Some jet aircraft eg MD use depleted uranium as counterweights.Is this an acceptable risk for passengers?

In the recent Madrid MD 80 crash & fire there is a risk of ingestion of DU if this aircraft had DU on board. Some people survived the crash & fire, as is often the case, even in severe crashes. Less toxic substances are available. Should they be retro fitted to all aircraft?

Source Term

"DU counterweights have been used primarily in wide-body aircraft on rudders, outboard ailerons (wing assembly), and outboard elevators (tail assembly). Counterweights come in a variety of weights and shapes, and numerous weights and shapes are used in some aircraft. The DU counterweight can range in weight from 0.23 to 77 kg."

"Some aircraft used for military and cargo also use DU counterweights; these include the Lockheed C-130 and C-141, Jetstar, and S-3A. The Boeing Company produced helicopters utilizing DU as a rotor tip weight prior to 1979. These weights consisted of small 0.22-kg triangular weights. One to three weights were installed per blade. Virtually all of the Boeing helicopters manufactured prior to 1979 have had their blades replaced with composite blades that do not contain DU weights." [NUREG-1717]

Use of DU Counterweights in U.S. Domestic Aircraft Aircraft Type Manufacturer Aircraft Number Owned by Domestic Carriers a,b Total Weight of Counterweights per Aircraft (kg)

DC–10 McDonnell-Douglas 168 ~ 1,000 c

L–1011 Lockheed 60 ~ 680 c

B–747 Boeing 202 ~ 850 d

a Number of aircraft owned by domestic carriers that are members of the Air Transport Association (ATA, 1999).

b A reasonable estimate is that 50% of these aircraft still contain DU counterweights. Phone call J. Taylor, Starmet CMI, Barnwell, SC, August 1999.

c Phone call, E. Lanchester, Quality Assurance Department, Nuclear Metals, Inc., Concord, MA, August 1996.

d Phone call, D. Barbour, Project Manager, Depleted Uranium Programs, Philotechnics, Oak Ridge, TN, October 1999.

Source: [NUREG-1717] Table 3.17.1

"In many cases, tungsten alloy counterweights have replaced DU counterweights in aircraft. Since 1981, The Boeing Company has provided customers with tungsten replacement counterweights, and tungsten counterweights have been installed in new Boeing 747 aircraft. Tungsten equivalents have been sent as spares since 1981 (Gallacher, 1994). In 1988, McDonnell-Douglas discontinued using DU counterweights and began using tungsten. Tungsten counterweights are used on the MD–11, MD–80, and MD–90 (Ford, 1994).

It is unknown how many DU counterweights are currently installed in aircraft. It is estimated that approximately 15,000 weights may be associated with the Boeing 747 fleet (based on 550, Boeing 747 aircraft produced between 1968 and 1981 and spare parts) (Gallagher, 1994). However, the number of aircraft that contain DU counterweights is decreasing. Rather than refurbishing the DU (during maintenance operations), tungsten counterweights are used as a replacement." [NUREG-1717]


Aircraft Workers

Exposure of Aircraft Workers

External radiation during installation of DU counterweights

"The annual dose equivalent to workers responsible for installation, storage, and transport of DU counterweights was 0.9 mSv/yr (90 mrem/yr). The estimated collective EDE (Effective Dose Equivalent) to airline maintenance workers is 0.01 person-Sv (1 person-rem)." [NUREG-1717. Caution: the source mistakenly states 0.09 instead of 0.9 mSv/yr on p. 3-259]

Inhalation of DU dust after aircraft accident involving fire

"For the fireman, the EDE is estimated to be 0.3 mSv (30 mrem) and for the clean-up worker, the EDE is estimated to be 4 mSv (400 mrem)." [NUREG-1717]

The amount of material involved is 850 kg of DU, which is that on a typical Boeing 747 aircraft.


Aircraft Crews and Passengers

Exposure of Aircraft Crews and Passengers

External radiation from DU counterweights during flight

"Annual estimated individual EDEs (Effective Dose Equivalent) to flight crews, attendants, and passengers were 0.001 mSv (0.1 mrem), 0.01 mSv (1 mrem), and 1×10-4 mSv (0

11 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Best Answer

    For many years, aircraft manufacturers have used "depleted" uranium to balance ailerons, rudders, and elevators on certain jet aircraft and rotor blades on certain helicopters. Uranium is 1 1/2 times as dense as lead and is the heaviest naturally occurring metal. According to a 1983 McDonnell Douglas Customer Service First Quarter publication, only "depleted" uranium is used, which means it has been processed to remove most of its uranium 235, the most highly radioactive form used in nuclear powerplants. The remaining uranium 238 emits only low-level alpha radiation. While the depleted uranium normally poses no danger, it is to be handled with caution. The main hazard associated with depleted uranium is the harmful effect the material could have if it enters the body. If particles are inhaled or digested, they can be chemically toxic and cause a significant and long-lasting irradiation of internal tissue. Depleted uranium is slightly radioactive. To minimize radiation hazards, depleted uranium balance weights are 100 percent cadmium plated during the manufacturing process. If the cadmium plating is intact, normal handling of the parts is considered to be non-hazardous and no special precautions are recommended. The use of radioactive materials in many every day applications is not at all unusual. For example, tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is used in self-luminous signs, such as exit signs, and watches. Thorium, which has a radiation activity level comparable to depleted uranium, is used in making gas mantels for lanterns, electronic equipment, and high-quality optical lenses for cameras and overhead projectors. Also, smoke detectors contain americium 241, a radioactive material.

    On arrival at accident scenes of aircraft suspected of containing balance weights made of depleted uranium, determine if balance weights have been damaged or lost their cadmium plating coating. Request specialized assistance if balance weights have been damaged or lost their cadmium plating. No penetration of the plating is allowed.

    Source(s): A&P/IA Aviation Author
  • 1 decade ago

    The Danger of DU Counterweights is None.

    You get more radiation from the Following

    Flying in a Aircraft at 32,0000 FT.

    A X-Ray a Year.

    Living Downwind of a Coal Fired Power Plant.

    Using a Microwave in your Home or Office.

    Source(s): 15 Years in Avation Main and Manufacture
  • 1 decade ago

    "In 1988, McDonnell-Douglas discontinued using DU counterweights and began using tungsten. Tungsten counterweights are used on the MD–11, MD–80, and MD–90 (Ford, 1994)."

    It appears they haven't used it in the last 20 years. The MD-82 that crashed in Madrid was only 15 years old.

    Source(s): I read the news.
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Since I know the C130 does not use, nor has it ever used DU, I find any of the other information that you have pasted here highly suspect.

    The C141 did use it, but I have access to the C130 drawings, and the counterweights have always been lead.

    They'd be harmed more from the smoke of plastic and foam than they would from any radiation emitted from DU.

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  • 5 years ago

    (The main risk is in case of bad accident and that is not so much risk to passengers in plane but more to everyone else... if accident is bad enough to vaporise the depleted uranium the passengers are already likely dead. For everyone else though depleted uranium is toxic material if bad enough accident.

    Secondary risk is as terrorist weapon... if scientists ever semi succeed in their attempts to make a fusion reactor that generates power, depleted uranium can be used in such a reactor to make plutonium nuclear bombs. (Depleted uranium can increase neutrons by 10x+ in fusion reactor, reason hydrogen bombs are really more depleted uranium bombs)

  • 3 years ago

    C141 Crashes

  • olz431
    Lv 4
    1 decade ago

    Depleted uranium gives off little radiation. Its when it is not depleted, or still decomposing when it gives off the most radiation. Even then, you would have to be buried in uranium for any ill efects to take place....

    Granite countertops have WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY more of a dangerous amount of radiation from uranium than any plane ever will.

    This question seems like it comes from some kind of human rights activist whacky liberal

  • 1 decade ago

    Yes, it's an acceptable risk. Even normal uranium isn't terribly radioactive, and depleted uranium is much less so.

    When an aircraft crashes and starts to burn, depleted uranium is about the last thing that passengers and crew need to worry about.

  • 1 decade ago

    You left out one : The A-7 used D.U. for rudder counter balance; D.U. ok. just don:t sand on it or buff it;

  • 1 decade ago

    Oh, Lord, we're back with the cut, paste & rhetorical question saga again!

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