Depleted Uranium (DU) is a by-product left over when natural uranium ore is enriched for use in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It is a toxic, dense, hard metal. If it is ingested, inhaled, or enters the body through other means, it creates risks as both as a toxic heavy metal and as a radioactive material. DU munitions explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust. It has been used by the US and other militaries in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and both recent conflicts in Iraq.
Uses of depleted uranium
Because of its extreme density, and the need to dispose of the stockpiles of depleted uranium generated by nuclear enrichment, DU has been used in both the military and civilian sectors. DU is pyrophoric, thus 30% of the mass of DU munitions explode upon impact, increasing penetration efficacy and releasing uranium oxide dust. It has been used by the US and other militaries in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and both conflicts in Iraq.
Military and Civilian:
- Radiation shielding
- Helicopter counterweights
- Yacht keels
- Ballasts in aircraft
As a byproduct of nuclear energy and weapons production, “DU is stored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which allegedly gives it free-of-charge to U.S. armaments companies and sells it to more than twenty other countries.”
United Nations and World Health Organization positions
In a resolution regarding weapons of mass destruction, the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution urging “all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium.” British and American coalition forces using depleted uranium (DU) shells in the war against Iraq are deliberately contravening this United Nations resolution which classifies the munitions as weapons of mass destruction.
The WHO’s depleted uranium fact sheet notes an increased probability of lung cancer in uranium mine workers, but attributes this to the miners’ exposure to radioactive materials other than depleted uranium. The WHO further states that no reproductive or developmental effects have been reported in humans. However, uranium released from embedded fragments (ie shrapnel wounds) may accumulate in the central nervous system (CNS) tissue, and some animal and human studies are suggestive of effects on CNS function, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the few studies reported. The one area of potentially demonstrable health hazard is liver and kidney damage due to long-term exposure, because both the kidneys and liver help to filter ingested uranium out of the human body.
NATO and European Perspectives
In 2001, the governments of many NATO countries called for urgent investigations into the use of depleted uranium (DU) in weapons in Bosnia and Kosovo after soldiers from nine countries reported developing leukaemia, and the UN found radioactive contamination at sites where DU weapons were used. At the time, the US, Germany, the UK, Spain, and Turkey argued they found no evidence of a link between DU and increased cancer rates among peacekeepers serving in the region, but Italy, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Portugal expressed apprehension and called for further investigation of the issue. The Secretary General of NATO established an Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium, which concluded in November 2001 that “at present there is no scientific link established between DU and health complaints.”
On Jan. 17, 2001 the European Parliament resolved, among other things, to “[Call] on the Member States that are also NATO members to propose that a moratorium be placed on the use of depleted uranium weapons in accordance with the precautionary principle as defined in the Council resolution adopted at the European Council meeting in Nice and the European Parliament's resolution on the subject.”
Likewise on Feb. 13, 2003, the EP called on its executive body the European Council, “to support independent and thorough investigations into the possible harmful effects of the use of depleted uranium ammunition (and other types of uranium warheads) in military operations in areas such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and other regions; [especially] on military personnel serving in affected areas and the effects on civilians and their land; [and called] for the results of these investigations to be presented to Parliament …
The 2003 resolution further called for “Member States -- in order to play their leadership role in full -- to immediately implement a moratorium on the further use of cluster ammunition and depleted uranium ammunition (and other uranium warheads), pending the conclusions of a comprehensive study of the requirements of international humanitarian law..."
On 17 November 2005, the European Parliament issued for the third time a call for a moratorium on the use of so-called "depleted” uranium munitions. The resolution regarding depleted uranium is part of an 11-page document entitled, “Texts adopted by European Parliament, on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; A role for the European Parliament.” The Resolution's section No. 82 says the EP, “Reiterates its call for a moratorium -- with a view to the introduction of a total ban -- on the use of so-called ‘depleted uranium munitions.’”
The legal basis for the moratorium was detailed early in the document, which stated that “all European Union Member States are Parties to the major multilateral agreements that make up the non-proliferation regime, namely the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).”
The Resolution made pointed mention of the fact that, “two Member States, the UK and France, are nuclear-weapon states as defined in the NPT, and that U.S. tactical weapons are stationed on the territories of many more Member States: Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Greece, the Netherlands and Belgium and states applying for EU membership, Turkey in particular.”
In March 2007, citing among other reasons the precautionary principle, Belgium became the first country to ban the manufacture, use, storage, sale, acquisition, supply, and transfer of DU ammunitions and armour in its territory. Belgium is not a user of DU, but US DU shipments travel regularly through its port of Antwerp. Unfortunately, Belgium abstained from L.18/Rev.1. In a general statement before voting commenced, Cuba's Rodolfo Benítez Verson expressed regret that certain states did not vote in favour—not because they necessarily disagreed with the text, but because they felt they needed to show political solidarity to their respective alignments.
A recent news article reported that “Although the Pentagon has sent mixed signals about the effects of depleted uranium, Iraqi doctors believe that it is responsible for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects in the region. Many researchers outside Iraq, and several U.S. veterans organizations, agree; they also suspect depleted uranium of playing a role in Gulf War Syndrome, the still-unexplained malady that has plagued hundreds of thousands of Gulf War veterans.”
After conflicts such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia, “the extent of environmental contamination from DU particles and penetrator fragments left in the soil depends on corrosion rates, the amount of soil resuspension, the depth of DU penetrators buried in the soil, and the water sources that feed into local water supplies - which may also influence the extent of DU uptake by plants and animals. However, uncertainties in estimates about inhalation intakes, as well as exposure from food and water after a conflict, result from a lack of knowledge about local soil conditions and human behavior, and a lack of empirical information on human DU exposure.” Although the US government has not taken significant action to screen veterans for DU exposure or provide training prior to combat duty, some states such as Connecticut have taken such actions towards these ends. The Department of Defense has done some study of DU effects, but this needs to be taken further, and performed by researchers outside of the military who do not have vested interests in the maintenance of DU usage or minimizing Department of Defense liability or negative publicity related to DU health hazards.