Is Depleted Uranium a Health Risk?

Depleted uranium is not the same as weapons-grade uranium.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the potential health effects of depleted uranium in antitank shells are in the spotlight again, as they were during the Gulf War. While depleted uranium is not an immediate health hazard to crews handling it, the small amount of residual radiation remains long after the battle is over carries a specific cancer risk. That risk is small compared to the other risks coming from war, but it is nonzero. So why the fuss? Jim Anderton comments.

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Episode Transcript:

Every few years, and again now because of the war in Ukraine, the media picks up on a very interesting military technology used in armor piercing shells: depleted uranium. And every time they do, a debate is reignited about the health effects of the use of depleted uranium shells on the battlefield, particularly long-term exposure to the metal.   

Oddly, almost no one seems to understand what depleted uranium is, and even fewer use an engineering approach to the risks it poses.  

So, what is depleted uranium? Well, as the name suggests, it’s radioactive uranium, a very dense metal, whose radiation has been allowed to deplete over time, rendering it safe to handle by both tank and gun crews.  

APFSDS, or Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot anti-tank rounds—and boy, does the Pentagon ever love those acronyms—are essentially very high velocity depleted uranium darts whose very high kinetic energy and high density bores through heavy armor and sprays a lethal quantity of white-hot shrapnel onto the crews inside.  

It’s a devastating and highly effective round, but the real controversy from DU comes not from its use on the battlefield, but from the residual depleted uranium left over after the battle.  

Ionizing radiation sources have an interesting property: they never really become fully inert, although over time, the radiation emitted becomes insignificant compared to natural background radiation. Residual radiation in a DU round is detectable, and several studies suggest that it is responsible for elevated cancer rates among people that must live in and around former battlefields where these rounds were used.  

It’s no surprise that we see elevated cancer rates any place where there is residual ionizing radiation. While that’s not good, an engineering approach to the health risk would have to take into account a lot of other factors.  

In a war, the primary threat to life comes from losing the battle, being direct casualties from enemy fire. A secondary and very significant source of civilian casualties after a war come from leftover munitions, particularly antipersonnel mines which can be deadly for decades. A tertiary source of harm is the environmental contamination of chemicals and heavy metals strewn around every battlefield. Air and water pollution must be considered as well, from explosive residues and propellants.  

Somewhere down around risk number five lies depleted uranium. Taken in isolation, there is definitely a statistical correlation between DU in an environment and an increased risk of cancer. But if you take a step back and look at the overall mathematics, the risk to human life in a war comes primarily from being shot or blown up in battle, being killed by leftover munitions postwar, contamination of land, water and air from the multitude of chemicals used in warfare, and lastly from the small amount of leftover radiation from one specific kind of antitank shell.  

So why the fuss? Because uranium implies fissionable material, the stuff of atomic bombs. DU antitank shells have nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear weapons, but that distinction is lost to the majority of people who are not as technically well-versed as we are.  

Sometimes we poison and irradiate people intentionally. It’s called radiation and chemotherapy, and for cancer patients, the health risks from these things are far outweighed by the health benefits from killing or suppressing a tumor. It’s all about risk factors. If we’re worried about health effects after a war, let’s start by figuring out how were going to keep children from stepping on those landmines.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.