It’s Time to Ban Depleted Uranium Weapons

An A-10 attack plane, used to fire depleted uranium missiles, surveys targets during the Gulf War. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Fernando Serna/Wikimedia Commons)

On March 21, 2023 Britain confirmed that it was sending depleted uranium (DU) weapons to Ukraine , prompting a response from Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that, “If all this happens, Russia will have to respond accordingly, given that the west collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component.”

Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, warned that such steps moved us closer to a “nuclear collision.”

Days later, Putin announced he had made an arrangement with neighboring Belarus to station tactical nuclear weapons there.

According to ICAN, Putin “will start training Belarusian personnel to use them” and that “up to 10 Belarusian aircraft are already prepared to use these weapons and Russia would complete the construction of a storage facility for nuclear warheads in Belarus by July.”

The Belarus nuclear weapons deal was more likely a response to the continued expansion of NATO — with Finland now the newest member — rather than retaliation for Britain arming Ukraine with depleted uranium weapons.

However, there are many wrongs in this situation to unpack.

Possessing or threatening the use of nuclear weapons is a violation of the human rights that are embedded in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The use of depleted uranium weapons is also abhorrent, with compelling, if still somewhat anecdotal, evidence from the wars in the Balkans and Iraq/Kuwait to suggest these toxic exposures cause serious long-term health effects.

Despite Putin’s thinly veiled threat mount a nuclear response to DU weapons, the International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) points out that this would be disproportionate because “DU projectiles are not nuclear weapons at all, but conventional weapons of high chemical-radiological toxicity and harmfulness.”

Adds Dr. Frank Boulton of the British IPPNW affiliate, MEDACT: “Much if not most of the toxicity of DU is biological rather than radiological (DU is a heavy metal with biological effects similar to that of lead)”.

The US and NATO used around 980,000 rounds of uranium shells in Iraq and Kuwait, 10,800 in Bosnia, 31,000 in Kosovo , another 7,000 in S. Serbia and Montenegro, and an unknown number in Afghanistan, while Russia also used such weapons in Chechnya.

The ICBUW quickly spoke out against the export of DU weapons to Ukraine: “The use of DU munitions has been shown to cause widespread and lasting damage to the health of people living in the contaminated area,” the network said in a statement. “Military personnel and those involved in subsequent demining are also exposed to health hazards from DU (remnants). In addition, long-term environmental damage, including groundwater contamination, occurs as a result of DU use.”

Kate Hudson, General Secretary of the long-time British peace and disarmament group Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, also condemned her country’s decision:

“CND has repeatedly called for the UK government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts,” she said. “Sending them into yet another war zone will not help the people of Ukraine.”

The UK may not be the first country to introduce DU weapons into the current Russia-Ukraine war. In a statement, the ICBUW said that, “According to media reports, Russian forces in Ukraine have also recently received the more modern 3BM60 ‘Svinets-2’ ammunition.” The Guardian reported that “Moscow also has its own Svinets-2 depleted uranium tank shells in its stockpile,” without saying whether or not they had been deployed in Ukraine.

International Humanitarian Law prohibits weapons that cause unnecessary suffering, have indiscriminate effects or cause long-term damage to the natural environment, factors that should apply to outlawing DU weapons.

Several resolutions have been passed in both the UN General Assembly and in the European Parliament calling for a moratorium on the use of DU weapons. The latest such UN resolution was adopted by the General Assembly in 2022. Yet, no treaty regulating — let alone banning — DU weapons exists.

DU is used in weaponry because, due to its high molecular weight, it easily penetrates the steel of armored tanks. Missile-like uranium weapons will pierce any target they hit at 3,600km/h.

Known as uranium-238, DU is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process needed to produce the fuel for nuclear reactors. It is called ‘depleted’ because it has a lower content of the fissile isotope, uranium-235, than natural uranium. Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

DU is highly toxic, especially when inhaled and can be present in the human body for many years as well as excreted in urine. According to the IPPNW pamphlet — Uranium Weapons. Radioactive Penetrators — “When uranium is inhaled or ingested with foods and beverages, its full pathogenic and lethal effects unfold. On entering the body it is taken up by the blood, which transports it to the organs. It can reach an unborn child via the placenta.”

The latency period after exposure to uranium-238 before disease manifests can be 5-10 years. However, as with any disease, other factors determine this, including the level of exposure and the individual’s constitution.

Back in June 2000, the decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) not to investigate the NATO bombings of that country, based on the recommendations of the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was sternly critiqued by Paolo Benvenuti, then Professor of  International Law at the University of Florence and now Professor emeritus of International Law at the University Roma Tre.

On the subject of depleted uranium projectiles he wrote:

“The assessment concerning arms, in particular of the use of depleted uranium projectiles and cluster bombs, is also disappointing. With regard to the use of depleted uranium projectiles. . . the Committee, after ascertaining that there is no specific ban on their use and that they appear to be dubious weapons, took into consideration the legitimacy of their use from the limited viewpoint of the protection of the environment and, moreover, did so without any serious analysis.

“Inexplicably, the Committee omits fundamental questions concerning the relevance of other principles governing weapons and their use. In fact, the principle of unnecessary suffering (aimed at protecting combatants) and the principle of distinction (aimed at protecting civilians) should also have been taken into account by the Committee, particularly in view of some fears recently expressed about a ‘Kosovo syndrome’ (similar to the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’).

“This omission is all the more inexplicable because the ICTY’s Statute explicitly extends the jurisdiction of the Tribunal to violations of the laws and customs of war, including the ‘employment of poisonous weapons and other weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.’”

In 2001, the Bar Association of Athens, Marangopoulos Foundation for Human Rights and Union of Greek Judges and Prosecutors for Democracy and Civil Liberties tried one more time, ultimately unsuccessfully, to persuade Carla del Ponte, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, to investigate and bring indictments against the political and military leaders of NATO for their roles in ordering the use of depleted uranium weapons during the war in Yugoslavia.

Gulf War Syndrome was found among both US and British veterans as well as among populations in Iraq and Kuwait. Given the strong evidence on the ground, and the known health impacts of both the chemical and radiological carcinogens contained within DU, many have drawn what seems like the obvious conclusion: that the use of DU in battle zones has harmed the health of troops and civilians.

However, making the definitive medical connection between DU exposure and illnesses has proven controversial. Medical studies so far have largely not been able to prove a correlation beyond a reasonable medical doubt. Indeed, a significant number suggest that the use of DU does not account for the negative health impacts now found in regions where it was used.

Accordingly, the US State Department continues to insist that “Scientific evidence does not indicate that depleted uranium has affected the health of Gulf War veterans.”

However, writing in the British Medical Journal of August 14, 1999, Malcolm Aitken described a medical conference in London at which presenters said “The incidence of cancer and congenital defects has increased significantly in Iraq after the Allied use of depleted uranium bullets during the Gulf war”.

And the BBC reports that “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.”

And the ICBUW has compiled an extensive list of such studies, including three new peer-reviewed papers that “illustrate not only acute health risks to humans and the environment but also long-term consequences of contact with DU.”

But caution, rather than the Precautionary Principle, prevails, putting the burden of proof on the victims to show there is harm, rather than the perpetrators to prove that they are not the cause of it.

In a November 2008 study of “Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans”, for the Veterans Administration, the researchers noted that:

“Of direct concern for Gulf War veterans who continue to carry DU-containing shrapnel fragments in their tissues, New Mexico investigators have found that animals with DU fragments implanted in their muscles develop soft tissue sarcomas at increased rates around those fragments. In addition, rats with embedded DU pellets developed leukemia at a significantly elevated rate after being injected with hematopoietic cells. These studies indicate that continued concerns related to possible carcinogenic effects of DU are warranted, particularly in relation to embedded DU shrapnel fragments, and support continued monitoring of exposed populations.”

However, the scientists concluded that further research was needed before making a direct correlation between DU exposure during war time and specific medical outcomes among veterans.

This is consistent with the struggles of conscience faced by medical professionals who oppose the use of medically harmful weapons. As Boulton wrote to his colleagues in MEDACT, who are working on a document to vigorously oppose the British export of DU weapons to Ukraine:

“We cannot say that it has been established beyond doubt that DU causes significant harm to human public health because most of the studies claiming so are founded on faulty reports. It is, admittedly, very difficult to get good quality data from the conflict area where DU has been used, but we must acknowledge this epidemiological weakness.”

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports: “Official Iraqi government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and, by 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing.”

In the end, regard for the Precautionary Principle, as well as universal human rights, ought to take precedence when it comes to the deployment of DU weapons. Both Belgium and Costa Rica applied that principle in passing laws prohibiting the use of DU weapons. More countries could — and should — do the same.

As The Nuclear Resister’s Jack Cohen-Joppa wrote during an email discussion on the topic: “The paucity of good research is a challenge for health professionals seeking to quantify impact, but there is enough evidence to warrant a policy forbidding the use of DU.”

The situation in Ukraine creates a double jeopardy. First, the use of DU weapons by the Ukrainian military might provoke the Russians to use nuclear weapons. And second, simply transporting these weapons from Britain and using them on Ukrainian soil will constitute additional radioactive and heavy metal pollution with long-term effects on human health and the European environment.

Taking all of this into consideration, the known risks of DU weapons are already too great to justify their continued use.

This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International. Maria Arvanitis Sotiropoulou is a retired doctor and President of the Greek affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.