nearly one million rounds, mainly in 30 mm rounds fired by a-10s in their primary ground attack role. U.S. tanks fired almost 10,000 artillery rounds, with a combined total substantially in excess of half a million pounds of what amounts to raw nuclear waste deposited on Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and Iraqi soil (Fahey, 1999).

While there is no doubt that the effectiveness and increased safety of friendly forces made possible by DU munitions technology justifies its use against enemy forces, it is arguable that its long-lasting effects, especially on non-combatants changes the ethical equations significantly.

In general, radioactive waste disposal is a technical challenge, even under ordinary circumstances (i.e. In the context of civilian reactor waste). By nature, radioactive waste is extremely corrosive, capable of breaching even specially- constructed, tightly sealed containers. In the United States, federal authorities enforce strict compliance with extensive rules and procedures for nuclear waste disposal, including comprehensive periodic testing of neighboring soil and ground water of large areas adjacent to nuclear waste sites.

Just the selection of suitable sites for nuclear disposal sites has generated intense political debate. Even the mere transportation of nuclear waste via road and rail has caused considerable concern, particularly in the Southwest. This is despite the fact that government tests have established quite conclusively that the shipping containers in which nuclear waste must be shipped are virtually impervious to rupture even under stresses and impacts far above those capable of being generated in high-speed collisions powerful enough to obliterate the vehicles transporting them (Goodman, 2002).

All this pertains to nuclear waste disposal that is very tightly regulated and controlled by multiple federal agencies enforcing volumes of technical specifications for every conceivable element relating to environmental safety and public health. There justification for heavily regulating the entire industry of nuclear waste disposal is uncontroverted, in light of the dangers known to be associated with human exposure through improper procedure and disposal design. In very sharp contrast, the (effective) disposal" of more than half a million pounds of raw, uncontained, and unshielded radioactive depleted Uranium… [END OF PREVIEW]

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