Uranium in Forklift Trucks??!

UF6 is the chemical symbol for uranium hexafluoride. Scientists sometimes refer to it as DUF6 - DU for depleted Uranium.

To produce enriched uranium (for use in nuclear reactors or weapons), one must first convert it into UF6. Gaseous diffusion, the process used to extract enriched uranium from UF6, produces 4 tonnes of depleted uranium for every tonne of enriched uranium. So, DUF6 constitutes a huge proportion of the United States' nuclear waste. It is unstable, difficult and expensive to store, posing a threat to workers and the surrounding environment. The DU used in munitions in Iraq and the Gulf War came from this source. (Recall from previous issues of the Networking Newsletter that Depleted Uranium can cause serious health problems and is associated with "Gulf War Syndrome" due to the use of DU-tipped shells.)

In the US, the government have come up with a proposal to process DUF6 back into uranium metal and use it in industry - as counterweights in lifts and fork lift trucks for example. In July 1988, President Clinton signed the "Uranium Recycling Bill". It provides $400 million to the UF6 storage plants in Ohio and Kentucky to treat and recycle UF6. Construction is due to have started. Industry has already used DU for ballast in aeroplane wings and in ships. It is possible that these products could be arriving in the UK without any clear labelling.

The use of DU in ordinary industrial machinery could have more far reaching effects than the use of DU in munitions. However, the problems associated with the use of DU in munitions remain. IEER in the United States have some practicable proposals for storage of UF6. They suggest ways to make it safe in terms of proliferation. For example, processing it in such a way that it would be difficult to enrich it for use in power stations or nuclear weapons.

Watch this space for further developments.

Clare Frisby


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(c) Networking Newsletter (February 2000)