International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2015-2016
In a new sign that global pressure over the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons is having an impact, the US military is working to replace DU in its tank ammunition. A Department of Defense call-for-proposals that closed in October seeks firms able to “identify and produce a low-cost material that matches or exceeds the performance of depleted uranium in kinetic energy penetrator applications.”
DU is a form of waste uranium-238 left from the production of nuclear weapons and reactor fuel rods. It is used in armor-piercing ammunition by the US and several other countries. It was heavily used by US and NATO forces against Iraq, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon proposal cited opposition to DU as a key driver in the decision, noting: “Limited opposition to the use of DU exists in some circles based on the idea that, as a heavy metal, depleted uranium deposited on the battlefield might represent a serious persistent health or environmental hazard. Because of this opposition, the Army has been exploring alternative materials for KE penetrator applications.”
A U-turn by the US this year over its threat to use DU in attacks in Iraq and Syria was another sign of the growing stigmatization of the weapons. Opposition to the use of DU is most apparent in well-supported UN General Assembly resolutions on the issue. Veterans’ groups in the US and communities affected by firing ranges and production sites have also been vocal critics.
“This is a clear sign that public opposition to the weapons is changing the policy of their greatest advocate—the US,” said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. “But developing alternatives will take time, other states continue to maintain DU, and there is still no binding obligation on users to clean up contamination in countries like Iraq.”
The US has been examining alternatives to DU since their first major use in the 1991 Gulf War—because the casual dispersal of radioactive material in conflict zones runs counter to the most fundamental norms of radiation protection, and it clearly placed civilians and the environment at risk, in many cases for years after the end of hostilities.
While the US decision is an acknowledgement of broad opposition to the weapons, DU will continue to be part of the US arsenal for many years. The latest version of its 120-mm DU shell for its Abrams tank has only just entered service and could be in use for at least five years. There is little evidence of DU skepticism in Russia, China, or Pakistan, and the UK still uses a DU tank round in spite of domestic opposition.
While a move away from DU by the US is important, it does not address problems with existing contamination, which is costly and technically challenging. Iraq, the place most affected by the wartime DU use, is struggling to deal with contamination from 1991 and 2003. It has called for assistance from the international community in dealing with DU contamination, a demand made necessary by the singular lack of obligations on the users of the weapons to assist those affected. States must give serious thought to how such obligations could be developed.
—December 4, 2015