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EXPLAINER: What is depleted uranium? Is it a nuclear weapon? Is it safe?
Updated 20:54, 23-Mar-2023
Gary Parkinson
Europe;UK
05:58

The news that the UK is to send Ukraine ammunition containing depleted uranium has sparked anger, fear and not a little confusion. 

Russia reacted angrily, with President Vladimir Putin warning "Russia will have to respond accordingly" and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warning of a "nuclear collision" between Russia and the West. 

Besides fears arising from escalating conflict, some experts have reiterated concern over the effects of such weaponry. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has warned of the "additional environmental and health disaster" possible from toxic or radioactive dust being released on impact.

The confusion arises from the nature of depleted uranium. Is it a nuclear weapon, by definition or in effect? What is it used for and what does it do? Is it related to the groundbreaking recent AUKUS deal under which the UK and U.S. will supply Australia with nuclear submarines?

In this explainer, CGTN Europe will try to answer all these questions and more.

 

When did it emerge that the UK is sending Ukraine depleted uranium?

This week's global political row started with a question asked two weeks previously by an extravagantly bearded 90-year-old. Hereditary peer Lord Hylton tabled a question in the UK's political upper chamber asking if the "whether any of the ammunition currently being supplied to Ukraine contains depleted uranium."

In response, on Monday, Baroness Annabel Goldie – herself a 73-year-old peer as well as the UK's minister of state for defense (a role not to be confused with the ministry-leading Defense Secretary, currently Ben Wallace) – confirmed that some of the ammunition for the Challenger 2 battle tanks that Britain is sending to Ukraine includes armor-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium.

The ammunition was "highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armored vehicles," Goldie said.

 

What has been the reaction? 

Russia reacted with threats of escalation. Putin warned 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," but did not elaborate further.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested UK politicians "have lost their bearings," while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that Russia and the West were heading for potential "nuclear collision," saying "another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left… Naturally, Russia has something to answer this with." 

Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly replied "There is no nuclear escalation. The only country in the world that is talking about nuclear issues is Russia. There is no threat to Russia, this is purely about helping Ukraine defend itself."

U.S.-based think-tank The Institute for the Study of War claimed that Putin had portrayed the ammunition as "escalatory in order to deter Western security assistance, despite the shells not containing any fissile or radiological material."

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally, warned Russia would retaliate by providing Belarus with ammunition containing "real uranium."

"We need to step back from this madness. As soon as this ammunition explodes on Russian troops' positions, you will see a fearful response, it will be a lesson for the whole planet," he told reporters in a video clip. "Russia does not only have depleted uranium... We have to lower this trend towards escalation in the conflict and move towards a peaceful settlement."

 

What is depleted uranium?

Uranium comes in different types and isotopes, but the really useful stuff is uranium-235, which is fissile – that is, capable of maintaining a nuclear fission chain reaction – and is therefore the engine behind both nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

Uranium-235 (or 235U) is irritatingly rare, but during the 1940s scientists working on nuclear weaponry discovered they could create 'enriched uranium' with heavier concentrations of the 235U isotopes. Enriched uranium is what makes nuclear submarines move, nuclear power stations generate and nuclear bombs explode. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his country will have to 'respond accordingly' to the UK exporting ammunition to Ukraine. /Gavriil Grigorov /Sputnik/Pool via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his country will have to 'respond accordingly' to the UK exporting ammunition to Ukraine. /Gavriil Grigorov /Sputnik/Pool via Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his country will have to 'respond accordingly' to the UK exporting ammunition to Ukraine. /Gavriil Grigorov /Sputnik/Pool via Reuters

The process of creating enriching uranium makes a by-product called depleted uranium – depleted of its 235U, therefore less reactive and indeed less radioactive. For decades it was stored in the hope that it would be rendered useful by improved enrichment processes, but depleted uranium was to receive a quicker way back to utility – and again, it came through military technology. 

Depleted uranium is dense – 1.67 times as dense as lead – and dense material is good for the military in two very oppositional ways: Dense projectiles can pierce armor, and dense armor can deflect projectiles. 

It's that density, industry analyst Louise Jones tells CGTN, that attracts the military. "That property – which has nothing to do with the fact that it was used for uranium – means it's very effective to use in a warhead," says Jones, the Head of Intelligence at McKenzie Intelligence Services. 

"For the size and weight of the metal, you have a very effective penetrative weapon to be used against anti-armor or anti-tank. And that's why it's used – it's nothing to do with any small radioactive components that it may have."

Depleted uranium has been used in armor-piercing ordnance since at least the 1990 Gulf War, while it is now also used in armor plating for tanks: the U.S. M1A1 Abrams battle tank has been equipped with it since the late 1980s.

"In theory, any country that has a nuclear fuel industry can produce depleted uranium," explains Jones. "The use of it on the warheads is mostly done by the U.S. and the UK, where it's been a common standard components of anti-armor tank ammunition since 1990. Countries like Russia have also got access to depleted uranium and have used it on their own anti-armor ammunition as well."

 

Is depleted uranium a nuclear weapon?

Not according to the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, which says that depleted uranium does not meet the legal definitions of nuclear, radiological, toxin, chemical, poison or incendiary weapons.

Jones is also insistent that the mention of uranium may create a false impression: "This shouldn't be considered in any way similar to a radioactive weapon. The U.N. doesn't classify it as anywhere near the threshold for a nuclear or chemical weapon. Really, it's a conventional weapon that has some characteristics of very low radioactivity."

Unusually, the UK's defense ministry released a statement in response to Russia's claims. 

"Alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine we will be providing ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium," the statement read. "Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armored vehicles.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of creating enriched uranium. /AFP
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of creating enriched uranium. /AFP

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of creating enriched uranium. /AFP

"The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armor-piercing shells for decades. It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. Russia knows this but is deliberately trying to disinform."

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly underlined the difference: "It's worth making sure everyone understands that just because the word uranium is in the title of depleted uranium munitions, they are not nuclear munitions, they are purely conventional munitions."

 

Can depleted uranium be used to make nuclear weapons?

No. As its name suggests, depleted uranium has been processed to collect the 235U isotopes that make a chain reaction happen. 

Or as Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK's Royal Tank Regiment, said: "Depleted uranium is completely inert. There is no way that you could create a nuclear reaction or a nuclear explosion with depleted uranium."

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly says 'they are not nuclear munitions, they are conventional munitions.' /Turar Kazangapov/Reuters
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly says 'they are not nuclear munitions, they are conventional munitions.' /Turar Kazangapov/Reuters

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly says 'they are not nuclear munitions, they are conventional munitions.' /Turar Kazangapov/Reuters

What is depleted uranium used for?

Shielding and weight, usually, because of its density. Besides its military applications, it has a few carefully-selected civilian applications. 

It is used for radiation shielding in medical radiotherapy and industrial radiography – think of the shields that medics stand behind when giving you an X-ray – and in containers for transporting radioactive materials. It's also used in aircraft for counterweighting, because you don't want an unbalanced aircraft.

 

What about the recent AUKUS nuclear submarines deal?

The recent agreement by which the U.S. and UK will develop nuclear-powered submarines for Australia is groundbreaking and controversial for many reasons, which we've gone into here. However, it has nothing to do with depleted uranium. 

(L-R) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden and UK PM Rishi Sunak announce the Aukus deal at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. /Leah Millis/Reuters
(L-R) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden and UK PM Rishi Sunak announce the Aukus deal at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. /Leah Millis/Reuters

(L-R) Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden and UK PM Rishi Sunak announce the Aukus deal at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. /Leah Millis/Reuters

Instead, and briefly, the deal is controversial precisely because it involves submarines powered by nuclear reactors – which, you'll remember from earlier paragraphs, are powered by enriched uranium, and that transfer of enriched uranium has never previously happened from a nuclear state (such as the U.S. and UK) to a non-nuclear state (Australia). But that's a different story.

READ MORE: Explainer: What exactly is the AUKUS submarine deal?

 

What are the dangers of depleted uranium?

Depleted uranium is less radioactive than 'standard' or especially enriched uranium. Its main radioactive emission is alpha particles, which don't have enough energy to pass through the skin. 

But that doesn't mean it's safe. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs describes depleted uranium as "a toxic heavy metal," which "possesses the same chemical toxicity properties as uranium, although its radiological toxicity is less." 

The chemical/radiological distinction is important because depleted uranium munitions explode upon impact and release uranium oxide dust, and those alpha particles that can't penetrate your skin can still be ingested by swallowing or inhalation. 

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova referenced this when calling the UK's munition exports a "Yugoslavia scenario," saying the ammunition caused cancer and infected the environment.

Ukrainian personnel pose with a flag atop a British Challenger 2 tank, which fires munitions incorporating depleted uranium. /Toby Melville/Reuters
Ukrainian personnel pose with a flag atop a British Challenger 2 tank, which fires munitions incorporating depleted uranium. /Toby Melville/Reuters

Ukrainian personnel pose with a flag atop a British Challenger 2 tank, which fires munitions incorporating depleted uranium. /Toby Melville/Reuters

The International Atomic Energy Agency warns that "sufficient amounts" of ingested depleted uranium can be dangerous because of this "chemical toxicity." One potential effect is kidney failure, while cancer is always a possibility with radioactive material.

"Just being in the vicinity of it whilst it's part of a warhead that hasn't been used doesn't really have any discernible effect," industry expert Jones tells CGTN. "The issues may come from where it then becomes present in aerosols after an explosion – for example, in the vicinity after it has been used on it on a target. 

"There's also some discussion about the effects after an explosion on soil or the nearby groundwater. And those after-effects are slightly less clear."

This could be a major concern with Ukraine hoping to reclaim its place as Europe's breadbasket as part of its economic recovery.

The U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks include depleted-uranium armor plating. /Ints Kalnins/Reuters
The U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks include depleted-uranium armor plating. /Ints Kalnins/Reuters

The U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks include depleted-uranium armor plating. /Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Some countries, including Belgium, have already banned the use of uranium in ammunition. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has responded to the story by insisting the UK government should "introduce an immediate moratorium" on depleted uranium in ammunition, support a global ban on its use in conventional weapons, and pledge to clean up areas where such munitions have been used.

"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," said CND's general secretary Kate Hudson.

However, the UK's defense ministry insists: "Independent research by scientists from groups such as the Royal Society has assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low."

 

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