What is Depleted Uranium?
Depleted uranium is essentially a by-product of enriched uranium. It is what remains after natural uranium has gone through the process of making nuclear weapons or nuclear reactor fuel.
Although it is radioactive when cured, it is considerably less reactive than uranium in its natural form. After the enrichment process, the product takes about a million years to become stable and reach radioactive equilibrium.
The solid by-product is also used in many areas of normal life. Depleted uranium is found in aircraft counterweights, some radiographic equipment such as X-rays, and in shielding for radiation therapy in hospitals. It will also be used in containers that ship and transport radioactive materials.
Depleted uranium can be used in munitions such as tank shells because it can penetrate thick layers of armor. Pictured: A Russian tank explodes in Ukraine, March 1, 2023
Depleted uranium is found in aircraft counterweights, radiography equipment such as X-rays, and is used in containers that ship and transport radioactive materials. Pictured: Cylinders of uranium from Russia are unloaded at the port of Dunkirk, northern France, March 20, 2023
Many countries, including Russia, the US and the UK, have stockpiles of depleted uranium and use it for munitions. This use of depleted uranium in weapons is not groundbreaking and has been the practice in the UK for several decades.
But it should be noted that depleted uranium can still cause serious radiation damage if it enters the body. It is associated with more cancers, more birth defects in war zones and other diseases. If it enters the body – for example through shrapnel or dust inhalation – it can enter the lungs and vital organs.
How do depleted uranium tank shells work?
Depleted uranium can be used in munitions such as tank shells because it can penetrate thick layers of armor.
Because the grenades contain radioactive material, the weaponry is incredibly hard and compact. It can then be more effective at piercing heavy machinery than regular tank shells. For example, it is almost twice as dense as lead, making it a more effective shell.
The depleted uranium is contained in a steel armored casing of the grenade and guided by an aluminum sabot. The penetrator portion of the grenade is made of depleted uranium to penetrate thick armor.
When fired, the penetrator pushes forward and the sabot is thrown into the air. The depleted uranium shell can then penetrate heavy armor. The plating of the enemy tank is shattered and hot shards of armor are spreading, intent on killing the people inside.
What do British officials say about the use of depleted uranium shells as munitions?
Whether the use of depleted uranium in munitions is nuclear warfare, as some countries enraged.
The Defense Department has stressed that depleted uranium is “a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.”
“The British Army has been using depleted uranium in its armored shells for decades,” the Ministry of Defense added.
Weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of Britain’s Royal Tank Regiment, added his thoughts. He said depleted uranium is a common component of tank shells and may even be used by other militaries around the world.
‘Depleted uranium is completely inert. It is impossible that you can cause a nuclear reaction or a nuclear explosion with depleted uranium.’
Depleted uranium is used by many countries around the world in tank bombardment. Pictured: Ukrainian soldiers drive a tank along the frontline north of Bakhmut, March 16, 2023
What have other organizations said about using depleted uranium?
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank, said depleted uranium ammunition has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
The ISW stressed, “Such munitions cannot be used to produce nuclear or radiological weapons,” as the shells do not contain “fissile or radiological material.”
Despite this, groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) have condemned the use of depleted uranium tank shells. The group said using the grenades could create “additional environmental and health disasters” for those living near where depleted uranium is being fired because of the potential inhalation of radioactive dust after the grenade’s impact.
CND has long called on governments using depleted uranium in weapons to place an “immediate moratorium” on the grenades and instead “fund long-term studies of their health and environmental effects.”