Opinion: Last week the Vladimir Putin regime said if depleted uranium weapons were given to Ukraine by the UK, Russia would “have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component”.
This is absurd for two reasons. The first, as many outlets have noted, is that depleted Uranium is not fissionable material. When natural uranium is mined, the isotope that is needed for nuclear power and nuclear weapons is Uranium-235.
Scientists try to extract as much Uranium-235 as they can from the natural uranium, and when they have a batch that has a high proportion of Uranium-235, they call this ‘enriched uranium’. What is left over is called depleted uranium because it has been depleted of its enriched uranium.
It simply cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon and its levels of Uranium-235 are just too low to use in nuclear power either. Russia comparing it to a nuclear weapon is obviously untrue.
The second reason, as far fewer outlets have noted, is that the Russian military already uses depleted uranium. The Russian military decided to start arming tanks with depleted uranium penetrators years ago.
Although there has been no substantial evidence of Russia using depleted uranium in Ukraine yet, one would think that if Putin believes depleted uranium is that bad, he would not have it in his arsenal either.
Obviously, Putin’s rhetoric about needing to “respond accordingly” is just meant as propaganda to justify whatever he wants to do next.
However, this does not mean that depleted uranium is safe or that the UK should be sending these weapons to Ukraine.
This is where the UK needs to be honest about these weapons. Its Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said depleted uranium “is a standard component” and that independent scientists have “assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low”.
Yes, it was standard, and many scientists have said that. But many others have disagreed, and the evidence they have presented should not be taken lightly.
For starters, the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute has released many studies showing the negative impact of depleted uranium on human cell cultures and animals. Put simply, animal and cell culture testing have shown that depleted uranium can cause tumour growth and gene mutation.
The British government has known this for decades. As long ago as 1997, it had an internal report on depleted uranium which clearly stated:
“All personnel … should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long-term risk… [the dust] has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.”
When this report was released to the public in 2001, it caused quite a bit of controversy, but the UK MoD does not seem to mention it now.
It also does not mention that the UK government was sued by UK Persian Gulf War veterans in 2004, who were able to prove in a court of law that their health problems were caused by exposure to depleted uranium.
Neither does it mention studies done in Iraq that show that increases in leukemia and birth defects can be directly linked to depleted uranium exposure.
Cleaning up depleted uranium is also no small matter. According to International Mine Action Standards, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians have to be covered head to toe in Personal Protective Equipment. Then, not only are they not supposed to touch depleted uranium, but also they have to put it in a metal box for disposal and they are not supposed to touch the metal box.
The degree to which depleted uranium can still be considered a ‘standard component’ is also a matter of debate. The US has said it will not send depleted uranium weapons to Ukraine, and aerospace and defence technology company Northrop Grumman refuses to even make them any more.
The goal of sending aid to Ukraine should be to help Ukraine. If a country claims to be an ally trying to help Ukraine, then they should not be sending weapons which will likely cause Ukrainian soldiers and civilians (and their children) long-term health problems that are harder to clear than any minefield. We need to think about Ukraine’s postwar prosperity, and depleted uranium will not help that.