In order to sustain a chain reaction by the splitting of the nuclei of uranium atoms, the relative presence of uranium-235 must be increased within a mass of uranium-238. Reactor-grade uranium requires a relative abundance of 3.2 - 3.6% uranium-235. Weapon-grade uranium requires a relative abundance of uranium-235 of 90% or more. To achieve these concentrations, natural uranium is sent through an enrichment process whereby atoms of uranium-235 are separated from natural uranium and concentrated to form "enriched" uranium to the required concentration. The natural uranium from which uranium-235 has been removed is now "depleted," from 0.720% of uranium-235 to approximately 0.202% uranium-235. The relative concentrations of the three uranium isotopes in depleted uranium are: uranium-238 (99.797%), uranium-235 (0.202%) and uranium- 234 (0.0008%).
In the process of separating uranium-235, most of the uranium-234 is also removed. As a consequence, depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium. To compare this difference in radioactivity between natural uranium and depleted uranium, physicists compare their specific activity, i.e., number of disintegrations per second per gram of each material. The specific activity of natural uranium (considering only the alpha emissions from the uranium and ignoring the radioactivity of the decay products) is 0.67 microcuries per gram. This means that in every gram of concentrated natural uranium, 24,790 uranium atoms are undergoing radioactive decay each second. The specific activity of depleted uranium (again ignoring the radioactivity of the daughter products) is 0.4 microcuries per gram. This is equivalent to 14,800 disintegrations each second. Comparing the two, depleted uranium is 40% less radioactive than "natural" uranium.
The rhetorical sleight of hand contained in the term "depleted" uranium can now be understood. Those defending the use of depleted uranium armaments never tire of mentioning the fact that DU is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium. This statement is gobbledygook. It is a playing with words in order to sow confusion. The idea being planted in the mind of the public is that, because it is "depleted", it is less radioactive than the uranium to which we all are constantly being exposed. BUT THIS IS NOT THE CASE. It must be recalled that the term "natural uranium" is a technical term referring to uranium that has been purified, chemically separated and concentrated from yellowcake. When compared to this form of uranium, depleted uranium is in fact 40% less radioactive. But what relevance does this have? The vast majority of people on earth are never exposed to uranium ore, yellowcake or "natural uranium." Only a small number of employees in the nuclear industries are exposed to "natural uranium." The uranium to which the average person is exposed on a daily basis, the ubiquitous uranium in the environment from rocks and soil, is hundreds of thousands of times less concentrated than so-called "natural uranium." In an honest comparison, the radioactivity of depleted uranium must be compared to the radioactivity of the uranium found in nature that enters the human body through dietary intake. When this is done, as in the example provided earlier comparing two 2.5 micron particles, it turns out that depleted uranium is substantially more radioactive. To once again quote Dr. Rosalie Bertell, "Depleted uranium is some thousand times more radioactive than natural uranium in its natural state [i.e. the uranium found in nature] in soil and rock" (Betell 2000).
The truth of the matter is that uranium munitions vastly increase the amount of uranium in the environment in which they are fired. They liberate concentrated particles of uranium which are not normally found in nature. The radiological hazard created by the inhalation and ingestion of this material is substantially greater than that received from the normal dietary intake of uranium. "Depleted" uranium is not depleted when compared to uranium as it is found in nature. It is a concentrated form of uranium that is more radioactive. Human beings who take depleted uranium into their bodies are receiving unnaturally elevated doses of radiation to the cell clusters in the immediate vicinity around which a particle of DU is lodged.
Depleted uranium does not pose a radiological hazard because it emits alpha particles which are so weak that they cannot even penetrate the skin.
The statement that alpha particles are incapable of penetrating the skin is true. Its incessant repetition in government propaganda is to plant the idea in the public mind that the radiation emitted by uranium is too weak to penetrate the body and adversely affect human health. The deceit hidden in this statement is contained in what it leaves unsaid.
The discussion that follows is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Harrison Martland, a pioneer in the study of internal contamination by radionuclides who carried out extensive research on the failing health of the radium dial painters over 70 years ago. In an article published in 1929, he remarked: "Alpha particles are probably the most potent and destructive agents known to science" (Martland).
When an atom of uranium-238 undergoes radioactive decay, it emits an alpha particle from its nucleus. An alpha particle is identical to the nucleus of a helium atom. It consists of two protons and two neutrons bound together. The two protons give this particle two units of positive electrical charge. In contrast, electrons orbiting the nuclei of atoms possess one unit of negative electrical charge. As most people remember from playing with magnets as children, unlike charges attract each other. When an emitted alpha particle courses past atoms in the medium in which it is released, electromagnetic interactions between the particle and orbital electrons are such that the force acting on the electrons is sufficient to propel their escape from the atoms to which they are bound. For purposes of this discussion, an alpha particle can be visualized as a powerful, irresistible magnet, effortlessly dislocating orbital electrons and liberating them.
Imagine an atom of hydrogen. A single electron orbits a nucleus consisting of a single proton. The atom is electrically neutral. The positive charge of the single proton is balanced by the negative charge of the electron. When an alpha particle comes in proximity with this atom, it draws the electron from its orbit around the proton, releasing it into the surrounding medium. Simultaneously, the positively charged proton is liberated from its electron. What has taken place is ionization. An electrically neutral atom has been broken into a pair of oppositely charged particles. Ionization of more complex molecules can also occur. In a molecule consisting of two or more atoms bonded together, the ejection of an orbital electron can sever the bond between atoms creating pairs of oppositely charged particles. The charged particles created by ionization, once liberated into the surrounding medium, go on to ionize other molecules. Ion pairs have an extremely short lifespan, on the order of 10-18 to 10-16 seconds. They then undergo one of many reactions that lead to the formation of free radicals. When ions and free radicals are produced in a biological medium, they are extremely reactive agents, and they promote chemical chaos in neighboring molecules. On average, the transfer of 34 electron-volts of energy is required to break the chemical bond holding together one of the molecules in our body. A single alpha particle ejected from one uranium atom carries an energy of approximately 4.18 million electron- volts. Thus, one alpha particle has the potential of creating ~123,000 ionizations. In a cascading effect, the charged particles created in these ionizing events go on to initiate millions more ionizations. An alpha particle is a bull in the proverbial china shop. It massively disrupts the chemical integrity of the molecules that constitute a living system. What distinguishes a biological system from lifeless matter is its ordered structure. This ordered structure is the medium in which the exquisite choreography of living processes takes place. Ionizing radiation overwhelms ordered structure and renders it into fragmented chaos unable to carry out further biological activity. This in turn may manifest as metabolic changes in a cell and may ultimately manifest at the macroscopic level as illness.
To understand fully the destructiveness of an alpha particle, one must visualize what goes on as the alpha particle traverses a biological medium. Ejected from the nucleus of a uranium atom undergoing radioactive decay, a high-energy alpha particle is set in motion. It follows a straight path called a track. Being so effective in causing ionization, ionizing events occur in very close proximity to each other. Alpha particles are said to have high LET or linear energy transfer. They transfer more electron volts per micrometer than any other type of radiation thus creating a dense pattern of ionization along their tracks. In each interaction with an orbital electron, the alpha particle transfers some of its energy and is progressively slowed down. As it slows, the density of ionization actually increases. The alpha particle creates so much breakage and liberates so many electrons in such a minute span that its energy is rapidly dissipated and in no time comes to a complete stop. Binding with liberated electrons, the alpha particle is transformed into an atom of helium. In a biological medium, an alpha particle has a range of between 17 and 30 microns. In other words, an alpha particle will not traverse more than about 3-5 cell diameters. It is within this short range that all the biological damage it has initiated takes place. A massive assault on the chemical integrity of a small population of cells is the end result.
This is the key to the lie about alpha particles. Alpha particles are not weak. They do not penetrate the skin to any depth because they are rapidly slowed by all the molecular destruction they are causing. It is their extreme destructiveness that slows them down so rapidly. It is like an invading army which does not invade too far into enemy territory because it expends all its force obliterating the first settlement it comes to.
Now, the coup de grace. Government propaganda always frames discussion of alpha particles in terms of their inability to penetrate the skin. But they conveniently omit to mention what happens when alpha particles are emitted within the interior of the body. People exposed to uranium munitions inhale uranium into their bodies. Microscopic particles become lodged in the lungs. Some are scavenged into the lymph nodes. Others escape into the systemic circulation. A major site of deposit is in bone, but autopsies of soldiers contaminated by depleted uranium reveal uranium deposited in many different organ systems. These particles lodged within tissue become a point source of ongoing radiation to surrounding cells as individual atoms of uranium decay. Alpha particles are emitted in a spherical volume around an embedded uranium particle, the radius of this sphere being the distance alpha particles are capable of traversing. The number of cells at risk are limited by the range of the alpha particles. Within this sphere, molecular havoc is rampant, cellular biological damage is created, and the process is ongoing as the individual atoms making up a uranium particle continue to decay over time. Particularly vulnerable are all DNA molecules within the spherical volume around an embedded particle of uranium. Alpha interactions with DNA can cause various kinds of damage such as single-strand breaks, double-strand breaks, base losses, base changes, DNA-DNA crosslinks, and DNAprotein crosslinks. These dramatic alterations in genetic integrity can permanently alter cellular function by causing faulty reproduction of biologically essential molecules. They can also cause genetic damage that is passed on to daughter cells during cell replication. Such mutations can have catastrophic results to the entire organism. The genetic study of cancer cells has determined that all cancers are monoclonal, i.e., a cancer mass consists of the uncontrolled reproduction of a single cell. Even one atom of uranium undergoing alpha decay has the potential for creating a fatal cancer. The type of cancer will depend upon which type of cell is altered.
The nuclear establishment has a long history of intentionally blurring the distinction between external exposure to radioactivity and internal contamination. This gambit has been so successful that after half a century the public has yet to awaken to the danger of low-level radiation released into the environment. The Cult of Nuclearists can survive only in this atmosphere of somnolence. When the public finally awakens to the extreme hazard of internal contamination, it will be outraged.
During the 1950s, when America was testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, concern among the population began to grow about the health effects of fallout. To counter this fear, the Atomic Energy Commission intentionally framed news releases about fallout in terms of the hazard posed to the exterior of the human body through irradiation by x-rays and gamma rays. It kept the public in ignorance of the internal hazard posed by the ingestion of contaminated food and water and the inhalation of dust contaminated by radionuclides. This campaign of misinformation was unconscionable. Over the long term, it is internal contamination by radionuclides released into the environment that presents the greater hazard to the health of populations. The intention to confuse the public about the different types of radiation hazard is pervasive even today. Any time there is a release of radiation into the environment, spokesmen for government and industry always frame the discussion for the public in terms of external irradiation. The subject of internal radiation is quietly swept under the table.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
The debris from uranium munitions settles rapidly to the ground in the immediate environs of a destroyed target...
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