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Colombian uranium nonsense

nuclear bombPUNCHSTOCK.JPGThere’s a story doing the rounds at the moment that Colombian rebel group FARC is planning to make a ‘dirty bomb’ out of uranium. This story first blew up last week and has been recycled ever since, and it’s not really true.

The government has seized 30 kg of “radioactive” depleted uranium according to a number of reports. Except depleted uranium is barely radioactive. It’s dangerous alright, but only when made into tank shells.

It is toxic, but so are most heavy metals. You’d be better off making a dirty bomb out of mercury than DU.

The head of Colombia’s armed forces says a buried cache of uranium was found thanks to information from those close to an arms dealer whose name was found on a computer belonging to deceased rebel Raul Reyes (Bloomberg). “It’s exactly the same material listed on Reyes’ computer. Why the FARC were so anxious to obtain this material we still don’t know,” says General Freddy Padilla.

Pro-FARC news agency ANNCOL has rubbished the claims.

Below the fold are a couple of people who got it right about depleted uranium.

LA Times

Depleted uranium is not sufficiently radioactive to be suitable for a device that could be used as a dirty bomb, said Charles Ferguson, a nuclear affairs specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. … A bomb made with depleted uranium might “have panicked people for a little while, but the alarm wouldn’t have lasted” once the public realized that the health threat was negligible, he said.

FAS Strategic Security Blog

Given the consequences, any possibly, even a remote possibility, that terrorists might have got hold of enriched uranium should be taken seriously and investigated.

But many related past newspaper articles have been weak on several points: they are vague on the important differences between uranium and enriched uranium; they incorrectly assert or imply that, even if not useful for a nuclear bomb, then uranium could be used to make a dirty bomb; and they are insufficiently skeptical of these reports, failing to put them into context by explaining how common uranium and dirty bomb scams are.

Image: Punchstock


  1. Report this comment

    James Salsman said:
    • Hindin, R., et al. (2005) “Teratogenicity of depleted uranium aerosols: A review from an epidemiological perspective,” Environmental Health, vol. 4, pp. 17. Conclusion: “the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU…. Animal studies firmly support the possibility that DU is a teratogen.”
    • Arfsten, D.P., et al. (2001) “A review of the effects of uranium and depleted uranium exposure on reproduction and fetal development,” Toxicology and Industrial Health, vol. 17, pp. 180-91. Summary contains: “A number of studies have shown that natural uranium is a reproductive toxicant….” (U.S. Navy Toxicology Detachment work)
    • Durakovic A. (1999) “Medical effects of internal contamination with uranium,” Croatian Medical Journal, vol. 40, pp. 49-66. Abstract: “well documented evidence of reproductive and developmental toxicity….” (former U.S. Veterans Administration M.D. work)
    • Domingo, J.L. (2001) “Reproductive and developmental toxicity of natural and depleted uranium: a review,” Reproductive Toxicology, vol. 15, pp. 603-9. Abstract: “Decreased fertility, embryo/fetal toxicity including teratogenicity, and reduced growth of the offspring have been observed following uranium exposure at different gestation periods.”
    • Miller, A.C., et al. (2003) “Depleted uranium-catalyzed oxidative DNA damage: absence of significant alpha particle decay,” Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, vol. 91, pp. 246-252. Abstract: chemical generation of hydroxyl radicals by depleted uranium in vitro exceeds radiolytic generation by one million-fold (U.S. Army work)
    • Horan, P., et al. (2002) “The quantitative analysis of depleted uranium isotopes in British, Canadian, and U.S. Gulf War veterans.” Military Medicine 167(8) pp. 620-7. Summary: depleted uranium was in the urine of 14 of 27 veterans complaining of Gulf War illness.
    • Schröder, H., et al. (2003) “Chromosome aberration analysis in peripheral lymphocytes of Gulf war and Balkans war veterans,” Radiation Protection Dosimetry, vol. 103, pp. 211-220. Abstract: “there was a statistically significant increase in the frequency of dicentric and centric ring chromosomes in the veterans. group” (see also this report by the “Conspiracy Test” series — — showing the same results.)
    • Doyle, P., et al. (2004) “Miscarriage, stillbirth and congenital malformation in the offspring of UK veterans of the first Gulf war” International Journal of Epidemiology 33(1) pp. 74-86. Abstract: “Male Gulf war veterans reported a higher proportion of offspring with any type of malformation than the comparison cohort (OR = 1.5, 95% CI: 1.3, 1.7).”
    • Al-Sadoon, et al. (1999) “Depleted uranium and health of people in Basrah: epidemilogical evidence.” Medical Journal of Basrah University 17(1-2) Summary: birth defects in Basrans took off about the same time that they did in U.S. and U.K. troops.
    • Fathallah, Z.F. (2007) “Effects of socioeconomic factors on the incidence and pattern of oro-facial cleft.” Basrah Journal of Surgery, March, 13, 2007 Excerpt: “in Basrah the ncrease in incidence within a short time can not be explained by just increase of world wide incidence, but rather increase infiltration of harmful environmental factors, especially DU”
    • Miller, A.C., et al. (2007) “A review of depleted uranium biological effects: in vitro and in vivo studies.” Review of Environmental Health 22(1) pp. 75-89. Abstract: “studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents continue to suggest the possibility of leukemogenic, genetic, reproductive, and neurological effects” (U.S. Army work)

    The UN General Assembly agendized another look at DU because of this problem with a WHO report saying it was harmless:

    DR REPACHOLI: We want a comprehensive report – we want to include everything that we can – but we don’t want fairytale stuff – it wasn’t collaborated by other reports – that was felt to the level that science would say this was established.

    ANGUS STICKLER: My understanding is that at the time that there were eight published peer reviewed research studies – attesting to the genotoxic nature of uranium – all of which could have been included in the monograph?

    REPACHOLI: Yep – these – er – papers were speculative at the time and W.H.O. will only publish data that they know is established.

    STICKLER: Shouldn’t the World Health Organisation err on the side of caution?

    REPACHOLI: W.H.O is a conservative organisation there’s no doubt – it’s not a leader in this sort of thing – it’s not out there saying wow we should be concerned about this, this and this – it’s not there to do that….

    DR REPACHOLI: The problem that W.H.O had and it went right up to the Director General’s office that it was finally disapproved at that level was that on the basis of the evidence that we have – we can’t conclude that it is harmful – and to have a paper from another W.H.O staff member that says we absolutely think it’s harmful – makes W.H.O look a bit odd.

    STICKLER: With the greatest respect – that’s going to have very little truck with someone who may get seriously ill because of depleted uranium the fact that the W.H.O. may look a bit odd?

    REPACHOLI: No the odd part is that it looks like W.H.O. is not in control of its shop….

    “I’ve been to several international conferences where I’ve heard Iraqi medical physicians summarise health statistics on the occurrence of birth defects and non Hodgkin’s Lymphomas and the rise in incidents in these kind of effects especially in the area of southern Iraq and the Basra area appears quite alarming on the basis of the figures that I’ve seen – significant data – that would suggest that we should be erring on the side of caution here – and it ought to be investigated” Professor Parrish told us.

    I have a great deal more peer-reviewed sources on this topic, and I greatly enjoy discussing it. I am not affiliated with any anti-DU group but I have filed three petitions on the subject with the NRC in 2005-2007, one of which is still in process.

    James Salsman

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    Joe said:

    The troubling thing is where or whom did the FARC rebels buy the depleted Uranium from? There are no nuclear plants nor nuclear facilities known in Colombia, nor Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama, or Peru. It is apparent that the FARC were attempting to use it in a money making scam.

  3. Report this comment

    James Salsman said:

    Dear Dr. Cressey,

    I am checking these comments daily, and I’m interested if the excerpts I posted have made you change your mind.

    Nature Publishing Group has some exhibits in Second Life, and I have been helping to contribute but not done anything with DU there yet.

    I wonder if you would like to collaborate — the minimum would simply be to review the exhibits, say in a month’s time, and provide critical comments. Is that something you might have an hour or two for in a month?

    James Salsman

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    Malcom Reynolds said:

    This was a very interesting discussion to follow. I will be very eager to see more light shed on this story in the future.

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