UK’s depleted uranium plan shows no lessons have been learned from the Iraq war

DU penetrator
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The UK plans to give tank-busting depleted uranium (DU) ammunition to Ukraine. This shows, once again, that nothing has been learned from the Iraq war. The plan to send the radioactive arms came to light as the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion passed. Fallujah in Iraq still records high rates of birth deformities and cancer years after the munitions were used there.

Russian president Vladimir Putin slammed the decision. He said Russia would:

respond accordingly given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component’.

Meanwhile, US sources said the munitions were in common use. Effectively, the US is suggesting that the use of this form of weapon is unremarkable. However, the dangers are undeniable.

Radioactive weapons

The West used DU ammunition in the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. The effects of DU became most evident in Fallujah. As the NGO Nuclear Risks has it:

The use of depleted uranium in the war on Iraq in 2003 has led to expo­sure of the local population to radioactive uranium dust. This could potentially explain the significant rise in cancer and congenital malformations documented in Fallujah after 2003. In addition, soldiers who were in contact with the radioactive ammunition also have increased morbidity rates.

But there is another aspect to British DU munitions. The 2016 Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq drew on an important military report. It detailed that the UK sees no need clean up its deadly remnants. As a 2016 report in The Ecologist outlined:

Read on...

In other words, the UK’s stance is that chemically toxic and radioactive DU ‘ash’ from spent munitions is strictly the problem of the country in which the munitions were used, in this case Iraq – and that the UK, which fired the DU shells, has no formal responsibility of cleaning up the mess.

The key point here is that DU takes a deadly toll long after a war ends:

Vehicles contaminated by DU – for example destroyed tanks, armoured personnel carriers – pose a particular risk to civilians, both to workers in the scrap metal industry and to children who may play on them. Levels of contamination can be high and, because the interiors are not exposed to the elements, DU may remain in the vehicles for long periods.

Toxic waste

Deadly waste is a major concern in modern warfare. Ukraine’s vast farmland is already being poisoned, as revealed on NPR:

Soil tests performed by scientists found high concentrations of toxins like mercury, arsenic and other pollutants that, you know, we assume are byproducts of the war in Ukraine. It’s my understanding that these tests show that these toxins are in millions of acres of farmland and forests.

Indeed, other forms of toxic war waste also endanger people in Iraq and Afghanistan even after military withdrawal. Burn pits, where all manner of toxic material was torched daily during the occupations, are a prime example. The Centre for Cultural Anthropology warned:

Pollution and toxification are central to US military violence. The burn pits both exemplify and render in microcosm the way such violence fosters some privileged lifeworlds by destroying others.


Modern warfare turns the battlefield toxic. Ukraine’s vast farmlands – the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ are already showing these effects. To add more radioactive munitions to the chaos is highly irresponsible.

On top of this, the UK still maintains that it has no duty to clear up its toxic war waste. The world desperately needs a commitment by all countries to step away from these kinds of lethal materials.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to 770 x 403.

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  • Show Comments
    1. I had a quick look into this yesterday in some journal articles from last few years. I am not a scientific expert but from what I gleaned – DU contaminates water, soil and is absorbed by humans, animals and fish through water (for humans and animals when used as drinking water) but also inhalation of particles and more research is showing links through micro and nano-particles as well. It also affects plants and fungi (1).

      DU compared with natural uranium, contains less of radioactive isotope U235 and also contains plutonium as well as decay isotopes of thorium and protactinium (2).

      It causes chemical toxicity and there is growing evidence of radiotoxicity but some of the research was completed too late after e.g. the Gulf wars and Kosovo to confirm so some authors are expressing uncertainty about direct links. As you mention, surrounding human populations and some neighbouring countries have been suffering severe health effects including cancer (particularly leukemia and lung), respiratory problems, skeletal structures being altered or abnormal growth in early development. I found one study which had mapped DU on several bordering regions of Iraq too.

      There are also alterations in both cell development and gene expression across humans, animals, plants and fish. Recent studies are showing that non-irradiated cells become toxic from neighbouring radiated cells affecting development and reproduction.

      Scientists are still understanding more about environmental effects of DU but it is present in humans via soil, water and air. (3)

      So I guess some is genuine scientific uncertainty whilst some may be looking to avoid compensation claims both from soldiers and the citizens affected too.


      1. Fomina, M., Hong, J.W., Gadd, G.M., 2020. Effect of depleted uranium on a soil microcosm fungal community and influence of a plant-ectomycorrhizal association. Fungal Biology 124, 289–296.
      2. Durakovic, A. 2016. Medical effects of internal contamination with actinides: further controversy on depleted uranium and radioactive warfare. Environ Health Prev Med 21, 111–117 .
      3. Schilz JR, Dashner-Titus EJ, Simmons KA, Erdei E, Bolt AM, MacKenzie DA, Hudson LG. 2022. The immunotoxicity of natural and depleted uranium: From cells to people. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2022 Nov 1;454:116252. doi: 10.1016/j.taap.2022.116252.

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