Depleted Uranium and the Boeing 747 airplane program

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Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the major aircraft manufacturers publish information about which planes and helicopters contain DU components. As one industry insider told a reporter, “No one brags about DU.”

However many wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Lockheed L-1011,  McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed military C-130 all require the use of counter-balance weights for proper flight control.

The Boeing 747 airplane program utilized depleted uranium for its first 550 aircraft built.  The company obtained in excess of 200 tons of the radioactive material, and cast approximately 12,000 parts.

Each airplane was equipped with 21 or 31 weights, and over 20% of the weights presented a high corrosion risk within 4 to 5 years.  Aside from the high corrosion incident rate, the weights were extremely difficult to transport and there was only one recognized reprocessing source in the world.

Depleted uranium is radioactive and extremely destructive to humans.

Exposure to depleted uranium causes genetic damage, birth defects, cancer, diabetes, immune system damage, and other serious health problems.

The calculated Maximium Possible Dose to the Hands of an individual installing the Shipset of Weights was in the order of 350 mRad.  It quickly became imperative that new corrosion prevention measures were implemented “at the earliest possible date” because Boeing would be hard-pressed to keep up with the required reprocessing to handle the corroded elements.

The NRC repeatedly denied Boeings requests to apply additional materials to the D.U. elements without obtaining a license, as it was prohibited by 10 CFR Section 40.13 ( c ) (b).  Boeing kept pushing the issue, leading one NRC Section Leader to note, “Boeing seems to be more concerned about avoiding a license than accomplishing their objective.”

Boeing Company Request Concerning Depleted Uranium Counterweights

Most depleted uranium arises as a byproduct of the production of enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors and in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Enrichment processes generate uranium with a higher-than-natural concentration of lower-mass uranium isotopes (in particular U-235, which is the uranium isotope supporting the fission chain reaction) with the bulk of the feed ending up as depleted uranium, in some cases with mass fractions of U-235 and U-234 less than a third of those in natural uranium.

Aircraft that contain depleted uranium trim weights (Boeing 747–100 for example) may contain between 400 to 1,500 kg of DU. This application is controversial because the DU may enter the environment if the aircraft were to crash. The metal can also oxidize to a fine powder in a fire.  Depleted uranium was released during the crash of El Al Flight 1862, in which 152 kg was lost.

On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 747-F cargo aircraft Flight 1862, crashed into an apartment building in Amsterdam. Local residents and rescue workers complained of various unexplained health issues which were being attributed to the release of hazardous materials during the crash and subsequent fires.

Boeing Fire

Details of the Flight 1862 crash

On 4 October 1992, the aircraft, a Boeing 747-258F, registration 4X-AXG, was traveling from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ben Gurion International Airport and made a stopover at Schiphol. During the flight from New York to Schiphol, three issues were noted: fluctuations in theautopilot speed regulation, problems with the shortwave radio, and fluctuations in the voltage of engine number three.

The jet landed at Schiphol at 2:31 pm local time. New cargo was loaded into the plane; the cargo had been approved by customs authorities, but as was realized later, had not been physically inspected.

Flight 1862 was scheduled to depart at 5:30 pm, but the flight was delayed until 6:20 pm. At 6:22 pm, Flight 1862 departed from runway 01L on a northerly heading. Once airborne, the plane turned to the right in order to follow the Pampus departure route, aided by the Pampus VOR/DME navigation station.

Soon after the turn, at 6:27 pm, above the Gooimeer, a lake near Amsterdam, a sharp bang was heard while the aircraft was climbing through 6500 feet. Engine number three separated from the right wing of the aircraft, damaged the wing flaps, and struck engine number four, which then also separated from the wing.

The two engines fell away from the plane. They attracted the attention of some pleasure boaters who had been startled by the loud noise. The boaters notified the Netherlands Coastguard of two objects they had seen falling from the sky.

Captain Fuchs made a mayday call to air traffic control (ATC) and indicated that he wanted to return to Schiphol. At 6:28:45 pm, the captain reported: “El Al 1862, lost number three and number four engine, number three and number four engine.”

Captain Fuchs requested runway 27 for an emergency landing, even though that meant landing with a 21-knot quartering tailwind.

The plane was too high and close in to land when it circled back to the airport. The captain was forced to continue circling Amsterdam until he could reduce his altitude to that required for a final approach to landing.

During the second circle, the captain instructed the first officer to extend the wing flaps. The inboard trailing edge flaps extended, since they were powered by the number one hydraulic system, which was still functioning, but the outboard trailing edge flaps did not extend. That partial flap condition meant that the plane would have a higher pitch attitude than normal, as the plane slowed down.

As the aircraft slowed, the ability of the remaining controls to counteract the right roll diminished. The captain finally lost all ability to prevent the plane from rolling to the right. The roll reached 90 degrees just before the impact with the apartment houses.

At 6:35:25 pm, the first officer radioed to ATC: “Going down, 1862, going down, going down, copied, going down.” In the background, the captain was heard instructing the first officer in Hebrew to raise the flaps and lower the landing gear.

At 6:35 pm local time, the Boeing 747, in nearly a ninety-degree bank with its right wing pointing at the ground, ploughed into two high-rise apartment complexes in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood, at the corner of a building where the Groeneveen complex met the Klein-Kruitberg complex. The building exploded into flames and partially collapsed inward, destroying dozens of apartments. The cockpit came to rest east of the flats, between the building and the viaduct of Amsterdam Metro Line 53.

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