What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the word “uranium”? Is it clean energy? Maybe nuclear war. How about the Chernobyl disaster? All are relevant, but what about ammunition? Depleted uranium ammo is made from previously radioactive materials and used in a variety of things. Though there aren’t as many risks as some might fear, health risks still do exist when using such ammo.
Related read: How Likely Is Nuclear War? UN Says Not Impossible
What is Depleted Uranium Ammo?
Depleted uranium (DU) ammo is ammo made from the residual material remaining after the removal of highly radioactive uranium (U-235) from natural uranium ore. It is commonly utilized for purposes such as tank armor, armor-piercing ammunition, and aircraft balancing weights.
However, DU ammo poses risks to health as both a toxic chemical and a radiation hazard when present in the body. Natural uranium ore contains various isotopes of uranium, all of which are radioactive, but only U-235 is used as fuel for nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
U-235 is found in minimal quantities in natural uranium and is extracted from natural uranium ore through uranium enrichment, which is used for nuclear weapons and energy. But the rest of the material left over is where the DU comes from.
Ammo with depleted uranium emits alpha particle radiation. While it poses a minimal risk when exposed externally to the body, it is still a health concern. Furthermore, alpha particles can directly impact cells and lead to kidney damage.
The DoD used DU for ammo in the 1970s because it is a very dense material. This became more and more available because of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) producing these materials as a byproduct.
Interestingly enough, depleted uranium ammo may be closer to you than you think. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a ways away from mortar shells and tanks firing about, but you can still find DU contamination on the shells and fragments found at some military firing ranges.
Suggested read: Nuclear Deterrence: Keeping the World Alive Since 1949
Ukraine Needs to Pierce Russian Tanks, We Can Help with That
The US plans to supply depleted-uranium shells to Ukraine, which can penetrate Russian tank armor. This comes after the Biden administration has debated the environmental and health concerns of providing these shells, but there are no significant obstacles at present.
These weapons could potentially give Ukraine an advantage in tank battles as it seeks to reclaim occupied territories from Russian forces. While depleted uranium is considered a radiation health hazard when inhaled or exposed to its dust or shrapnel, it does not emit enough radiation to penetrate the skin externally, as per the U.S. EPA.
The UK has provided Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium for its tanks. Russia criticized the decision, falsely claiming the rounds have a nuclear component and threatening to escalate attacks. U.S. officials believe it is crucial for Ukraine to make significant gains in its counteroffensive while maintaining bipartisan support.
Depleted uranium ammo has been used in past conflicts, such as the Gulf War, and their low-level radioactivity has raised concerns among Veterans. There are efforts to find alternative materials with similar density but without the radioactivity.
Russia has expressed alarm over the use of depleted uranium ammunition, citing potential radioactive contamination and health risks. Reports indicate that a significant number of tanks have been lost by Russia during the invasion, leading to the reactivation of older tanks from their reserves.
Depleted Uranium Ammo Safety Procedures
It’s best to avoid exposure to facilities that handle or process DU as it poses a danger when inside the body. Internal exposure to DU increases the associated risks. Minimize any health consequences by avoiding proximity to uranium manufacturing plants and firing ranges that use DU ammunition.
The DoD monitors Soldiers exposed to DU and provides education programs during training. It also conducts clean-up operations at firing ranges with DU projectiles.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates and oversees the civilian use of nuclear materials in the U.S. They license facilities that handle nuclear materials, establish standards, and conduct inspections. This includes uranium used in nuclear power plants. Some states have agreements with the NRC and can issue radioactive material licenses under their authority. You can also check out the Directory of Agreement State and Non-Agreement State Directors and State Liaison Officers to see if your state has an agreement.
The DOE manages depleted uranium through a program that prioritizes safety for workers, the public, and the environment during the handling of depleted UF6 (uranium hexafluoride).
Furthermore, the EPA safeguards against DU exposure by setting Maximum Contamination Levels (MCLs) for uranium in drinking water and limits for inhalation exposure around production plants.
They provide recommendations to ensure worker safety during the cleanup of contaminated sites and offer guidance on testing methods for DU in soil and other samples. The IAEA collaborates with organizations like WHO and UNEP to assess the various uses of DU.
While the use of depleted uranium ammo comes with risks, that is the nature of war. While this fact is far from a justification, it’s also important to keep things in perspective. Handling such ammo responsibility is a multi-faceted effort, but alternative weaponry would likely be ideal.