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Workshop report: Uranium Weapons, New Approaches for a Toxic Remnant of War, Geneva November 2011

On November 18th, ICBUW and IKV Pax Christi co-hosted a side event on uranium weapons at the CCW negotiations in Geneva. Its purpose was to explore new approaches to assessing the acceptability of uranium weapons.
30 November 2011 - ICBUW

These new angles have been informed by a wider project on precaution that ICBUW has been undertaking this year, the fruits of which will be published in 2012.

First to present was IKV Pax Christi’s Wim Zwijnenburg. His presentation was entitled Hazard Aware:  lessons from military manuals: how to move forward on civilian protection norms and sought to assess whether the health and safety guidance offered to military personnel could be used to form the basis of civilian protection norms.

hazard Having examined the different approaches to DU taken by several militaries, the first clear message is that is an acknowledged hazard. However the level of hazard accepted by different states varies. In some cases it even varies within different military recommendations from the same country. This inconsistent approach is surprising in many respects and even includes the level of risk from the chemical versus radiological hazards from DU.

While the level of acceptance over the nature of the hazards from DU varies, Wim explained that there are basic recommendations concerning how DU contaminated sites should be dealt with in the field. Most relate to avoidance of the inhalational hazard from DU particles but additional procedures cover the marking of sites and the health monitoring of exposed troops.

Wim then discussed the recommendations from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) following their fieldwork in Iraq. These went further and perhaps offer a bridge between military norms and civilian protection norms. This includes the identification and isolation of contaminated vehicles and equipment; options of the long-term storage of contaminated material; increasing hazard awareness work and improving the health and safety precautions at scrap yards. UNEP were also clear that this work would require the continued support of the international community.

Building on the hazard awareness and risk management approach of the military, Wim argued that there were compelling reasons to increase transparency over DU use; to support capacity building of local and national expertise; to support the clearance of contaminated hotspots by trained personnel and for the implementation of civilian-focused awareness raising programmes and for the monitoring of human health and the environment.

In concluding, Wim noted that as states recovering from conflict typically lack the capacity to implement civilian protection regimes, and that, when provided, support from the international community is on an ad-hoc basis, this is yet another argument against the continued use of uranium weapons.


guess Next to present was ICBUW’s researcher Dave Cullen. Earlier this year, Dave worked on a commentary on the European Commission’s SCHER risk assessment on depleted uranium weapons. (See: Commentary on SCHER below) The process and SCHER’s final report highlighted significant shortcomings in the data sources available for developing risk assessments. In Scientific Guesswork: risk assessment as a means of judging the threat from DU weapons Dave introduced some of the main sources of data used in DU risk assessments, how they are gathered, how they are used and what can be inferred from them.

He began with the International Commission for Radiological Protection’s (ICRP) models of the human body. These are used to model the dose from radio-nuclides on different parts of the body. In comparison to the state of the art for measurements on chemical toxicity they are highly developed but not without their flaws. In particular, considerable uncertainties remain over the long term dose to different organs. Importantly the framework considers that any dose carries with it an increased risk of cancer. More fundamentally, the models were developed for exposure scenarios that take place within a functioning regulatory environment and contain cost benefit calculations that may not be applicable to civilian exposures from military-origin uranium.

The next source of information used in assessments comes from field examination of contaminated areas. Some of this has been of very high quality; most notably that undertaken by UNEP, nevertheless this work has typically been snapshots and not continuous monitoring. It has often happened years after conflict and the number and diversity of sites has usually been rather low. Dave argued that this last factor is significant as different types of munitions will leave very different contamination footprints, with significant implications for civilian exposure. Interpreting the risk from these measurements is also limited by ongoing uncertainties concerning the solubility of DU particles and fragments and as a result, the long term behaviour of DU in the environment is still poorly understood.

Human exposure studies were shown to be a crucial factor in the SCHER risk assessment but it also highlighted the lack of data on civilians. SCHER’s conclusion was based on a study of just 25 Kosovar civilians, some of whom were unlikely to have come into contact with DU. Correctly carried out, exposure tests can be extremely sensitive but are costly and to date most analyses have typically been done on self-selecting cohorts of military personnel and not civilians. This gives skewed results that are of limited use in assessing chronic civilian exposure.

Dave then introduced the data from animal and laboratory studies. He argued that they had identified a range of negative health impacts – such as uranium’s ability to damage DNA. The quantity of peer-reviewed literature on DU is considerable and it strongly supports the premise that DU is biologically hazardous. However one crucial factor is that the dose response – i.e. how much of a material is needed to cause a particular health problem – is poorly understood for most tissues other than the lung, and for most health outcomes. Similarly, the health outcomes of certain physiological changes are not yet clear. Despite the evidence of a range of different health impacts, almost all risk assessments have historically taken a very narrow view, looking only at radiological effects on the lung or at the chemical effects on kidney function only.

Dave then turned his attention to studies on veterans, specifically the US Veteran Affairs’ longitudinal study on veterans with embedded fragments or inhalational exposures from friendly fire incidents. This is often cited as proof that DU exposure carries no risk yet it has been strongly criticised by the US Congress for its extremely small study size and weak methodology. Crucially it was also found to have failed to follow up significant results properly.

Finally he addressed the issue of epidemiology. It is potentially a very powerful tool but to date no studies have been undertaken on exposed civilian populations. Instead results have been inferred from studies on uranium miners and millers but this has proved problematic for a range of reasons, such as the properties of the uranium particles involved and poor exposure data.

In concluding he argued that, while much research has been done there are still significant areas of uncertainty. More crucially some of the gaps in our knowledge, such as the dose response, level of civilian exposure or civilian epidemiological studies make it extremely difficult to quantify the risk. It therefore follows that, as DU is clearly a hazard and as science is unable to give DU a clean bill of health, a precautionary approach should prevail.


risk The third presentation was from ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir and was entitled Precaution in Practice: would a precautionary approach to uranium weapons preclude their use? Doug sought to set out several key issues that have stemmed from a wider precautionary analysis, in doing so he posed a series of questions.

The first was: is DU intrinsically hazardous? The answer is yes, based on a simple and uncontroversial assessment of its chemical toxicity and radioactivity. Doug noted that as an alpha particle emitter, DU falls under the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classification as a Class I carcinogen if inhaled or ingested.

He then asked whether DU is an accepted hazard. As Wim’s presentation on the safety precautions for troops had shown, the answer is yes, a position stated clearly by the UK Ministry of Defence amongst others.

Leading on from this it is necessary to ask whether the risks from DU can be accurately modelled. As Dave Cullen’s presentation had shown, this is not currently the case, with significant uncertainties still remaining and a dearth of evidence on civilian exposure.

It was then necessary to ask whether DU is released in an unpredictable and uncontrolled manner, particularly in civilian areas. Footage from an A10 gunship attack on the Planning Ministry in Baghdad from 2003 showed that DU has been used in roles for which it was not designed. This may well increase the likelihood of civilian exposure. He expressed particular concern over the use of medium calibre DU rounds in armoured fighting vehicles, where considerable quantities could be expended among populated areas.

Progressing on from the predictability of the risks from DU, it was then necessary to ask whether DU’s environmental behaviour is variable? The findings of the UN Environment Programme and others have shown that this is indeed the case with considerable uncertainties remaining. This was their justification for calling for a precautionary approach to the use of the weapons in 2010.

Crucial to ascertaining the level of risk and mitigating the impact of the weapons is transparency from the users of the weapons. Doug asked whether it was ever likely that states would swiftly transfer precise quantitative and geographical data to affected states, agencies and civil society. Based on the evidence to date, again the answer seems to be no. Aside from the reluctance of states to hand over data, security concerns may result in ministries in affected countries not sharing information internally or with civil society.

Even if full data is released, is full decontamination ever likely or achievable for states recovering from conflict? The answer is that it is usually unlikely, particularly without external assistance, for which at present there is no international mechanism available. Furthermore both UNEP and Serbia have stated that the full decontamination of contaminated sites is impossible.

Leading on from this, it was asked whether DU would seem as attractive if user states faced the bill for decontaminating sites. The question of state responsibility for decontamination is a fundamental one and evidence suggests that user nations are keen to avoid liabilities for clearance. This is understandable as they have faced clean-up costs for ranges and manufacturing sites and are keenly aware of the potential sums involved.  

Many states argue that the utility of DU outweighs many environmental or health considerations. This position requires further analysis as it is clear that the majority of states see no need for DU munitions and have developed alternative materials as a result. ICBUW will be publishing a study on military utility shortly.

The final question was based on whether the weapons can be seen as being politically acceptable. One clue is again in the choices of the majority of states not to develop or procure DU weapons, or to allow their storage or transit on their territories. The second is by an assessment of national regulations on the management and release of radioactive or toxic materials. Using an example from the UK’s own regulatory regime, Doug showed that any release of radiation is typically avoided, regardless of its likely impact.   

Concluding, Doug argued that DU munitions fail each of these basic tests and, taken with our understanding of the hazards from DU use, it seems inescapable that a precautionary approach to the weapons would preclude their use. Crucially these issues are intrinsic to the nature of the weapons – i.e. that they contain uranium - and as such cannot be resolved through modifications to the weapons.


legal The final presentation was by IHL specialist Prof. Manfred Mohr, entitled: DU Weapons and Toxic Remnants of War – the legal and political framework. It examined the existing legal standards that could be applied to resolve the DU issue.

By way of an introduction, he discussed general principles such as proportionality and distinction, noting that the effects of DU were not controllable. And, leading on from Doug’s observation regarding the political acceptability of DU, Prof. Mohr briefly discussed the Martens Clause, whereby even in circumstances were a military activity is not currently regulated, such activities are ultimately limited by the dictates of the public conscience.

He briefly introduced the existing body of law as it relates to the protection of the environment in armed conflict and how it might be further developed, and from there introduced the precautionary principle and how it could already justifiably be used to call for a moratorium on the use of DU.

Noting that the legal review process for weapons – Article 36, Additional Protocol 1 - had been in the news recently, after the UK was found to have misled politicians and campaigners over having undertaken one on its DU ammunition, he argued that the process itself was rooted in precaution and called for greater transparency in the review process.

Accepting that the DU debate had become divisively mired in recent years, he went on to argue for a pragmatic and depoliticised approach, with a focus on contaminated hotspots and risk awareness. More importantly an end to the endless call for more studies, arguing that it was demonstrably clear that DU use led to unacceptable contamination. Again returning to the question of political acceptability, he said that it was interesting to note how quick states had been to deny the use of DU in Libya, which again reflected the perceived acceptability of DU in conventional weapons.

After briefly covering the domestic bans on DU, moves by banks to disinvest in the manufacturers of the weapons and ICBUW’s broader campaign – he drew attention to next year’s UN First Committee resolution on DU. It may be that issues from the ongoing precautionary discourse on DU may be covered by any new resolution text. Prof. Mohr called for renewed focus on the environment and conflict and suggested that after cluster munitions and CCW Protocol V, DU would be a logical next step for disarmament.