Men in hazard suits working

Assessing Depleted Uranium in Iraq.  Photo: United Nations Environment Programme

On January 23, 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced they were approving a “fourth line of production” at the Mid America Conversion facility. Mid America is located on the 4,000-acre Portsmouth Nuclear Site at Piketon, Ohio.  The new fourth line would make Depleted Uranium Hexafluoride (DUF4.)

Translate that to English, you say?  There is no use for DUF4 other than to make depleted uranium munitions, explosive devices, and armored vehicles. The Defense Department wants a more refined form of depleted uranium to make heavy nosecones for the B-61 bomb, a surprisingly small “earth-penetrating” thermonuclear weapon. And what would be the target?  Iran has its uranium enrichment facilities underground. This would be illegal under international law. And the DUF4 process will cause more radioactive contamination in and around the Portsmouth site.

What is depleted uranium?  Depleted uranium (DU) is the waste from uranium enrichment. Enrichment increases the concentration of the “usable” uranium isotope U-235, which is the isotope that can fission (split), releasing tremendous energy.  Starting with refined uranium which has a concentration of U-235 which is less than 1%, enrichment increases that concentration to 3-5% for nuclear power and 90% for nuclear weapons.  Portsmouth’s complicated enrichment process used as much electricity as New York City according to the former Atomic Energy Commission. The now-shuttered enrichment buildings cover 100 acres under roof. Most of the original uranium becomes DU waste—its usable content is depleted.

The purpose of the Portsmouth Nuclear Site:  Uranium was enriched at Portsmouth from the 1950s until 2001, first to make nuclear weapons and later for commercial power. As if contaminating pristine farmland with uranium were not bad enough, the DOE brought in reprocessed high-level radioactive waste and ran it through the enrichment buildings for decades, contaminating the entire site with plutonium and other extremely radioactive elements. As a result, Portsmouth’s depleted uranium is contaminated with high-level radioactive waste.  In military lingo, this is “dirty” DU.  

The role of Mid America Conversion:  Incredibly, the enrichment process requires uranium, the heaviest natural element on earth, to be made into a gas.  This is done in Illinois by combining uranium with fluorine, making uranium hexafluoride (UF6.) Portsmouth’s enrichment waste, depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) is highly chemically reactive due to its fluorine. It is eating its way out of 19 thousand 14-ton cylinders, some of which are pictured in the accompanying photo. At Mid America, fluorine is removed, making it less chemically reactive, but the resulting DU has almost all its original radioactivity

What is this new DUF4 process?  Mid America would only remove part of the fluorine, making depleted uranium hexafluoride, or DUF4.  This is an intermediary product for the production of depleted uranium munitions. 

Cost Saving for DOE: There is a major cost difference between disposing of DU as low-level radioactive waste at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, versus profiting from selling DU to munitions makers. 

Use of Depleted Uranium in Warfare: DU is used as armor in tanks and in armor-piercing shells and bunker-buster bombs. Using depleted uranium for weapons and armoring of vehicles is highly controversial because of its implications for environmental sustainability, public and troop health, and international law. Thousands of tons of DU munitions have been detonated in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Serious health risks occur when this material is ingested or inhaled. Birth defects in Iraq have greatly increased. Serbia has been attempting to sue the NATO nations for DU dropped there in the 1990s.  The U.S. attempted to deny a connection between veterans’ “Gulf War Syndrome” and DU.  DU test areas have been contaminated, including the former Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana, which the army claims is too dangerous to clean up

Where do we go from here?  In February, 2020, Toledo environmental attorney Terry Lodge wrote a 16-page petition letter to DOE The letter was signed by 36 organizations. In the letter, Lodge “reminded” DOE that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is required for any new process. DOE responded in March, denying the petition by pretending that they missed the point of Lodge’s letter.  Activists are investigating to determine what the options are, considering whether suing or working through a U.S. House committee would be viable.

Another choice?  The Pentagon is scrapping 35 million DU rounds because they are becoming increasingly unsafe to use. Disposing of these munitions, including hundreds of thousands of armor-piercing tank shells, is its own challenge.  More DUF4 must be made if there are to be DU munitions in the future.  Meanwhile, the military has been thinking about using less-controversial tungsten to replace DU in new munitions.   

Conclusion:  Every effort must be made to prevent more depleted uranium weapons from entering the world.

The Mid-America Conversion Facility at Portsmouth