What is depleted uranium?
Depleted uranium is still uranium.
There are three types of uranium, U238,
U234 and U235. Uranium 234 and 235 are
fissionable material, the kind used in
bombs. Depleted uranium is what is left
over when the U234 and U235 are removed.
The remaining U238 is still radioactive.
2.Why is it used in weapons?
A DU round is made from the leftover
U238. The killing punch comes from the
solid depleted uranium metal rod in the
shell. A 120-mm tank round contains about
4,000 grams or 10 pounds of solid DU. A DU
rod is very dense - about 1.7 times as
dense as lead.
3. Has DU been used in combat?
In the Gulf War, the U.S. fired as many
as a million DU rounds, leaving a
battlefield littered with 1,400 wrecked
radioactive Iraqi tanks.
During the 78-day Kosovo War in 1999,
the U.S. fired 31,000 rounds of DU at
Yugoslav armoured vehicles and tanks.
There are reports that the U.S. fired
10,800 DU rounds during combat in Bosnia
during the air campaign in 1994 and 1995.
4. What happens when a shell explodes?
At high speed, DU slices through tank
armour like a hot knife through butter,
triggering the explosive content and
creating a fire hot enough to melt
aluminum. The depleted uranium also burns
on impact, creating flying bits and dust
that are toxic and radioactive with a
half-life of 4.2 billion years.
5. How dangerous is depleted
Most scientists say the level of
radioactivity in depleted uranium is low,
lower than naturally occurring uranium in
However, DU can be dangerous once it
has been used on a battlefield. Then DU
can be considered both a chemical and
toxic waste hazard, and a radiation
If a chemical form of DU that is
soluble in water is present, then the DU
can be either absorbed by breathing or by
ingestion. That could cause heavy metal
chemical toxic effects in the kidneys.
If the areas are contaminated by
uranium oxide, then the hazard comes from
inhaling the dust. The dust could be
deposited in the lungs and could, over a
long period, be a cause of lung cancer.
Most scientists say that large
exposures would be needed to cause a
significant increase in the risk.
Military authorities at the Pentagon
and the British Ministry of Defence say
depleted uranium does not pose a
As for Canada, Brig.-Gen. David
Jerkowski told CBC News in 1999 that,
"Our soldiers are not at risk. There
are other risks that are much greater than
depleted uranium: there are many, many
more threats out there: landmines,
diseases, reptiles. It depends on where we
work in the world, and there are many
greater risks than that."
In Canada, Britain and the United
States, veterans' groups have disagreed,
saying that what was called Gulf War
Syndrome and the recent appearance of what
is being called Balkan Syndrome could be
the result of exposure to depleted
6. Are governments reluctant to
investigate the problem?
Military planners originally said that
because the risk was so low, investigating
depleted uranium was not worth the cost. A
full scientific study would require
screening all soldiers who had served in a
combat zone where DU was used over a long
period of time. To be scientifically valid
the study would also have to track an
equally large group that had not been
Now as more veterans groups put
pressure on governments, investigations
7. What is happening now?
There has been controversy over the use
of depleted uranium since the Gulf War.
Recent reports of deaths and illness among
NATO troops who served in Kosovo as
peacekeepers have heightened the dispute
over the effects of depleted uranium.
- Italy began pressing NATO for an
investigation of depleted uranium and
for a moratorium on the use of DU
weapons after at least six Italian
soldiers who had served in the Balkans
died of leukemia.
- The Belgian Defence ministry says
1,600 soldiers have complained about
headaches, trouble sleeping and
problems concentrating. Nine soldiers
have been diagnosed with lung, skin
and blood or brain cancer. Five have
- The French National Assembly has
started a parliamentary investigation
into Gulf War and Balkan Syndrome.
There are reports that five French
soldiers who served in the Balkans now
- The Netherlands has reported several
cases of leukemia among its troops.
- Spain has reported eight cases of
- Portugal has reported one death.
- Portugal, Norway and Greece have
begun a mass screening of soldiers who
served in the Balkans.
- Germany, Italy, Belgium and Portugal
are demanding that NATO begin a full
investigation of Balkan Syndrome and
possible connections to depleted
- The United States has warned against
what it calls "hysteria."
"As far as I have been told there
is no scientific evidence that would
link to a health hazard,"
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Defense Secretary William Cohen said:
"We have found no scientific link
between depleted uranium and leukemia
as some have alleged." At a
Pentagon briefing, Cohen said, "I
suppose if there were any deficiency
to be found it would be in [the]
failure to pick up fragments of
destroyed vehicles or tanks in which
the depleted uranium projectiles were
used." "But beyond that I
think adequate warnings were given and
there is a very low risk of coming
into contact with this provided there
is sufficient protection taken."
- The World Health Organization says
studies in Kosovo show no rise in the
rates of leukemia among the Albanian
population in the province.
- Russia has reported no evidence of
leukemia among its troops that have
served in Kosovo.