Skip to content


The United States has announced it will send depleted uranium anti-tank munitions to Ukraine, following Britain’s lead in sending controversial munitions to help Kiev break through Russian lines in its backbreaking counter-offensive.

The 120mm shells will be used to arm the 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks the United States plans to deliver to Ukraine in the coming months.

Armor-piercing shells were developed by the United States during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine faces in its counteroffensive.

What is depleted uranium?

Depleted uranium is a by-product of the process of creating the rarer enriched uranium used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel and weapons. Although much less powerful than enriched uranium and unable to generate a nuclear reaction, DU is extremely dense – denser than lead – a quality that makes it very attractive as a projectile.

“It’s so dense and has so much momentum that it keeps breaking through the shielding – and it heats it up so much that it catches fire,” says Edward Geist, nuclear expert and policy researcher at the US Rand Non Institute. – for-profit research institution.

When fired, a depleted uranium munition becomes “essentially an exotic metal dart fired at an extraordinarily high velocity,” added Scott Boston, principal defense analyst at Rand.

This means that when it hits a tank’s armor, it blasts through it in the blink of an eye before exploding into a scorching cloud of dust and metal as rising temperatures detonate the tank’s fuel and ammunition. tank.

Do depleted uranium ammunition pose a health risk?

Although depleted uranium munitions are not considered nuclear weapons, their emission of low levels of radiation has led the UN’s nuclear watchdog to urge caution when handling them and to put in guard against the possible dangers of exposure.

Handling of such ammunition “must be kept to a minimum and protective clothing (gloves) must be worn”, warns the International Atomic Energy Agency, adding that “a public information campaign may be necessary to ensure that people avoid handling the projectiles”.

“This should be part of any risk assessment and these precautions should depend on the range and number of ammunition used in an area.”

The IAEA notes that depleted uranium is primarily a toxic chemical, as opposed to a radiological hazard. Aerosol particles can be inhaled or ingested, and while most would be excreted again, some can enter the bloodstream and cause kidney damage.

“High concentrations in the kidneys can cause damage and, in extreme cases, kidney failure,” the IAEA says.

Depleted uranium munitions, along with improved depleted uranium armor, were used by US tanks in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraqi T-72 tanks and again during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as in Serbia and Kosovo.

A recent study by BMJ Global Health highlighted “possible associations” of long-term health problems among Iraqis related to the use of DU on the battlefield.

A World Health Organization analysis concludes that “in some cases, food and groundwater contamination levels could increase after a few years” and should be monitored, and recommends that clean-up measures be taken when “the levels of depleted uranium contamination are deemed unacceptable by qualified experts”.

How did Russia react to the American announcement?

The Russian Embassy in Washington denounced the decision as “an indicator of inhumanity”, adding that “the United States is deluding itself by refusing to accept the failure of the so-called counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army.

In a social media post on Telegram, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also criticized the US decision, writing: “What is it: a lie or stupidity? She claimed an increase in cancers had been seen in places where depleted uranium munitions were used.

In March, when Britain announced it would supply the shells, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow would “react accordingly” as the West began using weapons with what he called a “nuclear component”.

Putin went on to say days later that Russia would respond by stationing tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. Putin and the Belarusian president said in July that Russia had already shipped some weapons.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report