The Radioactive Legacy of Depleted Uranium Ammunition Comes to Ukraine

The U.K. announced its sending depleted uranium rounds to Ukraine, a weapon that has irradiated battlefields from Iraq to Bosnia.
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The United Kingdom is sending Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine equipped with armor piercing depleted uranium rounds. Countries like the U.S., U.K., and Russia manufacture ammunition using depleted uranium because the metal is heavy and dense, making it ideal to break apart enemy armor. But it’s a highly controversial weapon because it’s radioactive and toxic, and various groups have argued that its use by the U.S. in Iraq resulted in persistent health problems for residents that led to Fallujah being dubbed “the Iraqi Hiroshima.”


Putin warned the west against deploying depleted uranium (DU) in Ukraine during a press conference with Chinese president Xi Jinping. “It seems that the West has actually decided to fight with Russia to the last Ukrainian, not in words, but in deeds, but I would like to note in this regard that if all this happens, then Russia will have to react accordingly, bearing in mind that the collective West is beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component," Putin said, according to a live translation by Sky News.

On Wednesday, Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly pushed back against Russia’s claim that the use of depleted uranium constitutes a nuclear escalation. 

"There is no nuclear escalation,” he said, according to Reuters. “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…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."


Cleverly is right. Depleted uranium is a conventional munition but it is still radioactive. It’s also worth noting that Russia is one of the only countries in the world that manufactures and deploys depleted uranium weapons. Russian news agency TASS bragged about the Kremlin upgrading its T-80BV with depleted uranium weapons in 2018. This tank has been deployed to Ukraine but its use of DU rounds has not been confirmed. 

Depleted uranium rounds have well-documented health concerns for both soldiers and non-combatants. According to Doug Weir, Research and Policy Director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, the DU rounds the U.K. is sending are old and should be considered radioactive waste. "In addition to the exposure risks for those coming into contact with DU contaminated scrap and materiel, which will require management as low level radioactive waste," he told Motherboard in an email. "Ukraine needs to be aware that the UK's aging CHARM3 120mm ammunition reached the end of its service life in 2015."

Weir said that DU rounds aren’t as radioactive as enriched uranium, but are still toxic. “UK DU (which originated from the U.S.) is also contaminated with other radioactive elements, increasing its radioactivity, although Russian DU is believed to be even dirtier,” he said.

The U.K. once tested its DU rounds in Scotland but stopped after community outcry. “Back in the ‘70s when the U.S. first stationed DU ammo in the UK it had a big PR campaign explaining that it was not more toxic than lead,” Weird said. “They don't use that line any more because it turns out that lead is really toxic.”


The U.S. and NATO allies used DU rounds during the Gulf War, the intervention in Bosnia, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in airstrikes against Syria in 2015. The most famous and well reported of these is the use of the rounds in civilian areas of Fallujah, Iraq. Local and international organizations have studied the effects of DU on civilian populations in Iraq and Bosnia. 

Some groups have concluded that there’s a direct link between DU and a subsequent rise in birth defects and health problems, but  but the results have also been described as inconclusive. World Health Organization studies have routinely found no link between the use of DU and ill health effects, but scientists—including those writing in the Lancet—have said the studies were poorly designed. Some have even accused the WHO of covering up evidence of the health effects.

It’s not that’s not because depleted uranium causes no harm, but because there’s so much other toxic material in a warzone that it’s hard to isolate what, exactly, causes birth defects and other health issues. 


“The toxic remnants of war are pretty diverse, and certainly in Ukraine there are no shortage of pollution hazards,” Weir said. However, there’s no doubt that depleted uranium poses unique health risks.

“Uranium is more chemically toxic than many metals and then you have the added radioactivity issue. In the way that it is or is likely to be being used in Ukraine, large caliber tank ammo, the main problem will be contaminated scrap and exposure risks for people who have to deal with that,” he added. 

Weir said it’s also hard to study the precise effects of DU because it's both radioactive and toxic. “From a health perspective, if you're studying DU's genotoxicity (the way it can damage DNA) or mutagenicity it's actually really difficult to design experiments to isolate out its chemical toxicity from its radioactivity, both of which may combine to amplify harm,” he said.

Battlefields all over the world are rife with toxins, even near civilian locations. In Iraq, birth defects spike near U.S. military bases. There’s a lot of lead on the ground and the U.S. burned all its garbage in open air pits. People, both civilian and military personnel, who have lived and worked in these areas often have health problems.

According to Weir, DU gets a lot of attention because people have a strong negative reaction to the idea of firing radioactive munitions. “Historically it has received more attention than other toxics because most people's reaction to the idea that we fire uranium darts around—without any obligations to clear them up—is WTF? And because of that intrinsic and common sense WTF, militaries who use it have to work hard on the PR—‘DU is weakly radioactive,’ ‘there's no evidence of civilian harm,’ etc.”

“Well, it's actually really hard to study cancer outcomes in warzones.”