Identification and quantification of depleted uranium in the environment

Separating and pre-concentrating uranium from water samples using special extraction columns
Tank damaged by depleted uranium shell. Photograph courtesy of D.Smith, DSTL Radiological Services

The Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) Facility at BGS provides high quality measurements of uranium isotope ratios in environmental and biological systems. It is equipped with modern quadrupole mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) instruments, which makes the technique relatively inexpensive compared to high resolution or multi-collector ICP-MS.

Uranium (U) occurs naturally in virtually all rocks, soils and waters. It consists of several isotopes, mainly 238U together with relatively small amounts of 235U and 234U. The manufacture of nuclear fuel results in by-products of uranium depleted in 235U, known as depleted uranium (DU). This material is used as a shielding agent, as counterweights in aircraft and in armour-piercing warheads. The first reported major use of DU under battlefield conditions was in the first Gulf War and the Balkans conflicts. Concern over the immediate and long term risk of exposure to DU through dust inhalation, drinking water and foodstuffs required cost effective chemical analysis, applicable to a wide range of sample types, and had to be able to distinguish between and natural and depleted uranium.

The methodology used at BGS is applicable to the analysis of waters, soils, sediments, air filters and vegetation. Solid samples are decomposed and dissolved by microwave acid digestion. Element selective columns are used to preconcentrate the uranium, to achieve maximum sensitivity, and eliminate matrix elements to enhance the accuracy and precision obtained. Tens of samples can be measured for uranium isotopes per day, with a typical precision of ±0.2% for 238U/235U.

In-house expertise in the interpretation of data is available. BGS was commissioned by the World Health Organisation and assisted the Royal Society to undertake two separate reviews on the hazards associated with DU.


Please contact Dr Simon Chenery for further information