Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Depleted Uranium Fact Sheet

on 2000 May 1

What is depleted uranium? Depleted uranium (DU) contains 99% U-238. It is the remainder after natural uranium has been processed to remove U-235, which is the material useful for nuclear reactor fuel and nuclear weapons. (It has been “depleted” of U-235.) DU is 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.1

Why is DU used in weapons? DU is used in weapons because it is so dense (1.7 times denser than lead), which allows a projectile to penetrate armor more easily. It also ignites on impact and can burn the target. And, it is readily available and cheap, being a by-product of nuclear weapons production.2

Which weapons contain DU? The two main anti-tank weapons made of DU are the 120mm cannon shell used by the US armies M1A1 Abrams tank, and 30mm bullets used by A-10 anti-tank aircraft. DU weapons are also used by Britain’s Challenger tank, and the US and British navies’ Phalanx gun systems.3,4

Have DU weapons been used in combat? DU weapons have been tested in New Mexico and other states since the 1970s.3 They were first used in combat in the Gulf War in 1991.1 DU weapons were also used in Bosnia in 1994-95,3,5,6 and are currently being used in Iraq and Yugoslavia by the US.7

Where else is DU used? DU is used as tank armor (in M1A1 tanks), in landmines,3 and in commercial aircraft as ballast.

What are the health effects of DU? DU in solid form is mildly radioactive, and presents no adverse effects if simple precautions are taken. However, up to 70% of the DU in bullets aerosolizes on impact, and becomes fine dust particles.1 The dust particles are sufficiently soluble to contaminate soil, groundwater and surface water. When ingested DU accumulates in the bones and kidneys and like lead is permanently deposited. It causes irreversible damage to the kidneys and the growth of tumors. DU crosses the placenta during pregnancy. When inhaled the toxic and radioactive particles are trapped permanently in the lungs, increasing the risk of cancer.4 Alpha-particle emissions from any radioactive material are not dangerous externally, but when ingested can cause genetic mutations, which can lead to cancer and birth defects. The alpha radiation dose from a DU dust particle lodged in the lung has been estimated to be 17 rads/year.3 If only 50 tons of DU dust was left in the Gulf area, a half-million cancers could be expected in ten years.8

How prevalent are the effects of  DU? In the Gulf War, over 940,000 rounds of small DU shells were fired from US planes and 14,000 DU shells from tanks1 – amounting to between 300 and 800 tons of DU,6 of which several hundred tons may remain in the form of dust. Some alarming correlations suggest that there may be widespread effects of this dust. First, in Iraq since the Gulf War, the rate of cancer among civilians has increased 500%.9 The rate of birth defects has increased to 3-10 times their pre-war levels.10 In Bosnia, major increases in radiation-linked conditions have occurred since the 1995 bombings: 400% increase in brain membrane cancer, and increases in stillbirths.5 The highest rate of leukemia in the UK is found near a facility that has tested DU weapons since 1983.11 Exposure to uranium dust could be one of the factors contributing to these increases, and it could also be one of the causes of Gulf War Syndrome, affecting 90,000 American veterans.11 Since DU dust is permanently radioactive and impossible to clean up, each repeated use in combat will increase the level of contamination.

What is the future of DU? The UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution condemning the use of depleted uranium and all other weapons of mass destruction.12 Some experts on international law agree that it should be labeled as a “weapon of mass destruction” because of its long term indiscriminate effects, and therefore should be banned.13 However, the use of DU is well established in the US and worldwide, and is considered by the US to be a conventional weapon, not subject to any restrictions.14 The U.S. has in excess of 1.1 billion pounds of DU waste material,15 and exports DU weapons to Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Kuwait, and others.6 If these trends continue, we can expect continued heavy use of DU weapons in the future.

A note about DoD Environmental Exposure report by Bernard Rostker, July 1998: This report concluded that there was no link between DU and illness, but after other evidence mounted, in 11/98, Mr. Rostker testified that the report was “misleading and incorrect” and promised a revised report.16


Notes: (1) US Army Environmental Policy Institute. Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the US Army: Technical Report. Jun 1995. (2) Captain Pat Paulsen. Depleted Uranium Without the Rocket Science. ARMOR Magazine, Jul-Aug 1995. (3) Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, and Progressive Alliance for Community Empowerment. Uranium Battlefields. Mar 1993. (4) Hugh Livingstone, The Edge Gallery, London. Depleted Uranium Weapons. (5) Tanjug (Serbian newspaper) 7 Aug 1998. reporting on medical evidence presented by Dr. Bogdan Jamedzija. (6) International Action Center. Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium. 1997.

(7) NATO statement, 30 Mar 1999. (8) UK Atomic Energy Authority report cited in Sunday Herald Glascow, 4 Apr 1999. (9) controlled study by Prof. M.M. Al-Jebouri, University of Tikrit, Tikrit, Iraq. (10) Barbara Nimri Aziz, Dolores Lymburner (based on various doctors’ observations), in Metal of Dishonor (ibid). (11) Sunday Herald Glascow, 4 Apr 1999 – also reports Gulf War Syndrome has killed 400 UK veterans. (12) Aug 1996, resolution #1996/16. (13) Alyn Ware, executive director of Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, in Metal of Dishonor (ibid). (14) In the US and Britain when DU is produced as a by-product of uranium enrichment it is classified as nuclear waste, yet as a weapon it becomes “conventional”. (15) Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. Daily Report for Executives, “Public Input Sought on Depleted Uranium/DOE to Assess Disposition of 505,000 Tons”, 7 Feb, 1996. (16) Arizona Daily Star 10 Dec 98.


Prepared by DU Study Committee, Albuquerque, NM


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