Comment: The MoD’s nonsensical faith in depleted uranium

By General (rtd) Sir Hugh Beach

A week after US A10 gunships thought to be armed with controversial depleted uranium (DU) ammunition were deployed in Iraq in the fight against Isis, the UK government opposed a fifth United Nations resolution intended to mitigate the risks from past uses of the weapons in the country. Given the international opprobrium attached to the use of depleted uranium weapons, their renewed use in the country may achieve little more than a propaganda coup for the extremists' cause.

The UK, together with the United States, France and Israel, has been one of four countries which has consistently opposed the United Nations General Assembly's resolutions. Last year's was supported by 150 countries and primarily called for further research on the weapons' potential health and environmental risks, and measures to facilitate studies – such as the release of targeting data. For the first time, and in response to Iraq's call this summer, the resolution also called for the international community to provide assistance to states affected by the use of the weapons.

The UK's decision to once again vote against the resolution was regrettable and from the perspective of historical UK policy on the weapons made little sense. While the UK is a user of the weapons, the resolutions do not seek to ban them or constrain their use; instead they focus on exploring and mitigating their potential humanitarian impact. The resolution text reflects the spirit of the work that the UK has historically undertaken on DU, even if its efforts on research and assistance have often fallen well short of what was required.

The UK first used DU weapons in the 1991 Gulf War. Testing and development of UK DU ammunition had been underway since the 1960s, when the dense by-product of uranium enrichment was identified as a possible material for the long rod penetrator in anti-tank shells. Little was understood about the potential health risks from this radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal at the time, with significant uncertainties remaining to this day. DU spontaneously burns when powdered, and while this is welcomed by the military as it increases the ammunition's effectiveness against the occupants of armoured vehicles, it generates contamination and increases the risks to civilians.

Health concerns over the inhalation of DU particles emerged soon after the 1991 Gulf War. Vehicles struck by the munitions may contain particularly high levels of DU, leaving scrap metal workers and the children who use hulks as playgrounds at risk of exposure. Unlike anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, there are no current legal obligations on the users of the weapons to fund the expensive and challenging process of clearance and decontamination.

Following the 2003 Iraq War, the Ministry of Defence publicly accepted that it had a moral obligation to the people of Iraq because of its use of DU. Unlike the United States, which to this day refuses to transfer data on its use to United Nations' agencies, the Iraqi government or demining organisations, the UK handed over coordinates for where it had fired DU, primarily around Basra. Money was promised for DU clearance work in the aftermath of the conflict but although it ultimately failed to materialise, the Department for International Development did provide limited funding to build the DU assessment capacity of Iraq's Ministry of the Environment – though staff were underequipped for the task in hand.

The United Nations Environment Programme sought to undertake more comprehensive studies into Iraq's DU contamination but came under pressure from the United States to focus only on Iraq's former nuclear sites. The 2005 bombing of the United Nation's headquarters at Baghdad's Canal Hotel saw its agencies leave Iraq and the newly established Iraqi Environment Ministry left to fend largely for itself.

The deteriorating security situation also impacted the Ministry of Defence's own research programmes, with an Iraqi field project initially hailed as 'a detailed scientific research programme on destroyed tanks' reduced to a survey on just two vehicles. The level of contamination found on vehicles and other targets varies enormously and to this day little real world data is available to inform accurate risk assessments.

Prior to the 2003 Iraq War, the Royal Society investigated the health risks from DU weapons. On the basis of the data available they highlighted some health risks from exposure and called for clearance and environmental monitoring. As the research available at the time highlighted a number of important data gaps, they urged the MoD to undertake further research to resolve them.

Over the course of four years, universities and other institutions undertook studies and, while the process added to science's understanding of DU's environmental behaviour, huge questions still remained over its potential health impact. None of the research focused specifically on the risks to civilians from post-conflict exposure. Another topic that remains under addressed is the presence of other radioactive elements in the United States' DU used to produce the UK's 120mm CHARM3 tank rounds.

The most recent United Nations resolution recognised the potential health and environmental risks from the weapons – something that post-1991 the UK Ministry of Defence has accepted in the warnings it provides to personnel to avoid exposure. As with Iraq's request, it called on the United Nations' agencies to continue to study DU in the field and for a precautionary approach to the weapons because of ongoing uncertainties. Crucially it called for transparency over use so as to facilitate clearance and research.

Voting against the resolution, the UK, United States and France issued a joint explanation, stating that: "Given the lack of tangible evidence to the contrary we do not recognize the presupposed potential risk to health and the environment and therefore do not support UN resolutions that presuppose Depleted Uranium is harmful.” The view that DU is not harmful is strikingly at odds with forces health protection guidelines issue to the troops of all three countries, and certainly out of balance with UK regulations governing testing, storage and use.

While all three countries continue to maintain stocks of the weapons and currently view them as a necessary part of their arsenal, their opposition to the resolutions, while understandable, is becoming increasingly untenable. Recognising the growing political opposition to their use, even without comprehensive studies into civilian exposure and direct evidence of health problems, each is quietly undertaking research into alternative ‘safer' materials for armour-piercing ammunition – a tacit acceptance that the use of radioactive and toxic DU in munitions is unacceptable. It is this public unacceptability that Isis' propagandists will seek to take advantage of in the aftermath of the US's use of its A10 gunships – opposition made more acute in the wake of Iraq's call for a global treaty ban on the weapons.

Opposing research and assistance is counter-productive and is placing civilians at risk of continued exposure. As noted by the chair of the Royal Society's Depleted Uranium Working Group as far back as April 2003: "The coalition needs to acknowledge that depleted uranium is a potential hazard and make inroads into tackling it by being open about where and how much depleted uranium has been deployed." Supporting United Nations' resolutions would help achieve this, so the UK should encourage its coalition partner in Iraq to avoid handing a propaganda victory to its opponents.

General Sir Hugh Beach is a retired British Army soldier researches and advises on defence policy

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