Unravelling the US Stance on Depleted Uranium Weapons

Reviewed by Kevin Wu

In his paper “Unravelling the US Stance on Depleted Uranium Weapons,” William Henry Long contends that external pressures have led to the curtailing of depleted uranium (DU) weapons by the United States. Long begins with an explanation of the merits of DU weaponry, examining its effectiveness as a material for armor-piercing projectiles.  DU rounds further reduce the risk of the round exploding in the barrel of the turret, or remaining unexploded on the battlefield.  Long also reveals the relatively inexpensive price of DU due to the massive supply available.

Long then traces the history of the use of DU rounds as well as its impact on average citizens. Since 1990, nearly 20 nations including the US, UK, other NATO nations, China, France, Israel, and Russia are believed to possess DU weapons. The author examines critical opinions regarding the impact of DU weapons, nothing that within Iraq alone, the Radiation Protection Center has located 300 contaminated sites.  As per surveys done by the Iraqi government, the cancer rate has multiplied twenty fold pre to post-Gulf War, from forty out of 100,000 people to 800 out of 100,000 people.  In 2005, the cancer rate further multiplied to 1,600 out of 100,000.

After establishing the correlation between cancer incidence and the use of DU weaponry, the author describes issues with radioactive contamination as well as heavy metal toxicity.  Long conducts an analysis of a publication by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which concluded radiation from DU ammunition was far too small to be significant.  Even a study of veterans of the Gulf War with pieces of DU shrapnel embedded in them revealed that the amount of radiation the soldiers received was lower than that of the limit set for employees of nuclear facilities.  In contrast, DU is harmful due to its chemical toxicity.  The IAEA determined that DU levels in southern Iraq were large enough to pose a threat, causing renal failure, issues with the nervous system, heart failure, and genetic mutations.

As such, the United States military has been reluctant to acknowledge the effects of DU weaponry, as demonstrated by a recent Veterans Affairs study.  Long highlights the failures of this study, explaining that the limited sample size of 33 soldiers as well as the exclusion of veterans exposed to DU who expressed health problems made the study a poor representation of the actual impacts of DU.  The Department of the Army has compounded the health risks of DU by maintaining lax cleaning standards, approaching it as a radioactive threat instead of heavy metal threat.  The United States has further withheld the locations of DU rounds fired during the war, refusing to allow an outside survey and cleanup.

Long finally turns towards the legal and international response towards the use of DU.  The author explains that DU rounds can constitute an “indiscriminate attack,” which is banned under Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.  Long also brings up the argument of the precautionary principle, that states ought to refrain from using weapons with uncertain effects on the environment and civilians.  The UN has also placed an increasing amount of pressure on nations utilizing DU weapons.  Long thoroughly traces pressures from both national forces within the press as well as international pressure from the European Parliament, indicating an increased likelihood that the United States would drop the use of DU weapons.

See the full paper here!

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