DU: A BURNING ISSUE

Private Eye No. 1056 14 June - 27 June 2002, page 26

LAST month's crash of a China Air Boeing 747 is a timely reminder of the presence of depleted uranium (DU) on board big jets. TriStars, DCIOs and all jumbos made before 1993 carry built-in bars of DU as counterweights in the tail of the aircraft.

Intact, DU presents no danger other than a minor emission of radioactive alpha particles. But when burnt, it releases deadly uranium oxide particles into the atmosphere that are known to travel on the wind for many miles. According to the US Institute for Molecular Medicine: "If even one particle of uranium oxide, of less than five micrometers, is trapped in the pulmonary system, the lungs and surrounding tissues can be exposed over a year up to 272 times the annual radiation dosage permitted radiation workers by US regulations."

After two jumbos collided in a fireball on the runway at Tenerife airport in the mid-1970s, a Spanish policeman died from effects thought to be related to DU poisoning. In Britain the problem was highlighted by the Lockerbie disaster. A policeman arrived at the hangar where the wreckage was being collected with a piece of metal shaped like a large bar of Toblerone, which was too heavy to carry. So he dragged it across the concrete floor, making the bar spark. It was a DU counterweight. Two of the 18 bars of DU from that aircraft are still missing. No problem according to the authorities — they probably fell into the Keilder reservoir.

In October 1992, an El-Al 747 freighter crashed into a block of flats in Amsterdam, killing 43 people. Of the 390kg of DU used as counterweights in that aircraft, only 130kg were ever recovered. DU particles were found both at the crash site and in the crash hangar. A Dutch parliamentary commission was ordered and concluded that: "In all probability the particles had been inhaled by rescue workers and citizens."

That warning that rescue services were vulnerable to uranium oxide was not taken seriously enough here in Britain. In December 1999 a Korean Airlines cargo 747 crashed on take- off from Stansted. Firemen fought and finally subdued the huge blaze resulting from the crash. Four bars of DU are still missing and are believed to have burnt and oxidised. While firemen closest to the blaze were using breathing apparatus, other firemen, police and ambulance workers had no protection. Nor were they warned of any dangers due to uranium oxide.

Malcolm Hooper, professor emeritus of the medicinal chemistry department of Sunderland University, is sure those dangers are very real. "I can't see any way you could have a significant fire in a crash like this without producing the conditions that would allow a potentially hazardous release of DU," he says. "If no precautions were taken at the scene, people would have been exposed to hazards that could prove fatal."

DU is the by-product created when uranium ore is enriched for use in nuclear weapons or nuclear power stations. For every ton of enriched uranium, 143 tons of DU are produced. It is readily available, cheap and is used in yacht keels, the tips of helicopter rotors, medical instruments, and enamel jewellery.