- In March 2023, the British government announced that it would provide Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds (alongside Challenger 2 tanks) containing depleted uranium.
- Uranium is a chemical element with symbol U and atomic number 92. It is a silvery-grey metal in the actinide series of the periodic table.
- A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons.
- Uranium radioactively decays by emitting an alpha particle. The half-life of this decay varies between 159,200 and 4.5 billion years for different isotopes, making them useful for dating the age of the Earth.
- The most common isotopes in natural uranium are uranium-238 (which has 146 neutrons and accounts for over 99% of uranium on Earth) and uranium-235 (which has 143 neutrons).
- Uranium-235 is the only naturally occurring fissile isotope, which makes it widely used in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
Depleted Uranium (DU)
- Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic heavy metal and the main by-product of uranium enrichment.
- It is the substance left over when most of the highly radioactive isotopes of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons.
- In comparison to enriched uranium, depleted uranium is much less radioactive and is incapable of generating a nuclear reaction.
Depleted Uranium (DU) Munitions
- Usage: Due to its high density, which is about twice that of lead, DU has been used in munitions designed to penetrate armour plate and make for a formidable weapon against heavily armoured tanks. It can also be used to reinforce military vehicles, such as tanks.
- Working: Munitions containing DU explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust.
- History: Depleted uranium missiles were developed by the US and UK in the 1970s. They were first used in the Gulf War in 1991 to destroy T-72 tanks in Iraq, and then in Kosovo in 1999, and during the Iraq War in 2003.
- Countries in possession: US, Britain, Russia, China, France and Pakistan produce DU weapons, which are not classified as nuclear weapons.
Health and Environmental Concerns
- Even though DU munitions are not considered nuclear weapons, DU possesses the same chemical toxicity properties as uranium, although its radiological toxicity is less.
- In the situations where fragments of, or complete, DU ammunitions were found, there is a potential risk of radiation effects for individuals who come into direct contact with such fragments or ammunitions.
- Ingesting or inhaling quantities of DU can cause severe diseases (such as depressing renal function and developing a range of cancers).
- Depleted uranium munitions which miss their target can poison groundwater and soil.
- In a post-conflict environment, the presence of DU residues can further increase the anxiety of local populations.
View of Experts
- The UN General Assembly ordered a review into the health effects of depleted uranium weapons in 2007, and international bodies have carried out several further reviews.
- The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found no significant poisoning was caused by exposure to depleted uranium.
- However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says there could be a risk of radiation to individuals who handle fragments of depleted uranium rounds. But this risk can also be mitigated by national authorities through conducting such simple countermeasures as the collection, storage and disposal of such fragments.
- A study published in the journal Environmental Pollution in 2019 suggests there may be links between the use of depleted uranium weapons and birth defects in Nasiriyah, in Iraq.
Are DU weapons legal?
- The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) insists that the depleted uranium shells it is sending to Ukraine are not prohibited by any international agreement. It says that under Article 36 of the First Protocol of 1977 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the UK’s depleted uranium shells are “capable of being used lawfully in international armed conflict”.
- In response to the British announcement, Russia announced its intention to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus.