By Tara Copp, Associated Press
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The rounds retain some radioactive properties, but they can’t generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon would, RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist said.
“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,” Geist said.
When fired, a depleted uranium munition becomes “essentially an exotic metal dart fired at an extraordinarily high speed,” RAND senior defense analyst Scott Boston said.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army began making armor-piercing rounds with depleted uranium and has since added it to composite tank armor to strengthen it. It also has added depleted uranium to the munitions fired by the Air Force’s A-10 close air support attack plane, known as the tank killer. The U.S. military is still developing depleted uranium munitions, notably the M829A4 armor-piercing round for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, Boston said.
NOT A BOMB, BUT STILL A RISK
While depleted uranium munitions are not considered nuclear weapons, their emission of low levels of radiation has led the U.N. nuclear watchdog to urge caution when handling and warn of the possible dangers of exposure.
The handling of such ammunition “should be kept to a minimum and protective apparel (gloves) should be worn,” the International Atomic Energy Agency cautions, adding that “a public information campaign may, therefore, be required to ensure that people avoid handling the projectiles.
“This should form part of any risk assessment and such precautions should depend on the scope and number of ammunitions used in an area.”
The IAEA notes that depleted uranium is mainly a toxic chemical, as opposed to a radiation hazard. Particles in aerosols can be inhaled or ingested, and while most would be excreted again, some can enter the blood stream and cause kidney damage.
“High concentrations in the kidney can cause damage and, in extreme cases, renal failure,” the IAEA says.
The low-level radioactivity of a depleted uranium round “is a bug, not a feature” of the munition, Geist said, and if the U.S. military could find another material with the same density but without the radioactivity it would likely use that instead.
Depleted uranium munitions were used in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq’s T-72 tanks and again in the invasion of the country in 2003, as well as in Serbia and in Kosovo. U.S. military veterans of those conflicts have questioned whether their use led to ailments they now face.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house, said supplies of rounds containing depleted uranium could lead to “a tragedy on a global scale that will primarily affect European countries.”
Volodin said the use of such U.S. ammunition in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq led to “radioactive contamination and a sharp rise in oncological diseases.”