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36 Envtl. L. Rep. News & Analysis 10474 (2006)
Radioactive Warfare: Depleted Uranium Weapons: The Environment, and International Law

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     Copyright © 2006 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. reprinted with permission from ELR®, http://www.eli.org, 1-800-433-5120.
36 ELR 10474                                                  R                                               6-2006



                                              NEWS&ANALYSIS








               Radioactive Warfare: Depleted Uranium Weapons,
                        the Environment, and International Law

                                                by Robert Thompson

                     Editors 'Summary: No one can deny the terrible toll that a nuclear bomb has on
                     humans and our environment. But what about the impacts of weapons contain-
                     ing depleted uranium (DU), a low-level radioactive waste product? A number
                     of countries, including the United States, have usedDUmunitions during times
                     of war In this Article, Prof Robert Thompson discusses the health and environ-
                     mental impacts of DU munitions. He also examines international laws and
                     guiding principles, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions, which may
                     be helpful in addressing DU contamination. Although more questions than an-
                     swers remain about the use ofDU, Professor Thompson argues that given its in-
                     herently dangerous and toxic nature, nations wishing to use DUmustfirstprove
                     that it can be used without harming future generations.


I. Introduction

The methods and modes of warfare have changed over the
millennia. Humans have gone from sticks and rocks to the
use of fissionable matter. Whether we consider this ad-
vancement or regression for the human race is debatable;
the expansion of warfare tactics is indeed real. During this
regression or evolution, an idea surfaced to use the leftover
toxic and radioactive mixture remaining from the uranium
enrichment process to produce munitions and armaments.
Since the beginnings of the nuclear age in the 1940s, the
United States has produced approximately 700,000 metric
tons (1.6 billion pounds) of depleted uranium (DU).1 The
U.S. military admittedly used DU during the 1991 Gulf
War.2 The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Or-
ganization (NATO) have also used these weapons during
the conflicts in the Balkans, Kosovo, and Yugoslavia, and
the U.S. military continues to use DU weapons in the cur-

Robert Thompson is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Florida A&M
University College of Law in Orlando, Florida, where he teaches courses
in patent law, intellectual property, contracts, business organizations, and
law, science, and medicine. Professor Thompson is a Registered Patent
Attorney, chemist, and chemical engineer with over 15 years of laboratory
and aerospace experience.
  1. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE DIVISION, FINAL PROGRAMMATIC ENVI-
    RONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT FOR ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES
    FOR THE LONG-TERM MANAGEMENT AND USE OF DU HEXAFLU-
    ORIDE S-2 (2004) (DOE/EIS-0269), available at http://web.ead.
    anl.gov/uranium/documents/nepacomp/index.cfm [hereinafter FI-
    NAL EIS].
  2. DU Library, DUin the Gulf War, available at http://www.deployment
    link.osd.mil/du library/gulfwar.shtml (last visited Apr. 28, 2006);
    see also U.S. Department of Defense, Briefing on Depleted Uranium
    (Mar. 14,2003), available athttp://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/
    2003/t03142003 t314depu.html.


rent Iraq War.3 Other countries believed to possess DU
weapons include Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Israel, Ku-
wait, Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thai-
land, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, and the
United Kingdom.4
  There are many environmental and health-related prob-
lems with using DU weapons. DU weapons are inherently
toxic, both chemically and radiologically. DU weapons can
aerosolize upon impact with their radioactive particles, po-
tentially spreading for miles. This aerosol may also come to
rest in the soil, or the wind may sweep the aerosol into the air
again. Alternatively, the aerosol may find its way to sources
of water where it will continue to contaminate the water for
billions of years.5 Many scientists also believe that this air,

  3. UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAM (UNEP), DU IN
    Kosovo, POST-CONFLICT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT 7 (2001),
    available at http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/uranium.pdf
    (last visited Apr. 17, 2006) [hereinafter DU IN KoSoVo].
  4. DAN FAHEY, THE EMERGENCE AND DECLINE OF THE DEBATE
    OVER DEPLETED URANIUM MUNITIONS 5, 6 (2005), available at
    http://www.wise-uranium.org/pdf/duemdec.pdf.
  5. The half-life of uranium is approximately 4.5 billion years. The half-
    life of a radioactive element is the time it takes for one-half of its at-
    oms to decay into something else. For example, the half-life of ra-
    dium-226 is 1,600 years. Therefore, in 1,600 years, one gram of ra-
    dium-226 will turn into one-half gram of radium-226 and one-half
    gram of something else (the radioactive decay products of radium).
    After another 1,600 years, one-quarter gram of the original ra-
    dium-226 will remain. DU, therefore, will remain radioactive for bil-
    lions of years as it continues to produce radioactive decay products.
    As these radioactive decay products accumulate, DU may, in fact,
    become even more radioactive as the centuries and millennia go by.
    The radioactive decay byproducts of uranium-238 include thorium-
    234, protactinium-234, uranium-234, thorium-230, radium-226, ra-
    don-222, polonium-218, lead-214, bismuth-214, polonium-214,
    lead-210, bismuth-210, polonium 210, and lead-206, all of which are

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