What are depleted Uranium munitions? 

As a part of a $1 billion aid package, the United States announced this week that it is sending depleted anti-tank munitions to Ukraine to help Zelensky’s troops fend off Russian tanks. 

The armor-piercing rounds first developed during the Cold War by the U.S. will be fired from 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks that are planned to be delivered to Kyiv in the coming months. 

Besides the Kremlin blasting Washington for sending them, the rounds’ mild radioactivity has sparked safety questions — especially if civilians come in contact with them.  

What is depleted Uranium? 

Depleted uranium is an offshoot during the process of creating enriched uranium, which is used in nuclear weapons and fuel.

Its density makes it great for being used as a projectile, although far less powerful than enriched uranium, and it lacks the ability to cause a nuclear reaction. 

“A common misconception is that radiation is depleted uranium’s primary hazard. That is not the case under most battlefield exposure scenarios,” according to a RAND Corporation report.

The effectiveness of depleted uranium rounds lies in their ability to pierce through tank armor, as their sharpness increases during penetration. It can also be used to reinforce tank armor. 

“It’s so dense, and it’s got so much momentum that it just keeps going through the armor — and it heats it up so much that it catches on fire,” said RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist.

Effects of depleted Uranium? 

The United Nations’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, stated that while the depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium, it still calls for caution when dealing with it. The agency said that it has “chemical and radioactive toxicity.” 

“The fear is that if depleted uranium shells land on the ground, they may contaminate the soil,” Marina Miron, post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, told the BBC. “That is why the U.S. and its NATO allies sparked controversy when they used them in Kosovo.”

The United Nations’s Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that “no clinically significant pathology related to radiation exposure to depleted uranium was found.” 

This conclusion is slightly different than that of the 2019 study published in the Foreign Policy Journal, which alluded to an association between depleted Uranium used by the U.S. during Iraq War and the Iraqi children having birth defects. 

Are these weapons legal? 

Yes, since they are not considered a nuclear weapon. Additionally, no specific treaty prohibits their implementation on the battlefield. 

However, a group called The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons has said that the weapons use could trigger health risks if civilians get exposed to their dust. 

Russia’s response

Russia has strongly criticized the weapons transfer. 

“The US Administration’s decision to send depleted uranium rounds to [Ukraine] is a clear sign of inhumanity,” the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a in a statement Wednesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the transfer “very bad news.” 

Peskov claimed that the United States’s use of those weapons in former Yugoslavia has led to a raise in cancers and other illnesses. 

Washington’s view

John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said that “depleted uranium rounds will help [Ukraine] be more effective on the battlefield.”

“What really is happening is that Russia simply doesn’t want to see Ukraine with tanks and more effective tank rounds that could be lethal against Russian tanks,” a U.S. official told Politico. “If Russia has an issue with that, they can withdraw their tanks from Ukraine.”

Tags depleted uranium Dmitry Peskov Foreign Policy Journal Internation Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons International Atomic Energy Agency John Kirby NATO Russia-Ukraine war Russian Embassy Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation United Nations