Definitions of, and evidence about, Depleted Uranium quickly become contentious. Sources may agree on basic properties, but the qualities of the substance and its effects are contested, depending on one’s political, ethical and economic position. The UK Government and the civil-military nuclear industries find DU to be near ‘harmless’, or, that its harm to humans is of a low and containable level. UK government policy is that the use of DU weapons is legal under international law and defensible as they are not nuclear weapons nor weapons of indiscriminate harm and form a valuable part of the military’s capabilities. Independent scientists find otherwise or are less certain as regards to harm to humans and the environment.

Organisations, scientists and others opposed to the use of DU, undertaking their own research, find the degree of harm to be potentially significant, long-lasting and unpredictable over time. They call into question the monitoring and scientific studies of governments who use DU weapons in combat. States who have been the target of DU weapons, in whose cities and on whose lands DU was fired, do not have the capacities, post-conflict, to adequately assess the effects of DU on their civil populations or lands. These include the post-conflict psychological and social effects on human populations. Organisations opposed to DU find the use of these weapons is in contravention of international humanitarian and environmental laws.

‘the sea cannot be depleted’ does not propose to present all sides to the issues, or to provide a fulsome analysis of Depleted Uranium. Too, the material substance of DU is not an absolute. It is a manufactured material, and that manufacture renders it inseparable from the human historical, social, political and economic conditions under which it is formed, is used and is given meaning. It is the very contentiousness of the positions, the levels of uncertainty, the shifting climates of acceptance and resistance that are more the substance of this project.

Below is a basic outline of Depleted Uranium weapons. See references for sources both opposing and accepting the use of DU weapons.

what it is

Depleted Uranium (DU) is a radioactive, chemically toxic by-product of the civil-military nuclear industry. It is a waste material. It is the isotope Uranium-238 that remains after the fissionable isotope of U-235 has been extracted from naturally occurring uranium ore. This ‘enrichment’ process of extraction provides the fissionable U-235 used to fuel nuclear reactors. When further ‘enriched’, the U-235 becomes weapons-grade nuclear material. The by-product of this separation or enrichment is Depleted Uranium, which is 99.8% Uranium-238. DU does contain small amounts of the more highly radioactive U-234 and U-235.

DU radioactivity is calculated as somewhere between 60% and 75% of naturally occurring Uranium-238. It emits about 60% as much alpha radiation, about 85% as much gamma radiation, and about the same amount of beta radiation as naturally occurring Uranium that has been processed. It is an intermediate-level radioactive waste.

When produced as a by-product of nuclear reactors, there is the possibility that the DU contains plutonium. In the production of DU for manufacturing arms and other purposes, to give it more strength and greater resistance to corrosion, it may be alloyed with molybdenum, titanium, zirconium or tungsten.

Its chemical toxicity to living beings and to soils, airs and waters as a corroding heavy metal is the same as that of naturally occurring Uranium, and is considered as great or greater a hazard than its radioactivity.

There are thousands of tonnes of DU being continually produced internationally, which means that it presents increasing problems of safe storage over vast timescales. This also means that it is an inexpensive material for trade and manufacturing.

The properties of DU that make it applicable for armaments are its extreme density, 1.7 times as heavy as lead, and its pyrophoricity, its ability ignite on contact at high velocity. The density gives shells with DU considerable kinetic energy; when alloyed with titanium, they will easily penetrate an armoured tank. As the shell goes through the tank, it sheds part of its mass, it self-sharpens. It ignites, causing a firestorm of burning and non-burning fragments of Uranium. These cause secondary fires and explosions.

When DU burns, between 40 – 70 % is transformed into an aerosol of extremely fine particles or ‘dust’ which is a radioactive contaminant. The emissions produced are alpha, beta and gamma radiation. The intensity and effects of this radiation on human populations is dependent on whether the radiation or particulate dust comes into the body through the a break in the skin, through eating or drinking contaminated material or through inhalation. Effects are dependent, too, on the length of time and proximity of exposure. The kidneys and lungs are considered as the ‘target’ organs for uranium and chemical toxicity.

The UN General Assembly has passed resolutions on DU and other Uranium weapons since 2007, calling on users to provide greater transparency about where weapons have been used, to release data on the quantities of their weapons, and, given the potential risks to human health and the environment, to observe a precautionary approach to their use. The resolution in 2014 was supported by 150 states and opposed by the UK, US, France and Israel.

The latest UN resolution proposed in October 2016 is under discussion, and being contested by some states as to its wording as to the potential health effects of DU. See ICBUW for the text.

the UK DU armaments

The most recent rounds used by the UK military, and fired from Kirkcudbright are most likely to be L27 APFSDS (Armour Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot) rounds with a Depleted Uranium penetrator, known as CHARM3. It is fired from the Challenger 2 tank. Development of these penetrators began in the early 1990’s, and they first became available in 1999. The constituents of the shells fired prior to this are not publicly known.

Challenger 2

‘The L27 is distinctive amongst APFSDS rounds, as it is fired from a rifled barrel, and because the round is comprised of a separate projectile and charge. L27 is the designation of the projectile. It is fired using either an L16 or L17 charge.

‘Each penetrator weighs about 4.5 kg, has a radius of 1.5cm and a length of 30 cm. The L27 was deployed in the 2003 Iraq war, where 1.9 tons of DU were fired by UK troops, according to UK government figures. This equates to around 420 rounds.

‘In 2010 the UK government announced, as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that the UK Challenger 2 fleet would be cut by about 40% to around 230. There have also been suggestions that further cuts to the fleet may be made in the future. The Challenger 2 is expected to remain in service until around 2035, but the shelf life for the L27s charges is due to expire around 2015.’

DU manufacturers

Varied corporations and departments have been credited with manufacturing the UK DU rounds over the course of their use. According to ICBUW, the L27 is manufactured using DU metal imported from the US, known to be contaminated with trace amounts of waste from nuclear reactors, such as plutonium. The penetrators were manufactured at the Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals Featherstone plant, near Wolverhampton, UK. The charges were manufactured at Royal Ordnance Bishopston. Neither plant is currently operational.

The BAE systems UK subsidiary Royal Ordnance (RO Systems) is also credited as producing the CHARM L27 120mm DU round, but it has ceased production citing environmental reasons. In 2006, BAE moved into ‘environmentally friendly’ munitions – as part of their attempt to move towards ‘corporate social responsibility’. Defence reviews have limited the funds available for production, and commercially, there is also a limited market for a product that can only be fired from a UK-manufactured Challenger 2 tank.

Other international manufacturers include:
Starmet Corporation, Concord, Massachusetts
Alliant Techsystems (formerly Honeywell), Minneapolis
Aerojet, California and Tennessee
Day & Zimmerman, USA
General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (formerly Primex Technologies), USE
Nexter (Giat Industries), France
Pakistan Ordnance Factories, Pakistan
Other companies located in China, France, India, Serbia, Russia and Pakistan

effects of DU in humans

The research on the health effects on humans, mostly male military personnel, following the two Gulf Wars and the wars in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia has been contentious. The findings vary from those that claim DU presents no significant health hazard, to those that find evidence of continued harm in the form of cancers, genetic malfunctions and other illnesses, some of which take up to 20 years to manifest.

I don’t propose to set out the range of findings; see references. I offer here a brief summary of how DU may affect the human body. The ‘sample’ body in most findings is a healthy, early adult, male person: the combat troops rather than the civil populations who are collateral targets. There are studies, too, of US troops who survived the effects of ‘friendly fire’. How DU may affect other organisms, including marine organisms, cannot be surmised from this sample any more than the variations of how pregnant women, children, older men may be affected. The metrics are not calculated in that way. But the summary gives an idea of how, in one species of mammal, the contact or ingestion of DU may have effect on the organs and soft tissues of life.

Alpha-, beta- and gamma-radiation behave differently within the human body. The example here is alpha-radiation which travels a very short distance in tissue or in water, and releases its energy within a small area, tens of microns. It probably would not penetrate the skin. An injury which could take alpha particles into the bone marrow and body tissue would present a hazard. If ‘dust’ particles are inhaled, the alpha-radiation and accompanying radon gas could exposure organs to radiation, causing lung cancers, lymphomas. When inside the body, as an alpha-emitter, DU is classed as a Group 1 Carcinogen by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

When the chemical toxins of Depleted Uranium enter biological fluids, it migrates to the liver and kidneys; much of the research on US troops has been done on the kidneys as an indicator of exposure and potential harm.

There has been increasing independent, peer-reviewed research which confirm overall that DU is a genotoxic agent, that it is capable of damaging DNA, which can lead to the development of cancers. As to radiation-related cancers, the time-lags between exposure and the cancer being detectable varies. Thyroid disorders and radiation-induced leukaemias may occur in the first 5 years; other cancers may take 20 years or more to develop.

effects of DU in terrestrial and marine environments

The effects on other-than-human living beings, on soils and on freshwater courses are less well researched. Environments are highly variable, and the range of environmental factors considerable. Each environment is specific, as is each species, as are the inter-dependencies between them. It is accepted that contamination is persistent in the terrestrial environment; that it can affect watercourses on land; that it can affect other-than-human life on land.

Even less well researched are the effects on marine environments, whether within or  outside the zones of conflict.

There has been monitoring by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories for the UK MOD of the terrestrial and marine environments. Some of those documents are publicly available. The scope of the research can be considered limited as to is geographic range, the timescales involved, and whether the methodologies are sufficiently comprehensive. See references. Too, there are questions over the impartiality of the DSTL research as opposed to academic peer-review research, which find a considerably greater level of uncertainty prevails given the turbulence of the estuarine and marine environments.

There are some indications that the dispersal of the sea does not dilute, but spreads the DU thinly, thinly enough to enter the soft tissues of the endless unnamed life forms that inhabit a place where human soft tissues do not go. There are no safe levels, no metrics of contamination which apply for all living beings; that is a logical impossibility. The vulnerabilities are variable. The dumping of DU into the sea is an experiment without a control, an act directly into nature, with no method of retrieval.