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Uranium-238, a waste product of uranium enrichment, has been diverted into tank-piercing projectiles. Depleted uranium, known as DU, has an extremely high penetrating force – and fatal consequences.

Due to its density, depleted uranium is used as counter­weight for aircraft wings and racing yachts. However, worldwide controversy has erupted over its military use: with three times the penetration force of a common grenade, a 30-millimeter depleted uranium projectile can cut into a tank like a hot knife through butter.

On impact, white-hot uranium dust reacts explosively with the oxygen inside the armored tank. A wall of flames, with temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Celsius, will silence the cries of panic from the crew in seconds. For two seconds it is deathly silent. Then the fire reaches the ammunition stored in the tank. A huge explosion separates the tower from the rest of the tank. The blue and black pillar of fire and smoke soars straight up into the sky. It spreads radioactive and highly toxic nano dust particles over the battlefield and beyond – poison­ing the soldiers on both sides as well as the civilian population, even long after the war is over. It seeps into the soil and contaminates the groundwater.

DU has a radioactive half life of 4.5 billion years. This means that once released, its radioactive particles will emit alpha radiation virtually forever. According to the principles and criteria of international humanitarian law, the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants, and due diligence obligations regarding the environment and the precautionary and preventive action principles, the use of uranium weapons is prohibited. The consequences of the use of DU ammunition also violate the standards of the International Protection of Human Rights (e.g. the right to a healthy environment) as well as environmental protection standards (protection from toxic substances). Ramsey Clark, former head of the US Department of Justice, called uranium ammunition a “Metal of Dishonor”, a pun on the term “Medal of Honor”, the highest distinction awarded to a member of the military by the US government.

Uranium ammunition was first used in the Gulf War in 1991 in the south of Iraq by the US and the UK – with at least 320 tonnes of DU being dropped on Iraqi cities and tanks. Since then, many US soldiers have fallen ill or have died, leading to the concept of Gulf War Syndrome. The sick veterans are still struggling to get recognition for their “service-related disease”. The subsequent use of DU spans more than a decade: three tonnes of DU were used during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995; 9.45 tonnes in Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro in 1999; and 145 tonnes in Iraq in 2003. Between 2001 and 2006, it was used in missions in Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

Where does the DU come from? Natural uranium ore consists mostly of uranium-238 and is therefore not suited for nuclear reactor fuel. For this, uranium-235 is needed, because it is capable of a nuclear fission chain reaction. However, uranium-235 only amounts to 0.7 percent of mined uranium. The uranium-235 share is increased through uranium enrichment: to 3-5 percent for the production of fuel rods for civilian reactors, or to 85 percent or higher for nuclear weapons. Depleted uranium is left behind as a waste product of this process, mostly consisting of uranium-238 and just 0.03 percent of uranium-235 (see pp. 8-9). Whether for military or civilian purposes, only about 5 percent of the total amount of depleted uranium is ever used at all. The vast majority of it is deposited in unmarked places, whereas it should be stored as nuclear waste in a safe, permanent repository.

When the US Air Force introduced its new A-10 Thunderbolt jet fighter 40 years ago, with an onboard gun capable of firing 4,200 rounds per minute of DU armor-piercing ammunition, these tests were conducted without any safety precau­tions or prior announcements; neither the US armed forces nor the population were informed of the health risks involved. A rise in morbidity among military personnel and civilians in the testing areas led to massive protests, so the tests were then relocated to places outside of the US mainland: to Vieques in Puerto Rico; Balboa West and Piñas in Panama; to Kumejima and Okinawa in Japan; Camp Doha in Kuwait; Koon Ni in South Korea; and to the military training area Grafenwöhr in Germany. The tests did not pass without incident: tanks loaded with DU ammunition caught fire and burnt out in Altenwalde, Gollhofen and Oberaltertheim in Germany.

In addition, several A-10 fighter jets crashed. In Kuwait, a US ammunition depot storing 3.5 tonnes of DU exploded. Other countries – among them the UK, France, Germany, Greece, the USSR and Switzerland – tested uranium ammuni­tion within their own borders. The British military had a test site in Eskmeals in Northwest England and in Dundrennan in Scotland; France in the Polygone de tir near Bourges, 200 kilometers south of Paris. The German military tested on the premises of MBB, Rheinmetall and EADS in Unterlüss and in the asparagus region of Schrobenhausen. The Swiss company Contraves had a site in Ochsenboden. Salto di Quirra in the east of Sardinia, Europe’s largest military training site in Italy, was available to all NATO members. The rate of cancer incidence there is very high and Greenpeace announced it had found sheep born with three legs and even two heads.

At least 18 countries have uranium weapons in their arsenals: the UK, the US, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Oman, Thailand, China, India and Taiwan. The Honeywell subsidiary, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) in the US, is by far the biggest producer and exporter of uranium weapons worldwide. In September 2017, ATK was taken over by the world’s largest weapons corporation, Northrop Grumman.

The UK, France, Russia, Pakistan and India also participate in the production of uranium ammunition. In Germany, physician Siegwart Horst Günther, and the documentary filmmaker Frieder Wagner, made this problematic issue public. In 1995, Günther smuggled casings of uranium ammunition from the Iraqi battlefields to Berlin and had them tested for radiation. He was subsequently charged with “dissemination of radioactive material” and jailed. At the same time, NATO declared this type of ammunition completely safe.

In 2003, the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) was established. It coordinates and brings together civil society efforts to ban uranium weapons and to help DU victims. The UN General Assembly discusses the issue of uranium ammunition every two years. The resolutions adopted there, with a large majority, emphasize the following priorities: transparency, the precautionary approach and support for the affected regions. These precautionary principles enjoy ongoing support from the European Parliament. Yet, even though the German army has no uranium weapons in its arsenal, Germany continues to undermine the UN process through abstentions.

Further information

● Film: Deadly Dust – Depleted Uranium, Frieder Wagner, 93 min, on Youtube
● Links: icbuw.eu; uraniumweaponsconference.de