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Ten facts about depleted uranium

As we were approaching the Tenerife airport yesterday, I suddenly remembered something... 
The thing is, I have this weird fascination for accidents and catastrophes (Titanic, bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Chernobyl accident, and more or less all accidents from "air crash investigation ") - which is probably one of the main reasons I was interested in nuclear physics in the first place. If you're like me, you might know which thing, or accident, I came to think about as we were approaching the airport? It was of course the Tenerife accident of March 1977, involving two Boeing-747, that crashed at the runway, killing close to 600 people. If you're weird like me, you probably don't think I'm completely crazy for googling the accident. (If you're not like me, you might think I'm insane for reading all I could find about the deadliest air crash ever, just before I'm about to go on a six hours flight :v )
First I found a very interesting and well written article, but after I had read this, and still wanted more, I kept scrolling, and suddenly I saw the two words depleted uranium. I don't think it was from the most serious web page ever, but I was inspired by it to make ten facts about this mysterious material - check fact number 10 for why the Tenerife air crash and depleted uranium have anything to do with each other:

  1. depleted uranium is what you get when you take natural uranium, and you enrich it to get enriched uranium for nuclear fuel - the "waste" from this process is the depleted uranium (natural uranium minus enriched uranium equals depleted uranium, to sort of make into an equation <3) reason why it's called "depleted" is that it's depleted in the fissile uranium-235 
  2. natural uranium is made by uranium-238, uranium-235, and uranium-234. The uranium-238 isotope makes up 99.275%, uranium-235 is 0.72%, and uranium-234 is just 0.0054%. Depleted uranium is made up by typically 99.799% uranium-238, 0.2% uranium-235, and 0.001% uranium-234
  3. depleted uranium is often called just DU
  4. it's the least radioactive kind of uranium: depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium - meaning it's close to not radioactive at all. Uranium-238 has an activity of 12 445 Bequerels per gram, uranium-235: 80 011 Bequerels per gram, and uranium-234: 231 million Bequerels per gram. The total activity of natural uranium is therefore: 25 280 Bequerel from 1 gram (meaning that 25 280 atoms of the uranium - either 234, 235, or 238 is changed into another atom every second :D), and the activity of depleted uranium is about half the activity: typically 14 600 Bequerels per second. (Don't be fooled by long halflifes - the longer the halflife, the less radioactivity... Activity/radioactivity sort of tells us how fast a material is turning into something stable: if the radioactivity is very high, the halflife is short. If it's very very low, the halflife is long. Uranium-238 has a halflife of 4.5 billion years, and is not at all very radioactive.)  
  5. the gamma dose rate from a 30 mm DU-bullet (of 271 grams) at a distance of 1 m is 7 nano sieverts per hours, which is almost not distinguishable from the normal background radiation of typically 100 nano sieverts per hour. If you take 10 kg of DU and disperse it over 1000 m2 the result is a gamma dose rate of 4 micro sieverts per year (the average background radiation from gamma in Norway is 0.5 milli sieverts)
  6. DU is extremely dense, and therefore very heavy. Natural uranium is already a metal of high density, with 18.9 g/cm3, and DU is even more dense: 19.1 g/cm3 - making it almost 70% denser than lead 
  7. because of the extreme density, it's used as ammunition; since a projectile made from DU has a bigger kinetic energy than if it were made by lead, and therefore it will penetrate or destroy almost anything. Also, if a DU bullet hits a tank, all the energy that it's carrying will turn it into dust, and the heat generated will make it burn. If you're in a tank that's hit by a DU projectile - it's not exactly the radioactivity you should fear...
  8. DU is actually the best kind of shielding you can make to protect yourself against gamma- or X-rays. It's even better than lead, since uranium has 92 protons in the nucleus, compared to only 82 in lead. (You could also shield with natural uranium, but since natural uranium has more of the uranium-235 isotope than depleted uranium, and 235 is more radioactive than 238 and DU, you would rather use DU than natural uranium)
  9. uranium (thus also depleted uranium) is a heavy metal, like lead, and this fact is the main reason it's not very healthy - not the radioactivity. You take natural uranium, and make into something that's about half as radioactive as it already was. It's not like you make a new radioactive material. 
  10. depleted uranium is also used as counterweight in airplanes like the Boeing-747; that carries around 250 kg of DU. I didn't know this until I started reading all I could find about the 1977 Tenerifie aircrash. I definitely learned something new, and now I want to learn more about counterweights 🙂
Luckily we got home safely after a great week of vacation, and I think I'm ready for a couple of very busy months. I've made a nice plan for this week, that includes talking about cold fusion on the radio tomorrow. Sorry I haven't been "here" last week, but I needed the vacation, and Alexandra needed her mother to be there, on vacation with her, and not on the cell or the computer all the time...:)

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