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Depleted Uranium Munitions: Purpose and Perceived Risks

The recent dispatch of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine by the United States, along with the supply of Abrams tanks, has cast a spotlight on these unique munitions. These shells are renowned for their ability to pierce conventional tank armor, but concerns persist about the potential hazards associated with depleted uranium. In this article, we explore the rationale behind using depleted uranium in weaponry and evaluate the safety considerations surrounding their deployment.

Understanding Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium is a substance derived from naturally occurring uranium that has undergone a process to reduce its radioactive content significantly. It is a byproduct of uranium enrichment, a procedure employed for nuclear power generation and the production of nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium differs from enriched uranium, which is prized for its heightened radioactivity.

The Role of Depleted Uranium in Munitions

Depleted uranium’s appeal in military applications hinges on its remarkable density. This dense metal can be integrated into various military projectiles, including tank shells, bullets, and mortar rounds. This incorporation enhances the armor-penetrating capabilities of these munitions significantly. Upon impact, depleted uranium shells possess a unique ability to self-sharpen, further augmenting their aptitude for penetrating armored targets. Additionally, they ignite upon contact, rendering them even more effective in their intended role.

Moreover, depleted uranium can serve to reinforce tank armor, offering added protection to military vehicles.

Historical Deployment

The development and utilization of depleted uranium munitions can be traced back to the 1970s when both the United States and the United Kingdom played instrumental roles in their creation. These weapons have seen active service during pivotal conflicts, including their debut in the Gulf War in 1991, subsequent deployments in Kosovo in 1999, and their use during the Iraq War in 2003.

Evaluating the Safety of Depleted Uranium

Depleted uranium possesses both chemical and radioactive toxicity, although it is significantly less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium. Concerns about its safety primarily revolve around the potential contamination of soil when depleted uranium shells impact the ground.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly initiated a comprehensive review of the health effects of depleted uranium weapons, subsequently leading to several additional investigations by international bodies. A 2016 report by the UN’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) did not identify significant poisoning resulting from exposure to depleted uranium. However, it is noteworthy that the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) advises caution for individuals handling fragments of depleted uranium rounds.

Notably, a 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Pollution suggested possible links between the use of depleted uranium weapons and birth defects in Iraq. Furthermore, a 2022 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) expressed concerns about the use of depleted uranium in Ukraine, highlighting potential health risks, including skin irritation, kidney failure, and an increased risk of cancer. The chemical toxicity of depleted uranium is considered a more significant issue than its radioactivity.

Legal Status of Depleted Uranium Rounds

Depleted uranium weapons are not categorized as nuclear weapons, and no specific international treaty explicitly bans their use. However, the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons advocates for their prohibition, citing claims that these munitions prolong conflicts due to the enduring environmental and health effects they may induce.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) maintains that, under Article 36 of the First Protocol of 1977 in addition to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, depleted uranium shells can be used lawfully in international armed conflicts.

Weapons Allocated for Ukraine

The United States plans to supply Ukraine with 120mm depleted uranium tank rounds, to be paired with the M1 Abrams tanks slated for delivery later this year. The United Kingdom has already furnished depleted uranium shells to Ukraine’s armed forces for use with Challenger 2 tanks, enhancing their combat capabilities. The MoD underscores that these shells enable Ukrainian tank crews to engage enemy targets from greater distances, thus reducing their exposure to counter-fire.

In response to these developments, Russia has voiced criticism of the United States and the United Kingdom for providing depleted uranium weapons to Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has expressed concerns about a potential “nuclear component” within these munitions, implying potential consequences if they are employed in conflict.