A review of the different forms and uses of depleted uranium
January 09, 2001
What is depleted uranium?
To make suitable fuels for nuclear power plants, it is necessary to enrich natural uranium, which only contains 0.7% of fissile materials (uranium 235 for power generation). The enrichment step produces "enriched" uranium and "depleted" uranium (i.e. in which the uranium 235 content is lower than in the natural state).
What are the uses of depleted uranium?
Two main uses are available, employing very different forms of this material: depleted uranium in the form of stable powders (U308) and depleted uranium in metal form.
In powder form, depleted uranium can be re-enriched or directly incorporated in certain fuels. This provides a stockpile of energy material that is kept by COGEMA in stable form (U308 powders) in sealed and monitored canisters, referred to as "green cubes". Each has its individual identification number to guarantee perfect traceability.
The metal form offers various applications exploiting the properties of this very dense metal that is heavier than lead: biological shielding against radiation, particularly in gammaradiography and radiotherapy instruments, balancing masses and armour piercing projectiles in weaponry. The latter use has aroused a controversy on the use of this type of weapon by the U.S. Forces in the Gulf war and during the Kosovo conflict.
Is COGEMA involved in the production of uranium metal?
COGEMA has no uranium metal production facilities since 1991.
However, SICN, a subsidiary of the COGEMA group, has conducted metallurgy operations for GIAT Industries (a France's state-controlled company) on rods of uranium metal. A part from machining, different treatments are applied to protect the parts obtained from corrosion.
The uranium metal employed was imported from the United States. Using these elements machined by SICN, GIAT Industries then produced shells with depleted uranium penetrators. The French Defense Ministry has repeated on several occasions that these materials had never been used by the French armed forces.
The metallurgy operations on uranium metal rods conducted by SICN were terminated in February 1999.