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Depleted Uranium

Etika Peluru Perak

(Ethics of the Silver Bullet)

Oleh: Iliya Pesic

Almost all M1A1 Abrams Tanks fire 120mm depleted uranium rounds. Image source:P1
Soldiers of the Future? Might be necessary if we are to continue DU use. Image Source: P2

The “Silver Bullet” (30 mm DU round) Image Source: P3

Class: ENGR 019 – Technological Ethics, Professor: Dr. Neil R. Quinn Jr., Santa Clara University





- Airplane Ballasts and Tank Armor

- What is DU Ammunition?


- Case 1: Iraq (The Gulf War)

- Case 2: The Balkans ( Bosnia and The Kosovo Conflict)


- Pro's and Con's of DU ammunition

- Professional Issues

- Legal Issues

- Ethical Philosophical Issues/Perspectives

- Stakeholders


- Possible Action #1: Permit the use of DU ammunition

- Possible Action #2: Ban the use of DU ammunition

- Possible Action #3: Limit the use of DU ammo or halt DU ammo usage pending further investigation/research.


* Ethical analysis format taken from "Ethical Decision-making Workshop – Group Capture Sheet" by Dr. Neil Quinn.


"All the soldiers there were wearing NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical warfare) protective clothing. We said: 'What's going on here?' And their answer was: 'Didn't you know? This ammunition is a bit dodgy.'" – Tim Pubrick, Gulf War veteran, British Royal Army tank commander. 6

Depleted uranium (DU) ammunition is a very recent advancement in military weapons use. Due to its effectiveness against piercing armor, DU ammunition has recently become a popular item among NATO armies and will most likely become a mainstream form of conventional ammunition among many other armies of the world. However, massive amounts of circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the use of DU ammunition has known to cause dramatic side effects, such as health problems, stillborn babies, toxic and poisonous land, water supplies, and residential territories. Hence an important question arises, is it ethical to use DU ammunition on the battlefield?


Before we can analyze the ethical use of DU ammunition, it is important to first establish the technology behind DU and DU weapons. Uranium is one of the heaviest elements found in nature and is emits alpha, beta, and gamma particles. It is 1.7 times denser than lead. 12 The half-life of U 238 (DU is 99% U 238 ) is 4.5 billion years! 13 Uranium byproducts(such as Thorium (Th 232 )) have even longer half-lives, making uranium an element that gets more radioactive during its own decay process. 5 Natural uranium is 99.274% U 238 , 0.720% U 235 , and 0.0055% U 234 . 14a Uranium is enriched when its contents of U 235 reaches 3.2-3.6% (since U 235 is fissible). Weapon-grade uranium is +90% U 235 . 14a What is depleted uranium? We start out with natural uranium and extract enriched uranium for nuclear fuel and weaponry. The leftover from the extraction process is something very similar to natural uranium, known as "depleted uranium". The only difference is that DU has 0.202% of U 235 and 0.0008% of U 234 . 14a How much DU do we currently have? As of June 1998, we have around 57,800 huge steel cylinders of DU or 496,000 metric tons. 14b Storage of DU is very complicated and problematic since corrosion of DU storage cylinders often occurs over relatively short periods of time. 15

Tells you all you need to know about uranium enrichment and processing. Notice DU is leftover from the enrichment process. Image source: P4
Depleted uranium is stored as Uranium Flouride (UF6) in giant cylinders. Located in Portsmouth . Image Source: P4
Another photo on the storage of depleted uranium. Storage of DU is often very difficult. Image Source: P4
Another photo on the storage of depleted uranium. Image Source: P4


The applications of DU are quite extensive. DU is very low cost and is readily available. DU can be used as a commercial aircraft counterweight. A Boeing 747 needs 1,500 kg of DU. 12,14c Due to volume restrictions, DU is an ideal dense counterweight that takes up very little space. However, due to widespread fears of DU, Tungsten can also be used in a wide range of commercial aircraft counterweights. 14c An interesting note: in past plane crashes (e.g. 1992 Israeli El Al cargo jet crash in Amsterdam), local authorities usually end up scraping around 40 cm of topsoil from the crash site and nearby soils, most likely to rid of toxins produced from DU. 13,14f

As well, DU can be used in tank armor. Around 1500 tanks were loaded with DU armor in 1993 and 2000 more were ordered by the US military for the future. 14c How do we implement DU armor on tanks? Most tanks contain two thick shields of conventional steel armor. There exists a moderately thick gap between the two shields. DU is inserted into the armor plates and the two shields are then welded together to make one tough three-layer armor plate.

Finally, DU is extensively used in military grade ammunition. Ammunition has always existed in various different forms. DU is simply a new type of ammunition. Regular low-caliber bullets are made of compacted hardened lead. 3 Armor piercing rounds (usually of higher caliber) are made out of steel. Incendiary and high explosive rounds (for even higher caliber rounds) are made with chemical explosive compounds. 3 DU is merely a recent but simple advancement made in high caliber ammunition. What is depleted uranium ammunition? Basically DU + conventional ammunition = DU ammunition. DU weapons can be installed in conventional ammunition in a variety of ways. However the common methods are the following: you can either coat the ammo in DU or you can make conventional ammo with a DU core. 9,10 DU and tungsten ammunition research was being conducted as early as the 1970s as a means of generating conventional effective armor piercing rounds. 14d Tungsten is generally very expensive, has a higher melting point, and doesn't cut armor as well as DU. Depleted uranium is cheap, abundant, and even provided free to arms manufacturers. DU rounds can be classified in many different types of ammunition. DU is employed in tank rounds (usually as a kinetic dart/projectile, high-explosive device, or smart bombs) 1 , heavy machine guns (as used by US Bradley Fighting Vehicles), gatling guns (as used by US Apache helicopters, A-10 Warthogs, Harrier jets, and other anti-personnel aircraft), artillery (e.g. Howitzers and mortar shells), and probably in ultra-high caliber sniper rifles. The most common DU round is a high kinetic energy projectile. The projectile can pierce all forms of heavy armor. Contact temperature between the projectile and the armor is 1132 degrees C. 1 DU also easily burns, just like magnesium, upon penetration, adding to the effectiveness of the ammo as an armor piercing device. 14c When the projectile cuts through the armor, the DU penetrator and parts of the tank get so hot that it literally vaporizes. Anywhere from 18-70% of the DU usually oxidizes (depending on type of impact). 14c For example, direct impact yields 99% oxidization. A Uranium oxide (which consists of insoluble UO2 and soluble UO3) aerosol forms, where 50-96% of the particles are less than 10 microns and hence can be inhaled easily. 2

Here is a quite extensive photograph showing a wide range of DU ammo, from 25 mm heavy machine gun rounds to 120 mm tank shells. Image Source: P5

This photograph most shows the different types of 120 mm DU tank shells. The two on the far left are high-explosive rounds. The pointed shells are kinetic energy projectile rounds. Image Source: P6

Another important characteristic of DU ammo is that it dramatically increases the lethal range of conventional weaponry. For lower caliber weapons (such as heavy machine guns fired from the BAV or aircraft), DU rounds can be lethal from up to 8km. 10 On larger caliber heavy weapons (such as tanks), DU rounds can easily destroy an enemy tank from 3-5km. 1 However, a cautious note, circumstantial evidence suggests that DU exhibits harmful radiological, chemical, and biological effects (which will be discussed later on in this paper). But for now, keep in mind that DU is extremely toxic and still contains much of the radiation that natural uranium has. For example, US Army field manuals indicate that those who handle DU contaminated vehicles or DU injured individuals must wear gas masks and protective radiological suits. 14f There are at least 15-17 countries that currently possess DU ammunition (e.g. US, Britain, France, Israel, Egypt, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) 14c,13 Large military manufacturers, such as the US , China or Russia , could easily become a major DU ammunition distributors to other major militaries in the near future.

Classification of the two most common 120 mm DU tank rounds, a kinetic-energy projectile and a high-explosive projectile. Image Source: P6


In order to analyze the effects of DU ammunition, recent conflicts involving DU ammo need to be considered. The two most recent cases involve Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and Kosovo/Bosnia during the Balkan conflicts of the mid and late 1990s. A harmful reaction by Allied veterans to chemical, biological, and radiological effects from the Gulf War culminated into what is known as Gulf War Syndrome (part of the cause is potentially due to DU weaponry). A very recent similar series of events occurred with post-DU use in the Balkans, which lead to "Balkan War Syndrome".


The Gulf War is an older case but was the first time that the US military employed DU weaponry on a large military scale against an enemy. DU ammunition has been accredited during and after the Gulf War as one of the main reasons why the Allied military had such a swift victory over Iraqi military forces. 1,9 DU allowed our tanks to penetrate enemy armor easily and at far greater distances. Allied tanks could directly engage enemy tanks while in the enemy's line-of-sight with little worry from retaliatory fire. This means that Allied tanks could hit their Iraqi tanks while Iraqi tanks couldn't hit Allied tanks. Also due to DU armor, not a single US tank was penetrated from enemy fire. US tanks took many close direct hits from Iraqi Soviet-made T-72 tanks (as close as 400m!), but enemy rounds were simply not able to penetrate the DU armor! 14f DU ammunition was such a successful and popular weapon that US tank crews have dubbed DU ammo as the "Silver Bullet." 9 (Partially because DU rounds have a silver-like luster due to the aluminum coating.) An important thing to consider was how much DU was actually dumped onto Iraqi territory. Around 9,640 tanks shells and 850,000 aircraft 30mm rounds were used. 14f This translates to nearly 650,000 pounds of actual DU deposited on Iraqi soil! 14f That's a lot of nuclear waste!

M1A1 Abrams Tanks were armed with 120 mm DU tank shells. Image source: P1
Many M1A1 Abrams were also upgraded with strong DU armor plating. Image source: P1

Due to the extensive use of DU weaponry in the Gulf War, one has to consider the chemical, biological, environmental, and radiological effects that resulted. Analysis of DU can be achieved from investigating incidents of friendly fire. Over 200 vehicles that were hit by friendly fire were analyzed by the US military. 14f Over 29 vehicles were found with abnormally high radioactive levels. 12 vehicles (including 6 Bradleys) were buried in Saudi Arabia due to substantial radioactive levels. 14f Numerous soldiers were also rumored to have been affected by DU. British SAS and US special forces, cleanup crews, and a wide variety of other military personnel who were constantly in the presence of DU contaminated sites were analyzed and in many cases shown to have contained abnormally high levels of uranium and radiation poisoning. Many veterans (not just those suffering from friendly fire) continue to have persistent medical problems. During the Gulf War, over 85% of military soldiers have wandered through at least some DU contaminated sites (e.g. destroyed Iraqi vehicles, bunkers, etc.) 14i . Veteran groups estimate that +400,000 Gulf personnel have inhaled some amount of DU dust. By 1996, As a result of NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare), nearly +187,000 veterans have sought serious medical help and 18,200 were hospitalized. 14i However in 1993, the Department of Veterans Affairs has done medical testing on soldiers who still have retained DU shrapnel within their bodies. 16 Interestingly, their claims indicate no direct threat from DU.

M2 and M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) are armed with 25 mm DU ammunition. Image source: P7
The 25 mm cannon shown here fires DU ammunition. Image Source: P7

There are also serious long-term effects of DU that still exist today in Iraq . In regions heavily hit by DU, studies have shown that numerous civilians have extensive problems with their immune systems, malignant cancers (such as ludicrously high leukemia rates), heart problems, and bizarre abnormal birth defects (such as children born without eyes, ears, tongue, etc.). 2 In some regions, Leukemia has become one of the main forms of cancer-related death. There has been a 4x increase in cancer among children (+130,000 in 1997). 14i Contaminated agriculture and water supplies help spread the DU dust which continues to hurt people in different regions where DU ammo was not used. However, one should note that even before the Gulf War, much of Iraqi soil was already highly contaminated from previous conflicts (e.g. chemical and biological warfare against Iran , Iraqi Kurds).


Just two of NUMEROUS cases of totally bizarre stillborn infants in Iraq due to DU contamination. Stillborn infants here are born with some of the most confusing abnormalities. The image on the left is of an infant born with one eye in center of the head. The image on the left is of an infant born normal but without any eyes at all. Image source: P8

"When we climbed into vehicles after they'd been hit, no matter what time or day or night it was, you couldn't see three feet in front of you. You breathed in that dust." – Dr. Doug Rokke, Gulf War veteran, US Army clean up crew. 6


A more recent case of DU ammunition use was during the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia . An interesting thing to note is that no major chemical or biological weaponry was used or numerous NBC sites bombed during both conflicts. Even though Yugoslavia has done extensive research into chemical weaponry, no significant amount was used in both conflicts. Hence, the only potentially hazardous device used was DU ammunition. At first, NATO claimed that DU ammunition was not being used at all. No mention was made until a small group of NATO soldiers started dying from blood/renal/rectal related cancers in a very short period of time and the term "Balkan War Syndrome" came into full force. 14f New Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with a 3kg DU warhead core were first used in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. 14f Over 31,000 A-10 30mm rounds were fired and over 1,500 cruise missiles (armed with DU) were used. Some regions in Bosnia and especially Kosovo (a region that NATO HEAVILY bombed for 3 months) are so contaminated with DU that the soil there is permanently destroyed. NATO soldiers are constantly told not to eat local foods or drink from local water supplies (since ingestion of DU dust is very common by eating foods or drinking water contaminated with DU dust). 17 Soldiers were also told to stay away from military sites hit by DU and not to pick up any possible DU fragments. 17 This concludes the basic facts of DU ammunition and the specific conflicts in which DU ammo was used.

A-10 Thunderbolt II Aircraft is a tank-busting/anti-personnel attack jet fully loaded with numerous 30mm DU rounds. Image source: P9
Photo showing personnel loading the A-10 with numerous 30 mm DU rounds. Image source: P10
Closeup of the gatling gun that spews out armor-piercing 30 mm DU rounds. Image source: P10