The World’s Most Widely Used WMD: Depleted Uranium

The World’s Most Widely Used WMD: Depleted Uranium

In the light of ongoing reports of a huge rises in the incidence of birth defects in Iraq we investigate one of the likely causes, depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is the world’s most widely used weapon of mass destruction, and yet because it does not come with an associated mushroom cloud, this deadly killer goes largely unreported. However its effects last for centuries and it is currently used indiscriminately used by the major armies of the world with little or no research as to its effects long after the initial explosion. This is especially so in the countries in which they have been most extensively used, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. So what is depleted uranium and why should it be considered a weapon of mass destruction?

The Science:

  • The uranium remaining after removal of the enriched fraction contains about 99.8% 238U, 0.2% 235U and 0.001% 234U by mass; this is referred to as depleted uranium or DU.

  • The main difference between DU and natural uranium is that the former contains at least three times less 235U than the latter.

  • DU, consequently, is weakly radioactive and a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass.

  • The behaviour of DU in the body is identical to that of natural uranium.

  • Spent uranium fuel from nuclear reactors is sometimes reprocessed in plants for natural uranium enrichment. Some reactor-created radioisotopes can consequently contaminate the reprocessing equipment and the DU. Under these conditions another uranium isotope, 236U, may be present in the DU together with very small amounts of the transuranic elements plutonium, americium and neptunium and the fission product technetium-99. However, the additional radiation dose following intake of DU into the human body from these isotopes would be less than 1%.

The History:

  • Enriched uranium was first manufactured in the 1940s when the US and USSR began their nuclear weapons and nuclear power programs. It was at this time that depleted uranium was first stored as an unusable waste product. There was some hope that the enrichment process would be improved and fissionable isotopes of U-235 could, at some future date, be extracted from the depleted uranium. This re-enrichment recovery of the residual uranium-235 contained in the depleted uranium is no longer a matter of the future: it has been practiced for several years. Also, it is possible to design civilian power reactors with unenriched fuel, but only about 10 percent of reactors ever built utilize that technology, and both nuclear weapons production and naval reactors require the concentrated isotope.

  • In the 1970s, the Pentagon reported that the Soviet military had developed armor plating for Warsaw Pact tanks that NATO ammunition could not penetrate. The Pentagon began searching for material to make denser bullets. After testing various metals, ordnance researchers settled on depleted uranium.

  • The US and NATO military used DU penetrator rounds in the 1991 Gulf War, the Bosnia war, bombing of Serbia, the 2003 invasion and subsequent war in Iraq, in Afghanistan since 2001 and Libya in 2011.


  • Due to its high density, about twice that of lead, the main civilian uses of DU include counterweights in aircraft, radiation shields in medical radiation therapy machines and containers for the transport of radioactive materials. The military uses DU for defensive armour plate.

  • DU is used in armour penetrating military ordnance because of its high density, and also because DU can ignite on impact if the temperature exceeds 600°C.

In just a three week period of conflict in Iraq during 2003 it was estimated over 1000 tons of depleted uranium munitions were used, mostly in cities


  • Under most circumstances, use of DU will make a negligible contribution to the overall natural background levels of uranium in the environment. Probably the greatest potential for DU exposure will follow conflict where DU munitions are used.

  • A recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report giving field measurements taken around selected impact sites in Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) indicates that contamination by DU in the environment was localized to a few tens of metres around impact sites. Contamination by DU dusts of local vegetation and water supplies was found to be extremely low. Thus, the probability of significant exposure to local populations was considered to be very low.

  • A UN expert team reported in November 2002 that they found traces of DU in three locations among 14 sites investigated in Bosnia following NATO airstrikes in 1995. A full report is expected to be published by UNEP in March 2003.

  • Levels of DU may exceed background levels of uranium close to DU contaminating events. Over the days and years following such an event, the contamination normally becomes dispersed into the wider natural environment by wind and rain. People living or working in affected areas may inhale contaminated dusts or consume contaminated food and drinking water.

  • People near an aircraft crash may be exposed to DU dusts if counterweights are exposed to prolonged intense heat. Significant exposure would be rare, as large masses of DU counterweights are unlikely to ignite and would oxidize only slowly. Exposures of clean-up and emergency workers to DU following aircraft accidents are possible, but normal occupational protection measures would prevent any significant exposure.


  • Kidney Disease

  • Lung Cancer

  • Erythema (superficial inflammation of the skin)

  • Reproductive or developmental effects

  • Issues in the central nervous system (CNS) tissue.

  • Gulf War syndrome and soldier complaints


  • Following conflict, levels of DU contamination in food and drinking water might be detected in affected areas even after a few years. This should be monitored where it is considered there is a reasonable possibility of significant quantities of DU entering the ground water or food chain.

  • Where justified and possible, clean-up operations in impact zones should be undertaken if there are substantial numbers of radioactive projectiles remaining and where qualified experts deem contamination levels to be unacceptable. If high concentrations of DU dust or metal fragments are present, then areas may need to be cordoned off until removal can be accomplished. Such impact sites are likely to contain a variety of hazardous materials, in particular unexploded ordnance. Due consideration needs to be given to all hazards, and the potential hazard from DU kept in perspective.

  • Small children could receive greater exposure to DU when playing in or near DU impact sites. Their typical hand-to-mouth activity could lead to high DU ingestion from contaminated soil. Necessary preventative measures should be taken.

  • Disposal of DU should follow appropriate national or international recommendations