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UK to send controversial ‘depleted uranium’ rounds to Ukraine

The weapons are exceptionally good at breaking through armor but carry risks of long-term harm to civilians.


The British government said Tuesday that it will send depleted uranium (DU) rounds to Ukraine in a move that is sure to draw fire from critics of the controversial weapon.

In a brief explanation of the decision, a senior UK defense official noted that the rounds are “highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles.” She did not address the growing body of evidence that the ammunition causes birth defects and cancers among civilians and soldiers alike.

Russian leaders quickly denounced the move as escalatory. “If all this happens, Russia will have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component,” warned Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Defense minister Sergei Shoigu echoed Putin’s threat, noting that “fewer and fewer” steps of escalation remain before a “nuclear collision.”

If the United Kingdom follows through on the announcement, it will become the first country to openly send the controversial shells to Ukraine. To date, Washington has refused to say whether it plans to provide Kyiv with DU ammunition, though the Pentagon has pledged at least one type of armored vehicle that is known to use such weapons.

DU is a remarkably hard substance, making it an effective material for rounds meant to break through the reinforced shells of armored vehicles and tanks. The United States used the weapons extensively in Iraq and reportedly deployed them in Syria during the fight against ISIS. Russia also claims to have DU rounds, though it remains unclear if the Kremlin has used them in Ukraine.

Despite their military prowess, research suggests that DU shells can cause long-term environmental damage as well as cancer and birth defects.

“Contamination from Depleted Uranium (DU) munitions and other military-related pollution is suspected of causing a sharp [rise] in congenital birth defects, cancer cases, and other illnesses throughout much of Iraq,” wrote journalist Dahr Jamail in an investigation for Al Jazeera. “Many prominent doctors and scientists contend that DU contamination is also connected to the recent emergence of diseases that were not previously seen in Iraq, such as new illnesses in the kidney, lungs, and liver, as well as total immune system collapse.”

Given these concerns, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) slammed Britain’s decision, arguing that it “will only increase the long-term suffering of the civilians caught up in this conflict.”

“CND has repeatedly called for the UK government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts,” said CND General Secretary Kate Hudson in a statement. “Sending them into yet another war zone will not help the people of Ukraine.”

Great Britain plans to send Ukraine a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks equipped with depleted uranium shells. (Shutterstock/ Martin Hibberd)
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