By Conrad Wetzel
One of the most significant wastes obtained from producing fuel for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs is depleted uranium. An isotope which can be fissioned is uranium U-235, the material used in civil and nuclear military industry. Because this isotope is found in very low proportions in nature, the uranium ore has to be enriched, i.e., its proportion of the U-235 isotope has to be industrially increased. This process produces a large amount of radioactive depleted uranium (DU) waste , thus named because it is mainly formed by the other non-fissionable uranium isotope, U-238 and a minimum proportion of U-235.
On Tuesday, December 15, 2011, I assisted Roger Golden in visiting several sites in Champaign-Urbana, to talk about his participation in a protest at the Aerojet Ordnance plant in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Aerojet is a producer of depleted uranium weapons. Roger, a native of Virginia and member of the Church of the Brethren, has been making a road trip through the Midwest, meeting with churches, school, and community groups to relate his story. Roger had participated in a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation in Jonesborough, TN. CPT has been involved since 2003 with the Aerojet Ordnance plant in Jonesborough. Aerojet is a producer of depleted uranium weapons. CPT is currently being assisted in its Aerojet Action by Appalachian Peace Education Center, a 30 year old peace group. Roger’s visit to our community included the taping of a half hour interview at Urbana Public Television (UPTV.)
To protect its own tanks, the American military industry has been using depleted uranium (DU) since 1977 to coat conventional weaponry (artillery, tanks and aircraft), as a needed counterbalance in aircraft and Tomahawk missiles, and as a component for navigation instruments. Depleted uranium has characteristics making it highly attractive for military technology: firstly, it is extremely dense and heavy (3 cubic centimeters weighs almost 19 grams), such that projectiles with a depleted uranium head can penetrate the armored steel of military vehicles and buildings; secondly, it is a spontaneous pyrophoric material, i.e., it inflames when reaching its target generating such heat that it explodes. Because of questions about potential long-term health effects, the use of DU in munitions is controversial. Since uranium is a toxic metal, normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by uranium exposure. It is weakly radioactive and remains so because of its long physical half-life (4.468 billion years for uranium-238, 700 million years for uranium-235). The biological half-life (the average time it takes for the human body to eliminate half the amount in the body) for uranium is about 15 days. Aerosol or spallation frangible powder produced during impact and combustion of depleted uranium munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas around the impact sites. This can lead to inhalation by human beings.
A high number of children are being born with birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where U.S. forces used DU-coated weapons during a fierce battle in 2004. Children in Fallujah are being born with limb, head, heart and nervous system defects. There is even a claim that a baby was born with three heads. The number of heart defects among newborn babies is said to be 13 times higher than the rate in Europe. The city, forty miles west of Baghdad, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war in late 2004. U.S. Marines led Operation Phantom Fury to recapture it from insurgents. British troops were involved in manning checkpoints on the outskirts of the city as the Americans went in. The U.S. has admitted that it also used white phosphorus in the attack, but only as an illumination device For millions of years, our planet earth has provided a marvelous home for the many life forms that have evolved, including our own. The intricate balance of such factors as oxygen, light, warmth, and nutrients has enabled the development of our civilizations, of our human families, our communities, our richly varied societies, our future generations. The earth deserves our enlightened care and maintenance in contrast to the many ways in which we so shortsightedly and carelessly exploit these irreplaceable resources. All this is greatly compounded by the extent to which DU and other toxic weapons is a byproduct of preparation for war. The need is urgent for us to learn and apply the ways of peace, justice, diplomacy, and reconciliation, rather than continuing our present mutually destructive course of the violence and destruction of war. Oh, that we might learn the ways of peace.
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