published : 2023-09-07

US sending Ukraine uranium-based ammo ‘very bad news,’ according to Russian spokesman

The US military is rejecting Kremlin’s claims that the depleted uranium ammunition causes cancers

US soldier training with M1A1 Abrams tank during a military exercise

The US has announced it's sending depleted uranium anti-tank rounds to Ukraine, following Britain's lead in sending the controversial munitions to help Kyiv push through Russian lines in its grueling counteroffensive.

Russian spokesman addressing the media about the use of depleted uranium ammunition

The 120 mm rounds will be used to arm the 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks the US plans to deliver to Ukraine in the fall.

Close-up of depleted uranium anti-tank rounds ready for deployment

Such armor-piercing rounds were developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine now faces in its counteroffensive.

Depleted uranium munition being fired from a tank during a combat exercise

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The rounds retain some radioactive properties, but they can’t generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon would, RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist said.

Nuclear scientist explaining the uranium enrichment process

When Britain announced in March it was sending Ukraine the depleted uranium rounds, Russia falsely claimed they have nuclear components and warned that their use would open the door to further escalation. In the past, Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested the war could escalate to nuclear weapons use.

Researcher examining the effects of radiation on cells in a lab

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the process to create the rarer, enriched uranium used in nuclear fuel and weapons. Although far less powerful than enriched uranium and incapable of generating a nuclear reaction, depleted uranium is extremely dense — more dense than lead — a quality that makes it highly attractive as a projectile.

Aerial view of tanks maneuvering through a battlefield during a counteroffensive

"It’s so dense and it’s got so much momentum that it just keeps going through the armor — and it heats it up so much that it catches on fire," Geist said.

Historical photo of tanks from the Cold War era

When fired, a depleted uranium munition becomes "essentially an exotic metal dart fired at an extraordinarily high speed," RAND senior defense analyst Scott Boston said.

US soldier inspecting a captured Soviet tank in Ukraine

In the 1970s, the US Army began making armor-piercing rounds with depleted uranium and has since added it to composite tank armor to strengthen it. It also has added depleted uranium to the munitions fired by the Air Force’s A-10 close air support attack plane, known as the tank killer. The US military is still developing depleted uranium munitions, notably the M829A4 armor-piercing round for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, Boston said.

Protesters holding signs against nuclear weapons

In March, Putin warned that Moscow would "respond accordingly, given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component.’" And Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the munitions were "a step toward accelerating escalation".

Radiation symbol warning sign near a nuclear facility

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the US decision to supply depleted uranium ammunition to Ukraine was "very bad news." He claimed that their use by the US in the former Yugoslavia has led to "a galloping rise" in cancers and other illnesses and affected the next generations living in those areas.

Soldier wearing protective apparel while handling depleted uranium rounds

"The same situation will inevitably await the Ukrainian territories where they will be used," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. "The responsibility for that will lie entirely on the US leadership."

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors conducting radiation assessment

The US military has studied the impact of depleted uranium on US troops in the Gulf War and to date has said it has not found higher risk of cancers or other illnesses in those servicemembers who were exposed. It has said it will continue to monitor those who were exposed.

High-tech imaging equipment used to detect radiation levels

The Pentagon has defended the use of the munitions. The US military "has procured, stored, and used depleted uranium rounds for several decades, since these are a longstanding element of some conventional munitions," Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. Garron Garn said in a statement in March in response to a query from The Associated Press.

US soldiers checking tanks equipped with depleted uranium armor modifications

While depleted uranium munitions are not considered nuclear weapons, their emission of low levels of radiation has led the UN nuclear watchdog to urge caution when handling and warn of the possible dangers of exposure.

A-10 close air support attack plane flying low during training exercise

The handling of such ammunition "should be kept to a minimum and protective apparel (gloves) should be worn," the International Atomic Energy Agency cautions.

Russian spokesman addressing concerns about the use of depleted uranium in warfare

"A public information campaign may, therefore, be required to ensure that people avoid handling the projectiles."

Community meeting discussing the potential health risks of depleted uranium ammunition

The IAEA notes that depleted uranium is mainly a toxic chemical, as opposed to a radiation hazard.

Group of veterans sharing their experiences from the Gulf War

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

Nuclear scientist explaining the properties of depleted uranium

The low-level radioactivity of a depleted uranium round "is a bug, not a feature" of the munition, Geist said, and if the US military could find another material with the same density but without the radioactivity it would likely use that instead.

UN nuclear watchdog team inspecting a nuclear facility

Depleted uranium munitions, as well as depleted uranium-enhanced armor, were used by US tanks in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq’s T-72 tanks and again in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as in Serbia and in Kosovo.

Military personnel conducting a training exercise with depleted uranium rounds

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova slammed the US decision to give Ukraine the munitions, writing, "What is this: a lie or stupidity?" She said an increase in cancer has been noted in places where ammunition with depleted uranium was used.