See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE Case Studies
Number 92, May, 2002

The Politics of Depleted Uranium

by Jusuf Fuduli

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

The United States military has since the Persian Gulf War relied on the heavy metal of depleted uranium as a means of penetrating the armor of enemy tanks. Although not used exclusively by the US, depleted uranium (DU) is a staple in the ammunition used by the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, which fires a 120 millimeter DU round to cut through tank armor, and in the 30 millimeter rapid fire gatling gun of the A10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft.

The military has been served well by DU munitions allowing US forces to establish superiority over enemy armor. DU is 1.7 times denser than ordinary lead and when fired at high velocity penetrates and burns through armor plate. Up to 70% of the shell used to penetrate armor aerosolizes, or turns into vapor, as a result of the heat and impact. The use of DU in weapons systems is not without controversy though due to the origin and potential health hazards associated with its use. However, while an overwhelming amount of web literature is dedicated to the subject of depleted uranium the bulk of this is connected to partisan discussion on the political aspects of the conflicts that spurred their use.

2. Description

Depleted uranium is a by product created as a result of the processes used to convert natural uranium for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. Although considerably less radioactive than the isotopes it is a by product of, DU still has a half life in the billions is possesses 60% the radioactivity of ordinary uranium. The US Army argues that there is negligible increases in radioactivity due to the use of DU and it poses little to no health risk, but mounting concerns from allies and enemies alike have prompted calls for a ban on the weapon. The immediate results provided by this cost effective munition will mean that the United States will continue its use regardless of current criticism, which in turn, may neglect the long term impact of DU use on the environment and human health. The material below will examine the contours of the current debate on DU, including deaths attributed to its use and the potential impact of radioactive contamination of groundwater. Three conflicts where DU use has been confirmed, and a fourth where DU deployment is suspected will supply the data for answering why the US continues to rely on DU munitions.

The US military stance on DU is clear as this excerpt from the Depleted Uranium Factsheet on the Office of the Secretary of Defense's website states, "DU is only mildly radioactive. Depleted uranium emits alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays. Alpha particles, the primary radiation type produced by depleted uranium, are blocked by skin, while beta particles are blocked by the boots and battle dress utility uniform (BDUs) typically worn by service members. While gamma rays are a form of highly-penetrating energy, the amount of gamma radiation emitted by depleted uranium is very low. The threat of chemical toxicity would also be minimal because there is little likelihood that sufficient quantities of DU could be inhaled or ingested to cause a heavy metal concern."

The factsheet goes on to detail three types of scenarios through which US personnel were exposed to varying amounts of DU. Even in the most severe case of DU exposure, US troops did not develop "kidney abnormalities, leukemia, bone or lung cancer, or any classical uranium-related adverse outcome." The above excerpt points to little risk of DU hazard to US soldiers wearing regulation uniforms and conducting standard combat operations. Therefore the Department of Defense asserts that the risk of DU exposure is low and therefore acceptable to US personnel. However, a critical debate emerging from the use of DU goes beyond the immediate exposure to the soldiers responsible for its use, but focuses on the long term effects on civilian populations residing in areas where it was expended, and the soldiers assigned to keep the peace in these regions afterward.

The major criticisms of the DOD's literature on DU is that none of its research is directed at examining the long term health risks DU poses to a resident civilian population, or military troops from other nations maintaining a standing peacekeeping force. DOD scenarios are concerned with likely exposure to US troops passing the tank and enemy armor graveyards created as a result of DU strikes on the way to their next objective. There is also no description in DOD scenarios of prolonged troop presence as soldiers are expected to redeploy home once the war is over. While that was true of the Gulf War it hasn't been the rule for the tens of thousands of multinational troops serving in the Balkans, nor is likely to be true for the thousands serving in Afghanistan. And it is certainly not the case for the millions of civilians residing in these host nations.

There is speculation that DU was a factor in the Persian Gulf War syndrome that has afflicted veterans of that conflict with ubiquitous types of neurological disorders and cancers. Narrowing down DU as a culprit in disease has been difficult in the Gulf, however, due to the many other health risks soldiers were exposed to, including burning oil wells, toxins released by the destruction of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons sites, and the vaccines soldiers were inoculated with to protect them from chemical and biological hazards. In 1995 and 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mounted bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Serbia respectively to force Serbian troop withdrawals from Bosnia and Kosovo. The Bosnian campaign lasted for a few weeks and Kosovo's air war for 78 days, both were fought exclusively from the air. DU munitions were used by the US as part of its arsenal against Serbian armor. While the amount of DU expended in Kosovo and Bosnia was less than a tenth of that used in Iraq, where 320 tons were expended (OSD), soldiers participating in the ongoing Balkans peacekeeping missions have complained of what some are describing as a Balkans Peacekeeping syndrome generating higher rates of cancer and leukemia among the troops. The specific complaints revolves around the deaths of six Italian soldiers from leukemia after their Balkan tours of duty (Radio Netherlands).

Tank turret penetrated by DU round. Photo courtesy of NATO

The Balkans provides a better case study for examining possible links of DU and cancer than Iraq does, because there were no other X factors like chemical and biological weapons to account for. In addition, whereas Iraq has not been occupied by foreign troops or international interlocutors, Kosovo and Bosnia have had a steady international presence since the end of their respective conflicts. The United Nations Environmental Program launched two investigations into DU use in the recent Kosovo campaign in the last three years. The first study in 1999 was inconclusive due to NATO's failure to provide UNEP with the necessary data covering the type of DU munitions used and the areas in which strikes were launched. In July 2000 NATO did forward the data to UNEP and also established an ad hoc committee to investigate claims of DU related disease among Balkans peacekeepers. The recently released UNEP report examined soil, water, and flora samples for evidence of increased radioactivity. While localized contamination was detected at DU strike sites there was no evidence of widespread contamination.

The NATO ad hoc committee on DU briefed the following information, "To date no nation has found evidence of an increase in incidence of illness among peacekeepers in the Balkans compared with the incidence of illness among armed forces not serving in the Balkans; None of the nations reported finding a link between health complaints of personnel employed in the Balkans and Depleted Uranium munitions; and no link has been established between DU and reported cancers." Aside from NATO's finding of no increase in hazardous DU exposure to its troops who are normally deployed on a six month tour in the Balkans, the International Committee of the Red Cross found no traces of DU among their aid workers deployed to the same areas. More importantly than studies conducted on soldiers and aid workers residing on a temporary basis in the Balkans, no evidence has surfaced indicating increased levels of cancer among permanent residents.

Confounding the issue is a consistent politicization of DU use by parties involved in the conflicts where they were fielded. Iraq has claimed that depleted uranium bombardment during the Persian Gulf war has led to increases in cancer and congenital birth defects, but they have not published results of any scientific study regarding these allegations (WHO). Similarly, the government of Yugoslavia while under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for genocide, claimed that NATO use of DU had exceeded tolerable norms of radioactive exposure a thousand fold (see ICE case study "Depleted Uranium and the Balkans"). Other reports from Yugoslavia immediately after the conflict detailed chromosome damage among workers sealing off DU strike sites. These allegations were later proved groundless by the UNEP field mission.

Another aspect of this debate is the failure of NATO and UN reports to convince the Europeans of DU's safety. Part of the problem is the lack of studies on the long term effects of DU exposure, and the effect of DU seepage into groundwater. The UNEP report stated that while "no alarming levels of DU contamination were detected, uncertainty exists regarding future potential groundwater contamination from (DU) penetrator corrosion." Estimates vary, but DU contamination of groundwater could take up to 40 years to occur. These concerns have prompted the European Parliament in January 2001 to propose suspending DU munitions use until further studies can be completed (Council of Europe Press release). European concerns aside, the US military is clearly married to the idea of continued DU use. As US Army spokeswoman Nancy Ray, at the Pentagon stated, "We are not looking for a substitute to DU for any reason (Christian Science Monitor)." US releuctance to forego the use of DU stems from two very practical facts. First, DU is considerably more effective than tungsten, another dense metal used for munitions; and second, DU is essentially free. Since the 1940's when the US began its nuclear research up til today, the US nuclear industry has produced over 1.2 billion pounds of depleted uranium as a by-product of uranium refinement for reactor use (CSM). Rather than being discarded as radioactive waste, DU can be sold cheaply to defense manufacturers. Tungsten, on the other hand is not inexpensive, and the US is not sitting on large stockpiles of it. The US imports most of its tungsten from China. China is viewed as a possible threat by military planners and it would be impractical to rely on critical weapons components from a possible future belligerent. Rather than witnessing a moratorium on DU use, there is some speculation that the US military is expanding its use of depleted uranium to munitions aside from those already used to destroy tanks.

Type of DU munitions Tonnage
Iraq 120 and 30 millimeter shells 320
Balkans 30 millimeter shells 13
Afghanistan Unknown Unknown
Table 1: Amount of DU expended in last three major US military engagements. figures from OSD website

Ongoing military operations in Afghanistan have relied on a new generation of so-called "bunker busting" bombs that burrow deep into the ground to destroy enemy bunkers buried underground or in mountains. A particular focus in Afghanistan has been the cave complexes that housed al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. One independent researcher has suggested that these bunker bombs may be encased in depleted uranium in order to give them the necessary weight and density to penetrate through dirt and rock in order to deliver their payloads (Dai Williams). The US DOD has not confirmed the use of DU in these new weapons, but the implications of heavier DU bombs burrowing deep into the ground before exploding might increase the already high concern of DU contamination of groundwater.

3. Duration: 1991, 1995, 1999

The conflicts in question had limited duration. Active hostilities in which DU was used in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo were less than a year in combined duration. However, the radioactive half-life of DU measures billions of years effectively ensuring that its presence exists long after any conflict where its been utilized has ceased.

4. Location

Continent: Europe

Region: South Central Europe

State: Former Yugoslavia

Continent: Asia

Region: Southwest Asia

State: Iraq

5. Actors

The United States, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Radiation

Radioactive exposure of soil, flora and fauna, and groundwater. Radioactive exposure increases the immediate risk of cancer, while long term exposure can result in genetic mutation.

7. Type of Habitat: Temperate

8. Act and Harm Sites: Yugoslavia and Italy

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Civil

Intra-state/inter-ethnic in the case of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan necessitating international intervention by multi-national coalitions; and inter-state conflict between Iraq and Kuwait that prompted an international intervention.

10. Level of Conflict

With the exception of Iraq, which was a full scale conventional war with hundreds of thousands of combatants, US military action in the Balkans and Afghanistan have in the former not involved ground forces, or, as in the latter case seen limited deployment of hundreds of special operations troops.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities):

Estimates of Iraqi military and civilian deaths have been put at 100,000 and are considered reasonable figures even by members of the US led coalition. US casualties in the Persian Gulf War numbered less than 500. Bosnia and Kosovo's inter-ethnic conflicts generated an estimated 250,000 and 10,000 deaths respectively. Estimates of casualties induced by NATO's combined intervention in both areas is believed to have generated between 2000-5000 deaths. There were no NATO casualties in the Bosnian, or Kosovo campaign. No deaths have been directly attributed to the radioactive properties of DU in any of the above conflicts. Since military action in Afghanistan is ongoing, no definitive casualties reports are available.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap: Direct

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature


Radio Netherlands, Europe Worried about "Balkans War Syndrome" 4 January 2001

Briefing by NATO Acting Spokesman Mark Laity and Statement by Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, Chairman Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium 24 January 2001

Christian Science Monitor Special: Depleted Uranium

Mystery Metal Nightmare in Afghanistan? Dai Williams, 31 January 2002

BBC News Online, "Uranium weapons health warning," Ania Lichtarowicz, 12 March, 2002

Office of the Secretary of Defense Depleted Uranium Factsheet, August 1998

Council of Europe Press release: Assembly calls for ban on weapons containing uranium and plutonium, 24 January 2001

International Atomic Energy Agency: Depleted Uranium Questions and Answers

United Nations Environment Program Balkans Task Force Post Conflict Environmental Assessment in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 2002

United Nations Environment Program: Depleted Uranium in Kosovo Final Report 5-19 November 2000

World Health Organization Report, "Depleted Uranium Sources, Exposure and Health Effects" April 2001

Office of Secretary of Defense, "Medical impact of Depleted Uranium in the Balkans is widely studied," 30 October 2001