Challenger 2 mbt

A Challenger 2 main battle tank fires a round during a live-fire excersice in Grafenwöhr, Germany on May 16, 2013.

(Photo: Cpl Wes Calder RLC/U.K. Ministry of Defense)

UK Stokes Health, Nuclear Fears With Decision to Send Ukraine Depleted Uranium Shells

"Like in Iraq, the addition of depleted uranium ammunition into this conflict will only increase the long-term suffering of the civilians caught up in this conflict," said one peace campaigner.

Dismissing a warning from Russia that it would regard the deployment of Western depleted uranium munitions in Ukraine as an act of nuclear war, a top British defense official said Monday that the United Kingdom will send DU armor-piercing tank rounds to Ukrainian homeland defenders—a move condemned by peace campaigners in the U.K. and beyond.

Responding to a written question from Raymond Jolliffe, 5th Baron Hylton, a hereditary peer in the House of Lords, about "whether any of the ammunition currently being supplied to Ukraine contains depleted uranium," Minister of State at the Ministry of Defense Lord Annabel MacNicoll Goldie said that "alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, we will be providing ammunition including armor-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium. Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armored vehicles."

In addition to the British tanks, U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as well as German Leopard 2 tanks can fire DU rounds—although American officials have not said whether such munitions would be included as part of military aid to Ukrainian forces fighting a yearlong Russian invasion.

Fired from tanks, aircraft, and field artillery, DU rounds—which are extremely dense—are ideal for piercing hardened armor. However, the exploding shells produce radioactive dust that contaminates soil, water, and air for many years. U.S. Army training manuals warn that DU contamination "will make food and water unsafe for consumption" and requires soldiers to wear protective clothing when in or near contaminated areas.

U.S. and allied forces fired DU munitions during the 1991 and 2003-11 invasions of Iraq, and in Syria during the campaign against Islamic State. Miscarriages, birth defects, and cancers soared in Iraq after both wars. According to one study, more than half of the babies born in Fallujah between 2007 and 2010 had birth defects. Among pregnant women in the study, over 45% experienced miscarriages in the two-year period following the battles for Fallujah. Geiger counter measurements of DU-contaminated sites in Iraqi cities have consistently shown radiation levels 1,000 to 1,900 times greater than normal.

"Like in Iraq, the addition of depleted uranium ammunition into this conflict will only increase the long-term suffering of the civilians caught up in this conflict," Kate Hudson, general secretary of the U.K.-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), said in a statement. "DU shells have already been implicated in thousands of unnecessary deaths from cancer and other serious illnesses."

"CND has repeatedly called for the U.K. government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts," Hudson added. "Sending them into yet another war zone will not help the people of Ukraine."

In January, Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the Russian delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, cautioned NATO countries against giving Ukrainian forces DU shells, warning that "if Kyiv were to be supplied with such munitions for the use in Western heavy military hardware, we would regard it as the use of 'dirty nuclear bombs' against Russia, with all the consequences that entails."

"Another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left."

Asked if the U.K.'s move brought the world closer to nuclear war, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters Tuesday that "another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left."

Responding to Goldie's announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin—who last week was hit with an International Criminal Court war crimes arrest warrantsaid Tuesday that "if all this happens, Russia will have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component."

On Telegram Tuesday, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decried what she called a "Yugoslav scenario," a reference to NATO's use of DU rounds during the 1999 air war in Serbia and Kosovo, which many believe caused a surge in leukemia in the region—both among the local population and foreign troops deployed there.

Zakharova added that "it is naive to believe that only those against whom all this will be used will become victims. In Yugoslavia, NATO soldiers, in particular the Italians, were the first to suffer. Then they tried for a long time to get compensation from NATO for lost health. But their claims were denied."

Numerous researchers and veterans groups believe DU may be the cause of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome afflicting hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition troops, although in 2021 the Pentagon concluded there is "no link" between the illness and DU.

"CND has repeatedly called for the U.K. government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts."

Peace groups have long campaigned for a ban on DU munitions. The United Nations General Assembly last year approved an Indonesian draft resolution expressing concerns about "the health risks and environmental impact" of DU weapons and calling for a "cautionary approach" to their use. The vote was 147-4, with the U.S., U.K., France, and Israel dissenting and 24 nations abstaining.

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