Depleted Uranium is the nuclear waste left over after enriching uranium for nuclear bombs and power plants. It is very dense and if used to make a bullet or shell the point sharpens along the edges upon contact, rather than ‘mushroom’, which makes it an attractive material for the production of armour piercing ammunition.
The British Army spent £375m developing depleted uranium munitions in the form of 120mm ‘CHARM 1’ and ‘CHARM 3’ Challenger II tank ammunition. CHARM 3 tank ammunition is currently in use by the UK’s armed forces, but only in active warfare. The Ministry of Defence claim that tungsten rounds are used for training purposes.
The first generation CHARM 1 weapon system cost £213m while CHARM 3 cost £161.5m. Both armour piercing systems were developed under commercial contracts and tested at the MoD test firing ranges at Eskmeals (Cumbria) and Kirkcudbright (Dundrennan, Dumfries & Galloway). Occasional tests into the stability of the propellant used in the munitions still take place at Dundrennan. More than 6000 rounds have been fired into the Solway Firth.
The UK also used 20mm shells as part of the US-built Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (or CIWS) until the manufacturer Raytheon ceased production following the cancellation of the US Navy’s contract. The Navy had concluded that tungsten performed just as well but without the intrinsic hazards.
Royal Society Report
The MoD relies on several independent reports, including one (in two parts) from the Royal Society published in 2001 and 2002 to justify the continued use of DU munitions. The MoD state that none of these reports have found
“a connection between DU exposure and illness, and none has found widespread DU contamination sufficient to impact the health of the general population or deployed personnel.” http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/WhatWeDo/HealthandSafety/DepletedUranium/DepletedUraniumAndHealth.htm
However, this assertion is flatly contradicted by the Royal Society, which states in the report’s foreword that they: “identified an increased risk of cancer in some soldiers who received a large intake of depleted uranium.”
Furthermore the Society issued a press release stating that the study “concluded that soil around impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators could be heavily contaminated, and may be harmful if swallowed, by children for example. In addition, large numbers of depleted uranium penetrators embedded in the ground might pose a long-term threat to civilians if the uranium leaches into water supplies.” http://royalsociety.org/News.aspx?id=1155
Finally, the Royal Society has “called on coalition forces to reveal where and how much depleted uranium was used in the conflict in Iraq, so that an effective clean-up and monitoring programme of both soldiers and civilians can begin.” (ibid)
DU Oversight Board
In 2001 the MoD commissioned an independent committee to oversee the testing of Gulf War veterans who could have come into contact with DU. 464 out of the 50,000 veterans who served in the Balkans and 1991 Gulf War responded to newspaper adverts offering tests.
The test showed that there was no detectable DU in urine samples after 12 years of potential exposure from any of the 464 veterans, and the committee concluded: “The Board is thus confident in concluding that, within the sample of veterans tested, there was no exposure to DU in the Gulf War or more recently, at a level which, according to mainstream medical and scientific thinking, would have any material impact on health.” http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/CABAB04E-3584-4234-A62E-C6034E543B6C/0/final_report_feb2007.pdf
However, the MoD uses this report to claim that DU exposure poses a “minimal health risk” to service personnel. This is an illogical conclusion to draw as the DUOB report wasn’t examining whether DU exposure led to health risks, it was investigating whether those tested had any detectable presence of DU in their urine.
As the study couldn’t detect any DU within the veteran’s urine, it could be that the veterans were never exposed to DU, in which case – and by the MoD’s logic – one could say that smoking cigarettes poses a “minimal health risk” because a study, conducted on non-smokers, showed no signs of nicotine or tar in their urine.
Alternatively, veterans could have been contaminated but may have expelled all the DU particles from their bodies over the 12 year period between contamination and testing. To conclude DU is safe in this scenario would be like claiming that CFC’s pose no danger to the Ozone Layer, as no CFC’s can be detected in the countries that have banned them.
If DU was present but is no longer detectable, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t harmed the veteran. DU is genotoxic and may have damaged the DNA of the veterans it passed through, but the DUOB did not run any tests to establish if this was the case or not.
Alternatively, there may still be insoluble particles of DU within the lungs or lymph nodes of veterans which wouldn’t have been detectable via a urine test, but tests to establish if this was the case or not were not conducted either.