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Depleted Uranium Ammunition: The True Price of Victory.

The military has always maintained that ammunitions made from depleted uranium are completed safe and do not present a significant health hazard. Ammunitions are made from depleted uranium as it is much denser than lead and as a consequence has far greater armour piercing capabilities. Also uranium behaves quite differently when piercing the armour itself. Rather than the projectile becoming rounded as it enters the armour as happens with lead, uranium actually sharpens which increases its overall armour piercing capabilities. It is because of this that ammunitions containing depleted uranium gives the military using it a huge advantage as it significantly increases the range at which it can take out enemy armoured vehicles. 

Ammunitions utilising depleted uranium were used extensively in the 1991 Gulf War and it was for this reason that the war was so incredibly one-sided. The use of depleted uranium ammunitions led to a swift victory for the allied forces against the army of Iraq. However there was a hidden cost to this victory as depleted uranium is in fact both toxic and radioactive.

25 mm rounds depleted uranium

25mm rounds of depleted uranium ammunition.

It is recognised that of the 697,000 U.S. veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War, some 250,000 have been afflicted with what has become known as Gulf War Syndrome (Wikipedia - Gulf War Syndrome). The medical conditions the veterans suffer from range from the serious to the chronic. However authorities in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge that depleted uranium is the cause of Gulf War Syndrome but instead have attempted to blame oil well fires and anthrax vaccines administered to troops. The official verdict on depleted uranium is that it is completely safe and does not represent a significant radiological hazard.


So what is depleted uranium exactly? When uranium metal is extracted from its ore it is almost entirely uranium-238 with a very small percentage, 0.72% to be exact, being uranium-235. It is the uranium-235 that is used for generating atomic power and in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. When the uranium-235 has been successfully extracted leaving the uranium-238, it is known as ‘depleted uranium’. However depleted uranium can nevertheless still contain as much as 0.3% uranium-235 compared with the original 0.72%. This is the result of the inefficiencies of the extraction process. 


The official opinion is that depleted uranium is completely safe as uranium-238 is far less radioactive than uranium-235. To give you an idea as to the difference in radioactivity between the two isotopes, the half-life of uranium-238 is about 6.4 times longer than uranium-235. This means that it will take 6.4 times as long for uranium-238 to reach half of its original levels of radioactivity as does uranium-235. As uranium-235 decays quicker it is therefore more radioactive as a result.

U-238 decay chain

It has also been said that depleted uranium is safer as the radioactive alpha particles emitted by uranium-238 can easy be stopped by wearing protective clothing. However the manner of decay of the more radioactive uranium-235 also produces alpha particles and it is already known that uranium-235 is a hazard. Further when the uranium-238 in depleted uranium decays it produces further radioactive particles which emit the more penetrating beta particles. As a result of this chain of decay, after about a month the depleted uranium will emit just as much beta particle radiation as it will alpha particle radiation.


If you look at the list of medical symptoms affecting veterans afflicted with the Gulf War Syndrome, prominent on that list is terminal cancer which has affected a third of U.S. veterans recognised as having GWS (Wikipedia - Gulf War Syndrome, Signs and Symptoms). This suggests that whatever has affected them has carcinogenic properties. Other symptoms reported in GWS are bleeding gums, tooth and hair loss which are also classic symptoms in radiation sickness (The Free Dictionary - Gulf War Syndrome). In fact most of the symptoms reported in GWS are compatable with symptoms of radiation sickenss, such as gastrointestinal complaints, fatigue, headaches and diarrhea. Despite the official denials therefore depleted uranium must be the chief suspect here. 

Radiation check Iraq

A spent depleted uranium cartridge being checked for residual radioactivity by an inspector in Iraq.

When depleted uranium ammunition penetrates the armour of a tank it is often already molten and the molten metal instantly fills the inner compartment of the tank causing a fire which can then result in an explosion. As a result of the vaporisation of the depleted uranium a microscopic powder containing uranium-238 and traces of uranium-235 is formed. This microscopic powder can be blown around by the wind and can hence be breathed in. This radioactive dust has been detected on the surface of the remains of burnt out armoured vehicles in Iraq with Geiger counters even many years after the war has ended. The uranium dust can also be moved around by water and ultimately ends up in the water table contaminating the water supply and it is this that is said to be the cause of the significant increase in birth defects in the city of Fallujah, Iraq.

Damage from DU shells

An example of the damage done by depleted uranium shells on armour plating.

Depleted uranium ammunitions have also been used in the Balkans conflict, in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. Medics in the Serbian hospital of Kosovska Mitrovica raised concerns in 2001 that the number of people suffering from malignant illness had increased by 200% since 1998. Pekka Haavisto, Chairman of the United Nations Environment Programme Depleted Uranium project, was quoted as saying, “The findings of this study stress again the importance of appropriate clean-up and civil protection measures in a post-conflict situation. We hope that this work will play a role in protecting human health and the environment in the unfortunate event of future conflicts. We now have a scientific method for measuring the impacts of DU and the same methodology can, if needed, be used in other situations.” (Low-level DU contamination found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNEP calls for precaution)  


However despite these ambiguous words from the Chairman of the UNEP DU projects, there has been a growing outcry in Italy concerning what has been termed the ‘Balkans Syndrome’ (The International Relations and Security Network - Depleted uranium, depleted health concerns). A study by the Italian Military Health Observatory in 2007 suggested that as many as 164 Italian military personnel had lost their lives as a direct result of exposure to depleted uranium in Sarajevo and Kosovo in the 1990’s. 

Used DU shells on display

Used depleted uranium shells on display in an appropriately sealed glass cabinet.

Civilians in Afghanistan have been tested and shown to have raised levels of depleted uranium in their systems which are far in excess of what would normally be expected. These same civilians also have symptoms comparable to Gulf War Syndrome (BBC News - Afghans' uranium levels spark alert).


The use of depleted uranium ammunitions has also been linked to a 40% fall in the sperm counts of Israeli men over a ten year period up until 2008 (Israel's Declining Sperm Quality Tied To Depleted Uranium Exposure). The Israeli military in its offences against Gaza have used weapons containing depleted uranium. The suggestion is that microscopic powder containing uranium have been formed which have then blown over Israeli population lowering the sperm count.


Once depleted uranium gets into the environment it contaminates the entire area for thousands of years to come. Windblown dust containing uranium will be breathed in and uranium will get into and contaminate the water supply. This ultimately significantly increases the cancer rate and the number of birth defects. The various cleanup operations conducted by the military in the area will only ever have a partial effect on the problem and there will always be some contaminating depleted uranium remaining. We have to ask ourselves if such a price is really worth paying for the sake of victory or whether such weapons should be banned for the benefit of the health and wellbeing of future generations?

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