International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons

Take action

Latest news

...

FAQ

An attempt to tackle some of the more frequently asked questions about depleted uranium.

Below is our attempt to answer some of the most common questions we receive regarding depleted uranium weapons. If you can't find an answer to your question here, please email us and we'll do our best to answer it for you.

The Basics
What is a DU weapon?
Is DU used in Bunker Busting Bombs?
What is the difference between a nuclear weapon and a uranium weapon?
Can you compare the impact of DU weapons to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, simply from the amount of radioactive material involved?
In which conflicts have DU weapons been used?
What are the risks of DU to human health?
How radioactive is DU?
But exposure to DU isn't a problem because its specific activity is low?
Are there any epidemiological studies in DU contaminated areas?
Does DU Cause Gulf War Syndrome?
How can DU damage the environment?
How can you clean up sites where DU has been used?

Legal
Are DU weapons illegal under current international law?
Why are we trying to explicitly ban DU weapons?
What would be states’ obligations under the convention to ban on DU Weapons?
Won't the government and military just ignore the ban or try to get round it by re-defining the weapon?
How will we ban DU weapons?








What is a DU weapon?

DU weapons are weapons composed of Depleted Uranium (DU). DU is a waste product of the nuclear industry. Uranium naturally occurs as three different isotopes U234, U235 and U238. Isotopes are atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons but the same number of protons. This means that they behave in the same way chemically, but different isotopes release different amounts and kinds of radiation.

The radioactive properties of DU differ from those of U-235. Unlike U238, U235 is fissionable. This means that it is so unstable that firing neutrons at it can produce a self-sustaining series of nuclear reactions in which neutrons produced by fission cause more fission and so on, releasing huge amounts of energy. This is the basis of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

Before it is used, it needs to be concentrated as it only makes up a small proportion of naturally occurring uranium, around 0.7%. U238 makes up more than 99% of natural uranium and is much less radioactive. After natural uranium has had most of the U235 removed from it, it is called ‘depleted uranium’ i.e. uranium depleted in the isotope U235.

Depleted Uranium itself is a chemically toxic and radioactive compound, which is used in armour piercing munitions because of its very high density. It is1.7 times denser than lead. This allows it to easily penetrate the steel armour of tanks and other vehicles when fired at high velocity.

The part of the weapon that is made of DU is called a penetrator; this is a long metal dart that can weigh more than four kilograms in the largest examples. It is usually an alloy of DU and a small amount of another metal such as titanium and molybdenum. These give it extra strength and stop it corroding.

In addition to armour-piercing penetrators, DU is also used as armour in US M1A1 and M1A2 battle tanks and in small amounts in some types of landmine (M86 PDM and ADAM). M86 PDM and ADAM landmines contain each 0,101 g of DU. 432 ADAM antipersonnel landmines were used on the Kuwaiti battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War. Both M86 PDM and ADAM landmines are still in U.S. stockpiles.

Is DU used in Bunker Busting Bombs?

Some people in the anti-DU community believe that DU has been used in large amounts in so-called ‘bunker busting’ bombs. If it is the case, then far larger volumes of DU have been used than we believe. However, while patents for bunker busting bombs utilising ‘a dense metal’ do exist, there is no hard evidence to suggest that DU has been used in such weapons.

While DU is very effective against steel armour, beyond being dense, its physical properties do not make it particularly effective against concrete and soil. The bunker busters designed before the 1991 Gulf War were improvised, built and deployed very rapidly. They are built from an artillery turret body up to 18ft long with a warhead composed of a high performance steel called Eglin Steel. Eglin Steel is a tungsten carbide, vanadium composite, which is far easier to machine and weld than DU and can withstand extremely high stresses. It is also far cheaper than other high performance steels. The charge is more than 600lbsof high explosive mixed with 20% powdered aluminium. The aluminium increases the rate at which the explosive detonates. However, we are keeping an open mind on this issue and assessing new evidence as it comes in.

What is the difference between a nuclear weapon and a uranium weapon?

Unlike nuclear weapons, uranium weapons rely on a high velocity impact to do damage to a target. Their kinetic energy – a combination of their velocity and mass – is used to punch through their target’s armour. DU weapons are often called ‘kinetic energy penetrators’.

Because of uranium’s physical properties, uranium weapons burn when they hit hard targets. This leaves behind fine particles (an aerosol) of uranium oxide in the environment. These particles are both chemically toxic and radioactive, for this reason their effects have often been equated with the fallout from nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium oxide aerosols are unlike anything created by nature and for this reason we are still learning about their effects on health and the environment.

A nuclear weapon, on the other hand, is a weapon that derives its energy from either nuclear fusion, or nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the splitting of the nuclei of certain heavy elements, such as uranium and plutonium, into smaller parts. Breaking up these elements creates an enormous quantity of heat and releases neutrons and other forms of radiation. Nuclear fission is also used in nuclear power plants to generate heat.

Nuclear fusion is the combination of the nuclei of certain extremely light elements, such as hydrogen. It can only be done by the application of very high temperatures and pressures. Nuclear fusion also causes the release of an enormous amount of heat energy. This is the process that powers the Sun. Because of the different properties of the two weapons systems and for other legal and political reasons, the topics should be treated separately.

Can you compare the impact of DU weapons to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, simply from the amount of radioactive material involved?

Some activists have used the term “atomicity” to compare nuclear bomb blasts with the effects of DU. This seeks to compare the number of radioactive atoms produced by each kind of weapon. For example they claim that: "800 tons of DU is equivalent to 83,000 Nagasaki sized atom bombs." Unfortunately, this simple comparison between DU contamination and the Nagasaki atom bomb explosion is very misleading, although it is true that there are far more radioactive atoms in the 800 tons of DU than there were resulting from the explosion of a single atom bomb over Nagasaki.

Over 70,000 residents of Nagasaki were killed in the atomic bomb explosion, either instantly or shortly afterwards due to the blast, heat rays and exposure to radiation. More than 18,000 buildings were destroyed. Comparing the atomic bomb explosion and its effects to those of depleted uranium is dramatic and delivers a strong emotional appeal, but the comparison based on number of radioactive particles released ("atomicity") is quite meaningless In assessing the impact of these weapons.

The radiation from the atomic bomb explosion consisted of initial and residual radiation. The initial radiation included neutrons and gamma radiation, which instantly exposed people to different doses according to their distance from the hypocenter. The residual radiation, which was emitted from the radioactive materials and fallout, included gamma, beta and alpha radiation. Most of the radioactive materials produced by the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki had a much shorter half-life than that of U-238, which is the main part of DU.

The U-238 atoms in DU have a half-life of 4.5 billion years - equivalent to the present age of the earth. In other words, their radioactive decay is spread out over such a long period of time that only half of them will have decayed in that time.

The shorter the half-life, the more intense the radiation. Thus the Nagasaki victims who survived the initial blast and residual radiation were exposed to much more radiation in a short period of time than the civilians in Iraq who have been exposed to depleted uranium. As such the problem facing civilians where DU has been used is long term (read "forever") and chronic.

The atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki produced a tremendous mixture of radioactive substances, each having its own unique biological impact on survivors. Strontium-90 replaces calcium in bone tissue; iodine-131 becomes concentrated in the thyroid; cesium-137 is a natural replacement for potassium in the body. With DU, the principal isotopes of concern are those of uranium, with very small amounts of thorium, protactinium, and contaminants such as plutonium.

In which conflicts have DU weapons been used?

There are doubts over exactly which conflicts DU has been used in. This is because governments have often initially denied using DU. Governments have admitted so far that DU was used on a large scale by the US and the UK in the Gulf War in 1991, subsequently in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo NATO, and again in the war in Iraq by the US and the UK in 2003.

Although it is suspected that the US also used DU in Afghanistan, the UN Security Council in April 2003 asserted that it was not used. Equally both the US and UK governments have denied using it there, neither have been as candid about using it in Iraq. More research on the matter is needed.

At least 18 countries are thought to have weapon systems with DU in their arsenals. These include: UK, US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, China, India and Taiwan Province of China*. Many of them were sold DU ammunition by the US while others, Including France, Russia and India are thought to have developed It independently.

Activists suspect that Israel may have used DU during their recent attack on Lebanon. Researchers are currently examining bomb craters and other Impact sites for evidence of uranium dust.

What are the risks of DU to human health?

There are three chief hazards associated with DU: its chemical toxicity, radioactivity and the effects of fine metal particles, or fumes, on the body. Both of these hazardous properties are exacerbated by the fact that DU is pyrophoric. A pyrophoric material is one that oxidizes rapidly and can burst into flame at low temperatures in the proximity of oxygen. As the projectile hits a hard target, the DU burns at temperatures of between 3000°C and 6000°C. As it oxidizes, it turns into a fine dust, which can be blown for long distances from the place of the impact; this dust can then be inhaled by soldiers and civilians alike.

We do not as yet understand the full impact that fine particles of DU oxide may have on the human body. We do not have an accurate internal dose assessment; we have little information on the precise distribution and dynamics of internalised particles, and we are still lacking a complete understanding of the mechanisms by which damage to cells and organs occurs. Despite this, there is mounting scientific evidence from both animal, and in vitro studies that suggest deleterious effects on human health from inhaled DU particles.

Animal and cellular studies have shown clear evidence of the carcinogenic (transforming healthy cells into cancerous ones), neurotoxic and immuno-toxic effects of DU (the immune system defends the body from Infections and even some types of cancerous cells); as well as its ability to damage the reproductive system and foetus (which may cause birth defects). Some data also suggests that uranium can directly damage the DNA and enzyme proteins in living cells. Many scientific and medical papers on the chemical and radiological toxicities of uranium have been published.

Assessing the precise mechanisms by which DU may damage the human body Is made more difficult because both Its chemical toxicity and radioactivity can cause similar effects, such as the generation of free radicals within the body.

For a peer-reviewed analysis of rates of birth malformations from areas where DU and other radioactive elements have been present, please visit:

Teratogenicity of depleted uranium aerosols: A review from an epidemiological perspective, Environ Health. 2005; 4: 17.
http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=16124873

 

How radioactive is DU?

While DU’s radioactivity can be calculated to be about 60% of natural uranium, because it is depleted in the Isotope U235 it is still a cause for concern. The main hazard is from alpha radiation, which is released when U238 decays into Thorium 234. Alpha particles are high-speed helium nuclei (two protons and two neutrons).

Because alpha particles are both large (relative to other forms of particle radiation) and carry a large charge, they cannot travel particularly far through substances. However, they can transfer much higher charges to a target over short distances compared to other forms of Ionising radiation such as beta and gamma radiation.

This makes alpha particles very dangerous when they are Inhaled or Ingested as they can target the body's cells without being impeded by the skin.

DU also produces beta and gamma radiation as it decays. Over time, uranium decays into a series of different elements by releasing radiation. This means that as soon as DU leaves the factory it is a mixture of different radioactive elements such as thorium and protactinium. At different stages in the decay chain different types of radiation are released.

Worryingly, other radioactive elements have been found in DU shells recovered from the Balkans. Elements like plutonium and neptunium can only be produced in nuclear power stations and indicated that DU that had been used as neutron shielding in power stations or mixed with spent fuel and was finding its way into DU that was to be turned into weapons. Although the quantities of these highly dangerous elements were low, it indicates a certain carelessness towards security In the uranium fuel cycle.

But exposure to DU isn't a problem because its specific activity is low?

The answer to this question is: 'Yes it is.' Researchers have proved through a variety of studies, that there is no safe threshold for many of the biological effects of radiation. Research Into A-bomb victims and nuclear Industry workers shows that exposure to even low levels of radiation can be more damaging to human health than previously thought. In assessing safety levels for human radiation exposure It Is necessary to start from the premise that there Is no 'safe level' of radiation.

It is scientifically and morally wrong to set a 'safe level' of radiation dose based on the 'balance between risk and benefit' as the International Committee on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been doing. The World Health Organization (WHO) should not follow them.

The internal dose estimate based on the model proposed by the ICRP does not accurately reflect the real health damage in an exposed human body. Small radioactive particles, and alpha radiation emitting particles In particular have the ability to cause severe localised damage within the body. The ICRP's 'whole organ' dose calculations are Irrelevant In these situations.

Are there any epidemiological studies in DU contaminated areas?

While DU has the potential to cause various health problems including cancer, long-term medical and epidemiological studies are yet to be undertaken and much of what we know comes from laboratory experiments. However, responding to reports of rising cancers in Basrah, southern Iraq, ICBUW, together with IPPNW-Germany and other NGOs, is assisting in a detailed epidemiological survey in the area. Since the mid-90s there have been shocking reports of a rapid rise in uterine, thyroid and breast cancers and a leap in the number of patients suffering from lymphoma. It was also shown that the age at which patients were developing cancer was dropping significantly.

The initial results of the survey have confirmed that breast cancer; lymphomas and some other cancers have clearly been increasing. In the next stage of the project, we will analyze all of the risk factors - including DU contamination - that might have caused this increase. According to the project's Initial findings there are also some kinds of cancers, such as liver cancer, which have decreased or have remained stable during the past ten years.

However, the political Instability and security situation In Iraq Is making epidemiological and environmental research In the area extremely difficult. In addition, a lack of basic medicines and equipment means that doctors on the ground In Iraq are facing great difficulties In caring for their patients.

Continuing political confusion and problems of security in Iraq make it difficult to promote the further epidemiological and environmental research, which might prove the real impact of DU use in the areas. Medical doctors have been facing to the great difficulties to take care of the patients with serious luck of medicine and equipment, as well as from the bad security.

Does DU Cause Gulf War Syndrome?

Serious ill health In the "Gulf War veterans", such as diseases of circulatory, blood, urinary, neuro-muscular and reproductive systems has been reported in many medical journals. And a higher incidence of some cancers and congenital disorders of the next generation have also been reported. They cannot be simply attributed to psychological stress. Exposure to DU is supposed to be one of the important causes of the disease, although separating out the effects of DU from other environmental toxins is still difficult.

The radiological and chemical toxicity of DU, the complexity and sensitivity of disrupted cellular reactions, damaged organelles, dysfunctional enzymes and hormones, and so on - all occurring simultaneously within a human body - might affect the organs and systems in a body and cause some of the health problems documented in veterans.

A War Pension Tribunal in London in November 2005 ruled that 'Gulf War Syndrome' Is an ‘appropriate medical label’ to form the basis for pension claims

How can DU damage the environment?

When DU munitions hit an armoured vehicle they form an aerosol containing fine DU particles that may be inhaled. Most of the contamination stays inside the vehicle that has been struck. However, some of the dust will be dispersed into the environment and spread by wind or deposited on the ground by rain. The bulk of the DU dust remains within about a few hundred metres of the hit target.

Over time, fine DU dust particles deposited on the ground will be absorbed into the soil, while bigger DU fragments remain intact on the ground and start to corrode. Environmental conditions play a large part in the subsequent transport of DU dusts. Arid climates such as those in Iraq will allow a high re-suspension rate, whereas areas with higher rainfall such as the Balkans will see much of the dust become trapped in soils.

When fired from aircraft, no more than 10% of the penetrators hit their intended target. Tanks fire fewer shells with a higher degree of accuracy. DU penetrators that do not hit a target or hit 'soft' targets (non-armoured vehicles) do not generate significant amounts of dust. Most munitions that impact on soft ground, such as clay or sand, penetrate intact into the ground (down to a few metres depending on the type of soil).

The corrosion of DU penetrators varies. For example, in quartz sand or acidic volcanic rock, high solubilization rates lead to the local contamination of groundwater, uranium-oxide can also be absorbed by plants and thereby enter the food chain. Much more research needs to be done on the breakdown of DU in the environment, it will prove very important in the eventual clean up of battlefields affected by DU contamination.

UN-Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in a press release on 6th November 2002: “…new technologies - such as depleted uranium ammunition - pose as yet unknown threats to the environment. Damage to the environment in war is also an impediment to the restoration of peace and the rebuilding of society. The lesson to be drawn is that modern warfare needs environmental rules, just as earlier wars highlighted the need to regulate the impact of war on civilians and prisoners of war.”

How can you clean up sites where DU has been used?

The short answer is – with difficulty. Once you have removed the larger fragments by hand, there are three main methods: mechanical, chemical and biological. Mechanical removal involves digging up the contaminated soil and landfilling it. Chemical methods include leaching out the uranium using liquid and a substance that binds to the uranium, while biological methods utilise certain bacteria and plants.

The biological option is currently the focus of much research. It has been found that certain plants called hyper-accumulators naturally absorb and store large quantities of certain heavy metals. Once grown on a site the plants can be picked and securely landfilled or burnt and the ash collected.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytoremediation%2C_Hyperaccumulators

Alternatively, it is possible to encourage the growth of certain bacteria that convert mobile uranium into an immobile form, which then gets trapped in soils, this prevents it entering groundwater supplies.

http://www.physorg.com/news67270244.html

The Los Alamos laboratory in the US has developed a chemical remediation method using baking soda. After any physically separable uranium is removed from the soil, the soil is transported to leach areas. Each leach area consists of multiple impermeable, slightly sloped (3% grade) leach pads. Uranium-contaminated soil heaped on these pads is sprayed with sodium bicarbonate solution. The solution leaches the uranium from the soil. A trough at the base of the pads carries the uranium-bearing solution to a processing facility, where the uranium is chemically/physically separated.

Each of these methods is expensive, time consuming and only suited to relatively small areas of high contamination. Landfilling DU wastes retains the danger of future environmental contamination because of DU's extraordinarily long 4.6Bn year half-life.

Legal

Are DU weapons illegal under current international law?

Using DU runs counter to the basic rules and principles enshrined in written and customary International Humanitarian Law. This relates among other things to:

· The general principle on the protection of civilian populations from the effects of hostilities.

· The principle that the right of the parties to an armed conflict to choose their methods or means of warfare is not unlimited.

· The principle that the employment in armed conflicts of weapons, projectiles, and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is forbidden.

· The prohibition of the use of poisonous weapons according to Art. 23 para.1 of the Hague Regulations and the rules of the Poison Gas Protocol.

· The prohibition of widespread damage to the natural environment and unjustified destruction according to the Hague Regulations and the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

· The principle of ‘humanitarian proportionality’, which is contained in the St. Petersburg Declaration.

· Additionally both Humanitarian Law and Environmental Law are based on the principle of precaution and proportionality, which at the very least, states should adhere to. Two resolutions of the Sub-Commission to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1996/16 and 1997/36) state that the use of uranium ammunition is not in conformity with existing International and Human Rights Law.

Why are we trying to explicitly ban DU weapons?

Even though the use of DU weapons should already be illegal under International Humanitarian, Human rights and Environmental Laws, as has been seen with chemical and biological weapons and landmines an explicit treaty has proved the best solution for confirming their illegality and banning their production, and all other processes related to DU weapons.

Such a treaty would not only outlaw the use of DU weapons, but would include the prohibition of their production, the destruction of DU stockpiles, the decontamination of battlefields and rules on compensation for victims.

ICBUW has prepared a draft treaty for such a Convention;

What would be states’ obligations under the convention to ban on DU Weapons?

ICBUW’s Draft Convention contains a general and comprehensive prohibition of the development, production, transport, storage, possession, transfer and use of uranium ammunition, uranium armour-plate and of any other military use of uranium. The Convention also outlines obligations concerning the abolishment of uranium weapons and the destruction of uranium weapons construction facilities.

The Convention obliges states to ensure a rapid decontamination of contaminated areas, emphasising the protection of and assistance to, civilians living in these areas. It also obliges states to compensate the victims.

Won't the government and military just ignore the ban or try to get round it by re-defining the weapon?

Of course irresponsible states and non-state actors may try to do that, but because someone may break a law does not mean there should not be a law. In fact it makes it all the more necessary.

How will we ban DU weapons?

The Coalition's fundamental approach lies in propagating a Draft Convention for a ban on uranium weapons. Here, the network follows the example of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. On a realistic note, we are aware that the political implementation of such a treaty process will take much time and effort. For this reason, ICBUW’s strategy - in addition to striving for the ultimate goal of a ban - consists of various complementary options such as:

· ‘Reactivating’ the UN General Assembly First Committee on the issue.

· Presenting and discussing a new Draft Protocol to the Conventional Weapons Convention.

· ‘Synthesising’ International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Human Rights and environmental law arguments, as in the case of the precautionary principle, to form a customary law substance ready for implementation.

· Putting DU weapons under the review procedure of Art. 36, Additional Protocol I, to the Geneva Conventions (the compatibility test of new weapons with IHL).

· Striving for the (full) implementation of the EP/EU moratorium on DU weaponry.

· Collecting, analysing and disseminating information about all kinds of domestic “anti-DU” activities (cases, laws, parliamentarian actions, divestment schemes etc.).

· Working on draft (national) model laws and model cases.

· Striving for national legislatures to ban uranium weapons by lobbying on a national level through law proposals, parliamentary questions and debates within national governments and the media.

Notes:

*Reflecting ISO 3166-1 and United Nations terminology.