The phrase “depleted uranium” might automatically bring up visions of something sinister in your mind, but its important to ask the question, is depleted uranium truly dangerous, or can it be safe?
What is Depleted Uranium?
Before answering that question, it’s a good idea to have a little background on what this material actually is. After the radioactive isotopes of naturally-occurring uranium are removed for use in nuclear energy or nuclear weapons to create uranium-235, the “depleted” uranium, or uranium-238, is left. It has many different uses, from creating munitions and protection for things like tanks, as well as being used in the aviation and maritime industries.
A Study of Depleted Uranium
Even after the radioactive isotopes are removed, depleted uranium can still be slightly radioactive, and since it’s a heavy metal, there is a potential for adverse health effects if it’s consumed (the most common way people might get it inside their bodies is through metal fragments after it’s used in weaponry, or in dust-like particles after it’s fired or cooked-off in an explosion. Fortunately, though, when it remains outside the body, it is generally not harmful. These effects have been studies for over 50 years, and in September 1999 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a report called the Toxicological Profile for Uranium declaring that they were not a radiation hazard.
Many have questioned whether depleted uranium can safely be stored. About 95 percent of today’s depleted uranium is stored as uranium hexafluoride (D)UF6. It’s stored in steel cylindrical containers in open-air yards close to the enrichment plants until it can be transported safely to a more permanent storage facility like the ones maintained by EnergySolutions. These cylinders contain about 14 tons and must be permanently stored in places where they will not be exposed to moisture in the air, which can react with the contents inside to create the toxic uranyl fluoride (UO2F2) and hydrogen fluoride (HF). For that reason, storage facilities must be inspected and maintained, and the containers continually inspected to prevent leaks.
While there may be some question as to whether exposure on the battlefield could potentially be harmful to soldiers and civilians in the area, discarded depleted uranium, when safely stored in facilities, has been found to be safe for the public. That’s why EnergySolutions is continually working on ways to make their storage facilities more secure, safer, and better prepared for whatever might happen.