Uranium weapons release large volumes of fine particles into the environment when they are used. Uranium is a radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal. It has a similar density to gold. This has made it an attractive choice for producers of armour-piercing weapons known as Kinetic Energy penetrators. The penetrator is a long dart of solid depleted uranium; it is neither a tip, nor a coating and weighs up to 4kg. Kinetic Energy Penetrators use their kinetic energy to pierce armour instead of a chemical explosive. Uranium's other key property is that it is pyrophoric. Pyrophoric materials oxidise rapidly when exposed to oxygen, this means finely ground uranium powder burns when exposed to air.
It is this last property that is responsible for the generation of fine, radioactive and chemically toxic particles. Once released on battlefields and testing ranges, these particles can then be ingested or inhaled by civilians and service personnel alike. Rounds that miss their targets may also corrode in the soil and contaminate groundwater.
What's the problem?
Uranium is a radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal. Uranium's toxicity has been known of for decades but recent concern over the use of uranium weapons has added enormously to our knowledge. Dozens of recently published peer-reviewed papers have indicated that uranium can damage health through new and unexpected pathways.
Reports from hospitals in Iraq have linked uranium weapon contamination with a rise in the incidence of cancers often associated with environmental contaminants and radiation, such as leukaemia, lymphoma and breast cancer. Furthermore the age at which Iraqis have developed cancer has been decreasing.
Dozens of veterans have tested positive for uranium exposure and have been seen to be exhibiting a range of symptoms. In Italy, the state has agreed to a 30m Euro compensation package for service personnel suffering from Balkan Syndrome, this was thought to be connected with uranium exposure. The decision was made all the more notable after an expert panel concluded that the burden of proof in these cases should be reversed and the military made to prove that sick personnel had not been exposed.
Although states that use uranium weapons have been unwilling to undertake surveys of contaminated populations, we now have sufficient data to request that governments take a precautionary approach and introduce a moratorium on the use of these weapons. A precautionary approach is also supported by the fact that uranium dust is almost impossible to remove from the environment once released.
For an extensive list of recently published peer-reviewed papers please visit: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/docs/58.pdf
Who has used them and who has them?
It is thought that the US and UK are the only states to have used uranium weapons in active conflict, although questions remain over France’s use of uranium weapons in the Gulf War and Russia’s in Chechnya. They were first used on a large scale by US and UK forces in the 1991 Gulf War, by NATO in the Balkans in the late 1990s and again by US and UK forces in the 2003 Iraq War. It is suspected that they may have also been used in Afghanistan since 2001. Uranium weapons are in use by at least 17, and as many as 20 countries. Some states have developed them independently while others have bought US and Soviet-made munitions. The opacity of the arms trade has meant that this data is far from complete.
States thought to have uranium weapons include: UK, US, France, Russia, Belarus, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, China, India, Belarus and Taiwan, Province of China*.
What do we want?
A uranium weapons treaty that will synthesise the impressive human rights and victim assistance text of the Cluster Munition Convention with environmental law and the Precautionary Principle – this would be a first for disarmament law and would have a huge impact on the wider issue of the use of toxic substances in warfare.
A Uranium Weapons Convention would ban the use of uranium in all conventional weapons and armour, release money for environmental remediation and medical care and order the destruction of stockpiles.
Achievements so far
Two UN General Assembly resolutions, one highlighting health concerns and the other requesting the World Health Organisation, International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations Environment Programme to update their positions on uranium weapons. The resolutions passed by 126 to six and 141 to four respectively.
Four increasingly strong resolutions in the European Parliament, the most recent in May 2007 called for a moratorium leading to a ban and passed by 94% of MEPs.
A domestic ban on uranium weapons in Belgium, they were also the first state in the world to ban land mines and cluster bombs.
The support of European military trade unions.
More than 100 NGO members in nearly 30 countries.
*Reflecting ISO 3166-1 and United Nations terminology.