What is Depleted Uranium?

On September 6th, 2023 the White House announced that it will be sending weaponized Depleted Uranium to Ukraine. Read on to learn why this is a troubling move for the US to take and the potential repercussions of this decision.

What is Depleted Uranium?

Depleted Uranium (DU) is a byproduct of natural uranium enrichment, which occurs when uranium is processed for use in nuclear weapons. DU is incredibly dense which has led the U.S. and U.K. to use it as ammunition and tank armor. Weaponized DU has been in use since the early 1990’s, its first use being during the first Gulf War. Despite the United States assurances that depleted uranium does not impact human or environmental health research is showing concerning trends that prove otherwise.

Why is it Dangerous?

Depleted Uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium, with 60% of the radiation of natural uranium, and still poses serious risks to human and environmental health. Souad Al-Awazzi, an environmental engineer from the University of Baghdad, has dedicated her life to studying the impacts of depleted uranium on the environment and communities in the Middle East after the first and second Gulf Wars. Her studies show that cases of leukemia in children go up 60% from 1990-1997 and that the number of children born with severe birth defects  would increase by a factor of three. This timeline lines up with the introduction of depleted uranium into the environment because of the first Gulf War. 

When fired, depleted uranium ammunition turns into dust that is inhaled by soldiers and those in the immediate area. The dust then spreads by wind polluting water, soil and local agriculture. A paper from the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that someone who inhales small, insoluble uranium particles may experience lung damage or lung cancer due to radiation. Depleted uranium may also lead to poor kidney functioning. Depleted uranium is carcinogenic and toxic to humans and the environment. 

Where has/is it been/being used?

Basra is located in the very southern tip of Iraq, wedged between Iran, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf. In the early 1990’s the region saw three weeks of heavy use of depleted uranium ammunition and tank armor, which has remained scattered through and near the city for over a decade. Children climb on the ruins of old tanks and collect pieces of debris and old ammunition to bring home which can lead to very rare forms of cancer. These items remain in households for years posing further risks of contamination to family members. 

The U.K. has already sent depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine. Most recently a Challenger 2 tank, capable of firing DU ammunition, was destroyed in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast - which is the region where the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located. Advocates fear contamination from the destruction of this tank, noting that in Iraq these tank hulls litter the battlefield for many years after the conflict. There are reports of children playing and climbing on the frames, which can cause contamination from the depleted uranium leading to very rare forms of cancer. 

Who is using it?

The U.S. and U.K. have both used weaponized depleted uranium in the past, most notably during the first and second Gulf Wars. The U.K. has already sent weaponized DU to Ukraine and the United States has announced it will be doing the same. Russia also has its own stock of depleted uranium, which has not yet been used during the war in Ukraine. 

What can be done about it?

There is a noticeable lack of research on the impacts of depleted uranium. In a 2021 study published in BMJ Public Health authors noted that “U.S. sanctions on Iraq may have played a role in limiting research and publication on the health impacts of weaponized uranium.” More research is needed in order to fully understand the risks imposed by the use of depleted uranium. Yet, with such alarming links between the use of weaponized depleted uranium and adverse health risks the U.S. and U.K. should not send depleted uranium to Ukraine.