France claims depleted uranium fears unfounded as it seeks alternatives
A parliamentary response from the French Ministry of Defence has revealed that France has no plans to remove its depleted uranium rounds from service as part of a Europe-wide moratorium on their use, as requested by a 2008 European Parliament resolution. The MoD claims that the rounds are the most effective anti-tank weapon France has and that depleted uranium is harmless. However, the MoD also claims that it is undertaking research into alternatives, in order to replace depleted uranium as soon as it has a weapon that it believes is as effective.
Like the UK, France claims that not only is depleted uranium harmless but also that it is the most effective material available for kinetic energy rounds. However, the UK now seems happy to field a less effective weapon if it can save some money, while France is so unconcerned about the potential risks from depleted uranium that it is spending money developing alternative materials.
Protester outside the French embassy in Brussels last November.
The two questions were submitted by Deputie M. Jean-Luc Warsmann of the majority Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party late last year. The first question concerned France’s current inventory of uranium weapons and its future procurement plans. At the time of writing this question had not been answered (see: http://questions.assemblee-nationale.fr/q13/13-92826QE.htm).
The second called for a response to the European Parliament’s 2008 resolution, supported by 94% of parliamentarians, which called for an EU moratorium on uranium weapons. (See http://questions.assemblee-nationale.fr/q13/13-92827QE.htm for the question and answer in full). The French MoD takes a predictably similar position to the UK MoD and US DoD in its response.
It begins with an observation that uranium weapons are not bound by existing arms control law or specific treaties. However the MoD states that International Humanitarian Law does apply to their use, in particular standards concerning the potential for long-term environmental damage and whether they are likely to cause unnecessary suffering.
This refers to Amendment Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions on the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. Specifically, Article 35, which bans weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, as well as means of warfare that cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment.
This is followed by a claim that UNEP has undertaken epidemiological studies into the health impact of depleted uranium munitions in the Balkans and Iraq. It is claimed that France suspended the use of its depleted uranium munitions pending the conclusion of these studies and that UNEP found that a link between DU and cancer in the Balkans was unlikely. It makes no comment on Iraq.
Unfortunately UNEP has never conducted an epidemiological study into the health impact of uranium weapons. UNEP has conducted studies into the levels of contamination at sites in both the Balkans and Iraq, however their work in Iraq has been limited by a lack of international funding and the refusal of the US to hand over targeting data.
The response then argues that depleted uranium is 40% less radioactive than natural uranium and that you could hold some for a long period without concern. As usual this fails to take into account the fact that depleted uranium from munitions is typically found in a far more concentrated and bioavailable form than natural uranium.
The MoD notes that France, along with the UK and US, voted against last autumn’s UN General Assembly resolution, arguing that international agencies have done sufficient research into depleted uranium. This was a position that was not shared by 148 states.
The UN vote took place just after UNEP had called for a precautionary approach to the weapons due to ongoing uncertainties over depleted uranium’s environmental behaviour; after the WHO appeared to accept that depleted uranium is potentially indiscriminate, and after the IAEA appeared to suggest that decontamination merely requires a site to be covered in soil.