The White House is unwilling to say whether the U.S. will provide depleted uranium anti-tank rounds to Ukraine, according to the transcript of a press briefing, despite decades of research suggesting the weapon causes cancer and birth defects long after the fighting ends.
At a background briefing on January 25, an unnamed reporter asked the unnamed “senior administration officials” at the session whether the Bradley Fighting Vehicles now being sent to aid in Ukraine’s defense against Russia would come armed with the 25 mm armor-piercing depleted uranium rounds they’re capable of firing. As the reporter noted, firing these radioactive rounds “is part of what makes them the ‘tank killer’ that Pentagon officials called them.” The administration official who responded declined to answer, saying, “I’m not going to get into the technical specifics.”
But the technical specifics of these weapons could have dire consequences for Ukrainians. Depleted uranium is a common byproduct of manufacturing nuclear fuel and weaponry, and, owing to its extreme density, ammunition made from the stuff is a fantastic way of punching through the thick armor of a tank and igniting everyone inside. But these anti-tank rounds also happen to be radioactive, extremely toxic, and have been linked with a variety of birth defects, cancers, and other illness, most dramatically in Iraq, where doctors reported a spike in birth defects and cancers since the Gulf War, when the U.S. fired nearly a million depleted uranium rounds, and the 2003 invasion of that country.
“[Uranium] binds avidly to bio-molecules including DNA,” according to Keith Baverstock, a radiobiologist at the University of Eastern Finland, former World Health Organization researcher, and longtime scholar of depleted uranium arms and their effects. “Where [uranium] is used in munitions (bullets and bombs) to penetrate hardened targets (using its high density) the munition may shatter and since [uranium] is pyrophoric, catch fire and burn, producing oxide particles which are partially soluble and, thus, potentially a source of systemic [uranium] if inhaled.” Uranium particles may remain embedded in the land where these rounds were fired, too, presenting a possible environmental hazard years later.
While research linking depleted uranium weapons to adverse health effects is disputed — and heavily politicized given who’s fired it and at whom — experts told The Intercept that the risk alone means the White House owes the public transparency.
“It’s been a concern since the start of the invasion,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director with the Conflict and Environment Observatory, particularly given that Russia claims to have its own depleted uranium arsenal, though it’s not clear whether any have been used in Ukraine. Were the U.S. to provide uranium rounds for Ukraine to deploy against Russia, the odds might increase of Russia using its arsenal too (if it hasn’t already).
Generally speaking, Weir explained that “the most severe contamination incidents will occur where a vehicle with a full load of DU cooks off after being struck. This may be a tank, or a supply vehicle. Similarly, arms dumps containing large volumes of DU may create contamination incidents when destroyed or burned.” Weir added, “It is important that journalists pin down the U.S. government on its DU decision.”
Despite our popular associations with uranium, “the biggest problem there is metal pollution, not radiation,” explained Nickolai Denisov, an environmental scientist who has closely monitored the health impacts of the Ukraine war. “Still, pollution by heavy metals is dangerous and long term, hence transparency in these matters is indeed important.”
It can be uncomfortable to advocate against the use of a weapon that would no doubt be a near-term boon for Ukrainian resistance. As the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons put it at the onset of the Russian invasion, “When there is war, everything else is secondary compared to sheer survival. On the other hand, the outcry because of environmental destruction must not be omitted if the country is to be habitable again afterward.”
If the Pentagon sends uranium rounds to Ukraine, it would surely have supporters: The ammo would be highly effective at destroying the armored vehicles Russia has poured into the country. As the White House faces — and bends to — growing pressure to share increasingly powerful arms with Ukraine, candid discussions about the unintended consequences of these arm transfers can become unpopular. But some scientists who’ve spent careers scrutinizing these weapons will likely remain opposed, despite the immense sympathy of the Ukrainian cause.
Asked about the White House’s refusal to discuss uranium rounds in Ukraine, Baverstock, the Finnish scientist, replied simply, “I would certainly hope that there is no intention to use it.”