Common Questions About Depleted Uranium
Many people have questions about the storage and disposal of depleted uranium. It’s a little-understood field where there is a lot of information—and some misinformation—that people must sort through. In order to provide better information, EnergySolutions is working to ensure that consumers have as much information as they need to be educated about the process. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions, and answers, on depleted uranium.
What is Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium, often shortened to DU, is a man-made heavy metal compound that is radioactive. It’s a byproduct of uranium ore, and occurs naturally in uranium ore rock. Mining and process it from this rock yields a concentrated substance, and these efforts to get fissile uranium generate thousands of tons of DU that must be stored safely, because it has a radioactive half-life of billions of years.
Are There Environmental Dangers with Depleted Uranium?
Since it is a radioactive material, this chemical compound can have some impact on the surrounding environment, specifically if it’s not stored properly. As long as it remains outside the body, it presents very little risk to humans. There are studies that have shown that it will continue to heat up over time—for about 2 million years—before returning to its current levels. With proper storage facilities, many of the environmental risks can be minimized or even eliminated.
Are There Health Risks for People Near Depleted Uranium?
DU is hazardous to humans that have internal exposure. It is a chemically toxic product, its radioactive, and the fine metal particles or fumes can be inhaled or ingested by humans, where they can cause significant damage inside the body. Another potential risk is DU’s pyrophoric properties, meaning that it can burst into flames, even at low temperatures, when it is in the presence of oxygen. Once it hits a target, it burns at temperatures that could reach 6000 degrees Celsius (that’s over 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit), and the dust has been shown to travel as much as 25 miles.
However, most of these health risks are confined to those who are near depleted uranium when it’s used as a weapon, and the storage of this material has been shown to be safe when done correctly.
What is Depleted Uranium Used For?
Depleted uranium has uses for both military and civilian life. It is a dense metal—almost twice as dense as lead—and it reacts with non-metallic elements. It is used in munitions because it can spontaneously ignite at room temperature in the air or in water. It is also used for things like bullets, the nose of a missile, and as protective armor around tanks. Since it ignites on impact, has a very low melting point, and can pierce even heavy armor, it makes a great projectile in the military. Upon ignition, it disperses DU dust into the environment, which is inhaled or ingested by humans.
For civilian purposes, it works as a radiation shield in hospitals, in commercial aircraft as a counterweight for rudders or flaps, and as a ballast in yachts for military and non-military uses.
Where is Depleted Uranium Stored?
Currently DU is primarily stored at enrichment facilities, where it is kept in the form of uranium hexafluoride in 14-ton cylinders near enrichment facilities. This is only a short-term solution, though. In some cases it is then sold for commercial use, or the Department of Energy (USDOE) transfers it to a federal disposal site for a fee. Right now the USDOE has about 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in storage, but is running out of places where it can store these materials. EnergySolutions has proposed storing materials at its Clive facility in the west desert of Tooele County in Utah.