SOUTHERN DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Iraq -- On the "Highway of Death," 11 miles north of the Kuwait border, a collection of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles are rusting in the desert.
They also are radiating nuclear energy.
In 1991, the United States and its Persian Gulf War allies blasted the vehicles with armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium -- the first time such weapons had been used in warfare -- as the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait. The devastating results gave the highway its name.
Today, nearly 12 years after the use of the super-tough weapons was credited with bringing the war to a swift conclusion, the battlefield remains a radioactive toxic wasteland -- and depleted uranium munitions remain a mystery.
Although the Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, Iraqi doctors believe that it is responsible for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects in the region. Many researchers outside Iraq, and several U.S. veterans organizations, agree; they also suspect depleted uranium of playing a role in Gulf War Syndrome, the still-unexplained malady that has plagued hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans.
Depleted uranium is a problem in other former war zones as well. Yesterday, U.N. experts said they found radioactive hot spots in Bosnia resulting from the use of depleted uranium during NATO air strikes in 1995...
That was in November 2002. The Quiet in Iraq about this has only increased: with the addition of the Information War on Terror, you'd expect to hear nothing more about it.
And you don't.
...Depleted uranium, known as DU, is a highly dense metal that is the byproduct of the process during which fissionable uranium used to manufacture nuclear bombs and reactor fuel is separated from natural uranium. DU remains radioactive for about 4.5 billion years.
...DU shell holes in the vehicles along the Highway of Death are 1,000 times more radioactive than background radiation, according to Geiger counter readings done for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Dr. Khajak Vartaanian, a nuclear medicine expert from the Iraq Department of Radiation Protection in Basra, and Col. Amal Kassim of the Iraqi navy.
The desert around the vehicles was 100 times more radioactive than background radiation; Basra, a city of 1 million people, some 125 miles away, registered only slightly above background radiation level.
One can't help but wonder where Dr. Khajak Vartaanian and Col. Amal Kassim are today.
One can't help but wonder what the background radiation of Basra is today.
The easily fissible form of uranium, 235U, is removed from uranium to leave a dense, hard metal (at room temperature) that ignites and burns furiously in an explosion. So depleted uranium is the casing of choice for kinetic weapons, and has been used extensively in Iraq. It is only weakly radioactive and impossible to detect using a Geiger counter, which relies upon radioactive particles to ionize a gas in the detector, generating a current signal. The positvely charged alpha particle emitted by uranium isoope decay is very weak, and hardly penetrates the wall of the Geiger counter.
So what are the doctor and the Colonel detecting?
All uranium isotopes emit neutrons as they decay, which are uncharged and penetrating, until they hit another atomic nucleus.
Isotopes half-life.... half-life.... particle
232U.... 68.9 y....... α & SF
233U.... 159,200 y.... SF & α
234U.... 245,500 y.... SF & α
235U.... 7.038×108 y.... SF & α
236U.... 2.342×107 y.... SF & α
238U.... 4.468×109 y.... SF & α
Where SF stands for spontaneous fission.
Let's repeat that. All uranium isotopes emit neutrons as they decay, it's only the 235U that can be coaxed into an artificial chain reaction.
So what happens as the uranium oxide dust remaining after a uranium munition is burned decays? It makes the atoms around it radioactive as a released uncharged neutron hits the adjacent atomic nuclei. This induces secondary ionization and chemical reactions in the tissue the uranium oxide slowly decays.
I say "in the tissue" because uranium oxide, like silicon oxide, stays in your lungs if it lands there. Or in your kidneys if it gets into your bloodstream through your gut. For the rest of your life, making your tissue radioactive. It's notoriously hard to detect because uranium doesn't produce a lot of primary ionizing radiation, and the radioactive secondary elements it produces are easily excreted. After they've done their damage.
Hence this post of mine from 3 years ago, and this one too. But this problem looks like its going to be around for a few billion years, so it's probably a good idea to keep writing about it. You certainly aren't going to hear a word about it from your government.