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CADU response to latest MoD policy statement on depleted uranium

On the 18th December 2012 the MoD posted its latest policy statement regarding UK use of depleted uranium.

Once again it has used out-dated and flawed arguments to justify the use of this controversial, toxic weapon.
20 December 2012 - Doug Weir

UK policy and development

UK policy is that depleted uranium (DU) can be used in weapons because it would be wrong to deny our Armed Forces a legitimate and effective capability that can help them achieve their objectives as quickly and safely as possible.

From the outset it is worth putting the MoD’s policy into context. The UK has one last remaining DU tank round, which is used in the Challenger 2 tank. This is a bespoke round. Because of development decisions dating back to the 1960s, the Challenger 2 tank is unable to fire NATO standard ammunition, thus the MoD cannot follow the recent procurement trend of buying ‘off the shelf’, nor is the ammunition or tank fully interoperable with NATO partners. The MoD is currently sitting on a stock of ammunition which was manufactured around the turn of the century for which it perceives a military need and is unable to easily move away from DU because of the legacy of these poor procurement decisions. Switching to a different material for their armour piercing kinetic energy penetrator ammunition – materials used by the vast majority of states, who recognised early on that the use of DU in conventional weapons would never be publicly acceptable - would entail significant upgrades and alterations to the Challenger 2 tank.

The result of this procurement impasse is that the MoD finds itself forced to defend DU in spite of growing international pressure over the acceptability of the use of chemically toxic and radioactive materials in conventional weapons. A good example of this blind support for controversial weapons can be seen in the MoD’s longstanding defence of cluster munitions, a position which was maintained until the final stages of negotiations for a treaty banning their use:      

MoD spokesperson 2003: "We do use cluster bombs. They are legal weapons. As long as our potential enemies have weapons of a similar kind then it would be unfair not to allow our forces to act in a similar way. Cluster bombs fulfil a legitimate role and they are not indiscriminate weapons. We make a note where we drop them and if we can, afterwards we make sure that we clear the area."[1]

FCO Minister Alistair Burt 2010: “I warmly welcome the entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions on 1 August 2010. The Convention is one of the most significant disarmament treaties of recent years. Prohibiting the use, development, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, it sets new standards for disarmament and advances international humanitarian law. The Convention is an excellent example of what can be achieved by the international community working together effectively. With entry into force we are a step closer to a worldwide ban and ending the unacceptable suffering to civilians caused by these weapons.[2]

Claims of serious health and environmental effects by a very small number of people attract media attention but are disputed by most scientists and international agencies.

It has historically been useful for the MoD to dismiss concerns over DU by arguing that these stem from a few fringe extremists, while helpful to their cause, this does not accurately reflect the extent of global concern. Nor is it well reflected in the lengths that the MoD has gone to in order to justify its continued support for the weapons. DU is a complex topic, and just as with other areas where uncertainties exist, there are a range of scientific and political views. Similarly, the views of international agencies vary considerably – something often clear from the selective way in which their recommendations are quoted in MoD materials. 

Whether other countries use DU munitions or not is a matter for them.

Naturally states are free to choose their methods and means of warfare within the constraints of international law. However, the UK is rarely so circumspect when it comes to promoting its views on other controversial weapons or issues. In the case of DU, the UK’s development was undertaken in close cooperation with the US and France, indeed US DU metal was used to manufacture the UK’s current stocks. The three states still cooperate closely on this issue on a diplomatic level, sharing joint positions on UN resolutions, and of course states rarely go to war alone, thus the position of the UK and its allies on DU when engaged in joint operations is a matter of some importance. It was therefore notable that David Cameron swiftly sought to distance the UK from allegations that DU might be used during Operation Unified Protector in Libya when questioned in parliament[3].

Perhaps the statement would be better framed as: is the fact that the UK uses DU munitions a matter for other states?   

DU is a heavy metal 70% more dense than lead and with the ability to self-sharpen on impact with armour. This makes it ideal for use in armour-piercing ammunition and reduces the combat risk to UK tank crews as it allows them to engage an enemy from greater distances.

Under international humanitarian law it is necessary to not only consider the utility or effectiveness of a weapon but also its legality under existing provisions.  As such promoting the efficacy of a weapon is only half the equation that needs to be considered when examining the legality, and acceptability, of certain weapons.  This also raises important questions over the MoD’s propensity for placing military need above humanitarian concerns.

It was always recognised that the risks and benefits from using DU munitions needed to take account of the fact that DU is toxic in high doses and weakly radioactive.

Declassified documents from the National Archives indicate that, while the risks were recognised in early trials, a decision over their intrinsic toxicity and potential for harm was deferred until their military benefits were clarified[4]. It could be argued that the first proper review of DU’s potential risks in 2001 – by the UK Royal Society – post-dated the UK’s use of DU in Iraq in 1991. Further work to address the many uncertainties highlighted by the Royal Society took place during the 2000s and also post-dated UK DU use in Iraq in 2003. 

Risk assessments show very little or no chemical or radiation risk to most troops and civilians and instructions are provided to reduce the already low risk as far as is reasonably practicable.

This statement promises much but does it bear close scrutiny? Risk assessments have primarily focused on military personnel and not civilians. The instructions that are provided are also mainly for the benefit of military personnel[5]. Therefore it is not currently clear the extent to which civilians at risk of exposure are catered for in harm reduction measures. Obviously this also presumes that the risks of exposure are clear; the recent attempt by the European Commission to quantify these risks struggled to reach meaningful conclusions because of ongoing uncertainties and gaps in the data[6].   

One of the earliest assessments of the risks of using DU munitions was by the US in 1974. The UK benefited from this work when they began their own DU munitions development in 1979. Since then the US have completed a major piece of research (known as Capstone) and many other independent organisations have published their findings.

Reports by the Royal Society, European Commission, United Nations Environment Programme, International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organisation are on the world wide web. Although some of these were produced some time ago, more recent work shows their conclusions are still valid. MOD and European Commission summaries were published in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

There have been a range of reports on DU from international organisations. Their scope has varied, some have been desk studies, some based on field assessments but none has provided the full picture. Even Capstone – which as its name suggests was intended to end the debate over the risks posed by the weapons, was unable to offer precise data on the characterisation of aerosols produced by DU. This is data crucial to understanding DU’s behaviour in the body.

What many studies have done is challenged the more extreme claims about the potential impact of DU, this is all to the good, but even the most conservative have raised genuine questions about the health legacy of the weapons. Meanwhile, others have served to illustrate the complex political interplay between states and international agencies. None gave DU a clean bill of health and all highlighted uncertainties – the issue is how to respond to these uncertainties.  


Royal Society

2001- On the basis of existing knowledge it found that risks to personnel were low but highlighted a huge range of uncertainties. Following publication, the Chair argued that the use of DU in warfare without a clear understanding of its potential impact was unacceptable, called for monitoring in Iraq to assess civilian exposures and the rapid release of targeting data.

European Commission

2010 – strongly criticised for reaching conclusions that were unsupported by the available science. 

United Nations Environment Programme

Multiple post-conflict assessments, those sites that they were able to study had low levels but their access was not comprehensive. Have consistently called for a precautionary approach and for clean-up, monitoring and risk awareness work. Lead UN agency working on DU.

International Atomic Energy Agency

2003 – undertook field assessment on radiation risks in Kuwait, found radiological risks to be low, no discussion on chemical risks. Consistently fails to address legality of the use of nuclear materials in conventional weapons and ignores constraints on DU use under the Safeguards system.

World Health Organisation

2001, updated 2003. Highlighted uncertainties in the available data on a range of issues, issued recommendations to reduce risks to civilians. 


UK development was at Eskmeals in Cumbria and Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. Safety arrangements were discussed with health and safety and environmental protection regulators before test firing began. Personal and environmental monitoring confirms that the original development work and subsequent small-scale firings to ensure the continuing safety and serviceability of the ammunition do not present a hazard to anyone.

The issue of open air test firing of DU in the UK was politically contentious during the development of the weapons in 1970s. To this day, firings of DU on British soil are restricted to Kircudbright – where the rounds are mainly fired intact into the Solway Firth; and at Eskmeals, where DU was fired into a butt to examine penetration. Research by Fred Dawson, who worked on radiation protection for the MoD during the period, has subsequently highlighted that the poor design of the Eskmeals butt failed to stop the discharge of DU contamination into the environment and that permission was not sought from the Environment Agency for discharge[7].

Clearly the MoD approach has been lax but more importantly the restriction of firing areas suggest that widespread use of DU in exercises, for example on Salisbury Plain, would have been deemed politically unacceptable. This disparity raises question marks over the acceptability of the use of DU in conflict, particularly in civilian areas – if contamination from DU would be unacceptable on British soil, why is it any more acceptable abroad?

None of the highly publicised European Parliament or UN resolutions calling for more research or a ban on DU munitions affect the information provided above.

It is unclear why they would, however what the European Parliament and United Nations resolutions do offer is an indication of the regional and global acceptability of DU weapons. The most recent European Parliament resolution – in 2008 – was supported by 94% of the parliament, and again reiterated its call for a moratorium on use[8]. The most recent United Nations General Assembly resolution in December 2012 was supported by 155 states, with 27 abstentions and just four votes against – including the UK. This is a clear majority of UN member states and a result that demonstrates the UK’s increasingly isolated position. 

The UK opposes such resolutions because DU has not been shown to have, and indeed is very unlikely to have, any significant impact on the local population or veterans.

As pointed out at the beginning, the UK opposes such resolutions because it has stocks of DU and would like to keep using it.  Furthermore, as there have not been any long term epidemiological studies on civilian populations it is hard to discern how they have reached this conclusion.

Use of DU munitions is not prohibited under current or likely future international agreements and international concern is not as great as some suggest. Only 15 countries contributed to a UN report published in 2008 and only 4 suggested the possibility of widespread or extreme health risks. Canada and the Netherlands opposed a DU munitions ban.

So called ‘reporting fatigue’ has been a matter of debate at the UN for some years. Each year the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) issues a report on the number of submissions by member states in response to requests for reports to the UN Secretary General in UN resolutions. For the year in question, 2008, the DU resolution attracted the third highest number of reports, second only to two resolutions on transparency in arms spending and the UN register of conventional arms that consistently generate high levels of reporting[9].

The report 2008 UNODA report states that:

In last year’s summary to the Committee concerning the implementation of reports, I said that there was a great discrepancy between the importance that Member States attach to their resolutions, and the very low rate of reporting on implementation, a pattern that has been repeated over many years. I can report today that this pattern has appeared once again—the results show not only a very low level of response to requests  for the views of Members States, but also some significant declines even in the low reporting numbers from last year.”  

Clearly then, the number of states submitting reports is acknowledged by the UNODA to be a poor measure of interest in an issue. A better measure might be the number of states voting in favour of the resolutions during plenary, this has risen from 136 in 2007 to 155 in 2012; it would be hard not to argue that this is indicative of growing international concern over the issue.  

A review carried out in accordance with Article 36 of the First Protocol of 1977 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Additional Protocol I) concluded that the UK’s only DU munition (CHARM 3) is capable of being used lawfully in international armed conflict.

Once again this doesn’t reflect the whole story. The review was carried out retrospectively after CADU pointed out that the UK had been in breach of its obligations under Additional Protocol I after not reviewing the legality of the weapons before using them in Iraq in 2003. The Minister for the Armed Forces was forced to apologise for inadvertently misleading parliament after he incorrectly stated that a review had taken place[10].

That the review would find that DU was capable of being used lawfully was never in much doubt as the MoD were unlikely to publicly release the review to allow external scrutiny of their workings. The closest the public got was a parliamentary statement[11]

Allegations about ‘increasing evidence’ of extreme health risks are untrue.

Again, the persistent recourse to extreme risks seems to have been included to dismiss genuine concerns about the risks the weapons pose to civilians and the management burden they place on states recovering from conflict. Ironically the MoD is poorly placed to makes these claims as it has undertaken no studies on civilians itself.  

There has been nothing to affect the most recent (2008) International Commission on Radiological Protection conclusion that, although the body of information on the health effects of radiation has expanded since 1990, there are few significant changes to our understanding.

The ICRP is widely recognised as being a highly conservative organisation. Nevertheless, for many years it has promoted the Linear No-Threshold Dose model, this model for radiation’s impact on health assumes that all exposures carry with them some risk and that this risk rises proportionately with dose. For this reason and others, UK radioactive waste discharge policy seeks to avoid releases wherever possible. It is likely that in coming years the ICRP will seek to include more research into a range of novel mechanisms currently being researched through which low levels of radiation interact with human tissues.

Misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the significance of various resolutions, legal processes and research have been used to suggest that the UK government position is flawed.

It is unclear which position is being referred to – that DU is acceptable to use in conventional weapons? That DU use poses potential health risks to civilians? That DU may breach International Humanitarian Law as contamination is incapable of discriminating between civilians and military personnel or objects?

The Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s response to the outcome of a recent Coroner’s Inquest into a death alleged to have been caused by DU exposure is in the National Archive. This explains that the weight of independent scientific opinion supports the MOD position rather than the Jury’s verdict and why, having examined the Coroner’s recommendations, inquest transcript and scientific evidence, MOD does not accept the recommendations arising from the Inquest.

It seems understandable that the MoD would seek to overrule the views of the jury and Coroner in the inquest given that it challenges their support of DU. Speaking after the case; which recorded a narrative verdict and which the MoD refused to send a witness to, the Coroner said:

''This case has brought into sharp focus the problems that arise and the difficulties of dealing with the conflict between the need of the military to have the best munitions for their tasks, and the health of soldiers who go to war ... and indeed the health of the public who are caught up in wars[12].''

Perhaps instead of summarily dismissing the findings of an inquest into the death of one of their own personnel, the MoD should instead pay closer attention to the views of the Coroner. The views of the Coroner notwithstanding, it seemed disrespectful to the family of Lance Corporal Dyson that the MoD refused to play a more active role in the inquest. That the MoD then dismissed the findings of the Coroner and jury because it posed a challenge to their position seems even more so. The case stands in stark contrast to the the situation in Italy where veterans and their families have been compensated for DU exposures in Somalia and the Balkans.

Suggestions that doses from the ‘photoelectric effect’ are important and being ignored are shown to be in error by recent peer-reviewed work which shows that ‘photoelectric effect’ doses are broadly comparable with natural background radiation levels and hence of no practical significance in the calculation of radiation risk.

Focusing on one hypothesis for radiation-mediated health effects is a poor way of informing the reader of the range of research into both the biological effects of internal radiation, and the ongoing uncertainties in estimating dose. Many of these uncertainties in the ICRP’s dose models were raised by the UK government’s own CERRIE committee as early as 2006 and subsequently endorsed by the Health Protection Agency[13].  


DU munitions health monitoring

There is no reliable scientific or medical evidence to suggest that DU has been responsible for ill-health in UK Forces’ personnel or civilians. However the government will carefully consider any emerging data.

In its policy statement, the MoD writes that:

Allegations about ‘increasing evidence’ of extreme health risks are untrue”.

This dismissive generalisation doesn’t fit well with the position regarding careful consideration above. As the MoD is aware, there are considerable barriers to effective epidemiological surveys into civilian health in post conflict environments, insecurity, population movements, missing or ineffective health registries and a lack of environmental monitoring can all help confound studies. Iraq is a good example of this. As such, the lack of ‘reliable scientific evidence’ can be explained in part by these problems and also by the US government’s refusal to transfer accurate targeting data over where it has used DU to international agencies.

It may be helpful for the MoD to explain precisely what it means by ‘reliable scientific evidence’ to help clarify at which point it would accept studies that demonstrate environmental exposure or health problems in civilian populations.

Epidemiological studies suggesting DU-induced cancers and birth defects have flaws and the people proven to have the highest DU exposures, ie those in or on vehicles when they were hit by DU munitions, do not have any DU-related health effects. There are ongoing studies of the health of a group of US veterans known to have been exposed to DU during the 1991 Gulf conflict. The most recent report of this work was published in 2011.Veterans with embedded DU fragments excrete elevated concentrations of uranium but no significant evidence of clinically important changes are observed in kidney or bone. These are the two principal target organs for any form of uranium. Continued surveillance is recommended due to ongoing mobilization of DU from the embedded DU fragments.

It is good that the MoD recognises that epidemiological studies have flaws but surprising that it does not mention the flaws found by a review undertaken by the US Institute of Medicine – which was mandated by Congress to review research into Gulf War exposures by the US Dept of Veterans Affairs – into the US longitudinal study on veterans with embedded fragments cited above. Reports on this cohort are often cited to indicate that there are no likely long-term effects of DU exposure, yet the limited types of information provided and the small number of veterans evaluated leave important questions unanswered.

“…the small size of the cohort and lack of an unexposed comparison group mean the project cannot determine whether DU exposure is associated with common or uncommon diagnosed conditions of concern such as cancer[14].”


DU munitions environmental monitoring


UK surveys in areas where DU munitions were used have not shown DU at levels likely to have any detectable health impact. There are only some very limited and localised areas, such as in armoured vehicles hit by DU munitions, where precautions to prevent DU inhalation would be sensible if long-term exposures were likely. Similar results have been found by independent international bodies. There have been MOD surveys in Kosovo, Bosnia and southern Iraq. The results and conclusions are consistent with work by the UN Environment Programme in the Balkans and by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Kuwait.

The UK reviews cited are fairly limited in scope, for example on Iraq few sites were assessed and the conclusion states that

“ must be recognised that the data is not of the quality needed for robust generalised statements about DU contamination or any possible health consequences”[15].

Importantly, no buildings were assessed, with only vehicles/equipment and their suspected locations being surveyed. The inclusion of the Bosnia study is rather puzzling given that:

“Areas of potential concern were considered to be those where monitoring was required to implement MOD’s undertaking to carry out enhanced environmental surveillance.  In the case of Bosnia, this consisted of locations where UK troops work or reside. There were no reported locations in the UK-AOR where DU munitions are known to have been used.”[16] 

On Kosovo, only:

“three locations [were] worth considering for further environmental survey work”

...and with the limited data provided by the US, the MoD researchers were unclear about the precise locations of strikes. Of the data made available on the policy site, the only results for sampling are from the ‘fast and dirty’ initial assessment with no data available on the more detailed study proposed in the linked DSTL paper.

It may be that the MoD has more data it is willing to share publically on environmental sampling and we would welcome such a disclosure. This is crucially important because the unpredictable nature of conflict means that, despite being attractive; it is difficult to make generalisations about the risks from DU contamination. Each site must be dealt with, and if necessary, managed on a case by case basis.

Above, the UK makes it clear that the use of DU by other states is an issue for them alone. Given that the concern over, and subsequent studies into possible DU exposures at UK bases in Bosnia and Kosovo were due to the US use of 30mm DU ammunition in the conflict, CADU suggests that the use of DU by other states, particularly those involved in joint operations is indeed an issue for the UK.

As the MoD findings in the Balkans and Iraq matched those of the UN Environment Programme can we therefore expect that the MoD will act in line with their recommendations and adopt a precautionary approach to the use of the weapons and support monitoring and remediation? Particularly as the UN Environment Programme assessments have been of far broader scope than those undertaken by the MoD – although they have still be constrained by a lack of US cooperation in Iraq. At present UK policy seems somewhat different:

Zac Goldsmith MP: "To ask the Secretary of State for Defence with reference to paragraph III. 4 of the report of the UN Secretary-General on Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium, dated 17 September 2010, what assessment he has made of the recommendation by the UN Environment Programme that action be taken to clean up and decontaminate the polluted sites and that there should be a policy of awareness-raising among local populations; and if he will take steps to implement these recommendations."

Andrew Robathan Minister for Armed Forces: The scientific consensus is that DU intakes are only likely to be a concern for those in or on vehicles at the time they are struck by DU or for those who enter immediately afterwards[17].

MOD carries out terrestrial and marine environmental monitoring surveys on and around the firing ranges where DU munitions were developed. Air sampling is also carried out when firing is in progress. The survey methods are agreed with environmental regulators. A summary of the terrestrial and marine results was published in 2002. Subsequent results are in complete agreement with the early findings.

It is helpful that the MoD has exemptions from regulation by the Environment Agency, as it is hard to imagine whether any other entity would be permitted to fire more than 30 tonnes of depleted uranium into the Solway Firth.

Information has been provided to assist the civilian administration and international relief agencies in carrying out any monitoring they might wish to undertake.

We have made repeated attempts to see copies of materials distributed by the MoD in this way, thus far what we have seen suggests that this was non-specific and covered risks from all explosive remnants of war, it would therefore be helpful for the MoD to consider hosting these materials on this site.

DU munitions personal[sic] monitoring


Of the thousands of troops monitored worldwide, very few have had any detectable DU exposure and the vast majority of these were in or on vehicles when they were attacked with DU. Monitoring is also available for personnel concerned about possible DU exposures.

No DU has been detected in the vast majority (more than 99.5%) of the almost 1000 UK veterans tested by collection and analysis of urine samples. DU was only detected in a very small number of veterans who were in or on vehicles when they were attacked with DU munitions and this DU is at levels at which no adverse health effects are expected. Similar results have been obtained by other countries.

UK monitoring is based on independent advice from the DU Oversight Board (DUOB) who state that their testing is sufficiently sensitive to detect a DU exposure that would have ‘material implications for health’. The DUOB comprised expert members from a variety of medical and scientific institutions and lay members. Veterans and MOD were represented and nominated their own scientific advisors.

A report of the work can be accessed below. Some key points of test result interpretation and risk modelling were disputed by a small minority of DUOB members who produced a minority statement within the main report. MOD accept the majority view that this statement is ‘seriously flawed scientifically’. The care needed to obtain meaningful analysis results was shown by DUOB work and is the subject of a peer-reviewed scientific article.

The long overdue work of the DUOB was commendable and it is a relief to discover that few of the personnel who self-reported that they were concerned they might have been exposed, tested positive. The development of a robust methodology for urine testing was particularly welcome. However, it is problematic that the testing programme was not comprehensive and was reliant on veterans coming forward with concerns.

What is troubling is that while attention has been paid to assessing exposure in military personnel, rather less has been focused on civilians. Unlike personnel, they may face long term exposures to contamination from having to live, work and play in contaminated hotspots and in many cases, be completely unaware of the risks they face. It seems reasonable to argue that the same level of concern be extended to civilians who, after all, have little choice in whether they are exposed or not.


UK use

When a DU round impacts on a hard surface, some dust is released. This can be a health hazard in some circumstances. However, all the research to date indicates that these circumstances are extremely unlikely to occur, and, if they do, will only affect very small groups who will be at much greater risk from the other hazards associated with armed conflict.

The dismissal of the potential hazards from DU by arguing that it poses less of a risk than other battlefield hazards has been a standard line for some time. We note that it has now been expanded to cover ‘very small groups’ only. However it is still unclear who these small groups are. Are they personnel in vehicles? Personnel clearing battlefield wreckage? Are they civilians living or working in areas with hotspots of contamination or contaminated buildings? Are they children collecting objects or playing in wreckage? Are they scrap metal collectors recycling or processing parts stripped from vehicles? Are they people living adjacent to scrapyards? Are they informal contractors paid to remediate contaminated sites? Again, generalised statements are not particularly helpful in this context.    

Recent work - including the monitoring of veterans and battlefields - confirms this. The UK used very limited quantities (less than 2.9 tonnes) of DU in two armed conflicts in 1991 and 2003.

On the basis of data provided this statement seems hard to justify – it would seem that the UK battlefield monitoring has been limited, even by the admission of your own researchers.  

The only use of DU munitions in peacetime is in test firings.

Presumably because use in training on UK soil would be deemed to be politically and environmentally unacceptable? 

 In conflict, 120 mm anti-tank DU munitions (known as CHARM) and 20 mm DU rounds used in the Royal Navy’s PHALANX Close-In Weapon System (a system for defending against missile attacks) were fired in the Gulf in 1991 and 2003. The total weight of DU in the munitions was less than 2.9 tonnes. Use of DU in PHALANX ended in 2005, leaving the anti-tank round as the UK’s only DU munition.

Over the years, the MoD has made much of its shift away from DU for the PHALANX system, presenting it as evidence that they are willing to remove DU where possible – keeping it only for essential uses. The reality is that the US Navy, which consumes far greater quantities of PHALANX ammunition than the UK’s, concluded that tungsten-based rounds offered perfectly satisfactory performance against the type of targets expected, and without the health and environmental risks. Of particular concern was DU’s pyrophoricity – spontaneous combustion when finely divided and in the presence of oxygen. The onboard fire risk and exposure risks for crews were deemed unacceptable when balanced with the weapons’ utility.

The MoD has been less willing to offer a date when the ammunition actually stopped being used, instead stating information that it was being phased out over an extended period. Semantics aside, looking at how the remaining PHALANX DU rounds were dealt with – inside a functioning peacetime regulatory environment for hazardous materials - is instructive, when compared with its casual dispersal over foreign battlefields:

Nick Harvey Minister of State for the Armed Forces: “Demilitarisation of the depleted uranium ammunition for the Phalanx Close-in Weapons System was carried out under a Prime Contract at a commercial facility in Germany, with final disposal being completed at a commercial licensed recycling facility in the USA. Under the terms of the contract, both the prime contractor and associated sub-contractors were required to have the applicable licences and to comply with appropriate national and international safety and environmental regulations and with due regard to conventions, protocols and approvals. This included registration and use of Euratom safeguard registered sites, as required by the Euratom treaty within Europe. The commercial facility in the USA melted and cast the depleted uranium into ingots which are stored there for recycling.”[18]

Clean-up after a conflict is a matter for a country’s civilian administration but UK Forces provide information through signs and leaflets of the explosive or other risks associated with touching any battlefield debris.

As mentioned above, this has been a commonly made statement but information containing specific advice on DU has not been forthcoming. There is a broader question here of responsibility for post-conflict assistance for contamination caused by DU use. The UK and US are quick to add that they are not under any legal obligation to assist the Iraqi government and that responsibility for managing contamination – a technically challenging and expensive endeavour - lies with them alone. However, even the MoD has admitted that it has a moral obligation to the people of Iraq over its use of DU, at issue is how far this moral obligation has been translated into practical assistance.

 They also assist with ordnance disposal which includes removal of surface-lying DU fragments.

As DU is a controlled material under the IAEA Safeguards regime, it is necessary that accurate records are kept by states of how much is held. DU also requires specific disposal and long term management. It has therefore been surprising to discover that the UK claims to have no records of how much DU was collected in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, either by its own EOD teams or by NGO or private contractors working on clearance. Greater transparency on this issue would be most welcome as it may provide useful data to the Iraqis in developing case histories of sites with DU contamination, particularly as the majority of DU use in Iraq in 2003 was in civilian areas.

The UK has, and will continue to, provide help and advice to assist the civilan [sic] administration and relief agencies in carrying out any monitoring they want to undertake.

One can only hope that the monitoring recommended by the MoD will be more comprehensive than that undertaken in by the MoD in the Balkans and Iraq.

MOD has provided information on its use of DU munitions and on its monitoring in Iraq in 2003. MOD officials participated at a UNEP seminar at which DU matters, including environmental monitoring and sampling techniques, were discussed with Iraqi scientists.

The release of data on the UK’s DU firing points in Basrah was welcome – although there seems to be some disparity between the number of coordinates and the total quantity of DU reported fired; and of course no data has been made available for the 1991 conflict. We also welcome the MoD cooperation with UNEP – thus we find it even more puzzling that the MoD should be so quick to dismiss the organisation’s precautionary recommendations. However what would be extremely helpful would be if the MoD used its influence to help persuade the US Department of Defense to share its targeting coordinates with UNEP and others, in order to provide for a more thorough assessment of the contamination in Iraq.

More recently, MOD provided Iraqi scientists with protective equipment to carry out DU contamination surveys and with information on the composition of the DU used in UK munitions.

The extent of UK support for the capacity building programme, which was the result of the UN Environment Programme being unable to undertake a detailed field assessment in Iraq due to security problems and a lack of US cooperation, was assessed in our submission to the Chilcot Inquiry. We found that:

“The funding received from DfID appears to have been insufficient for even such a limited investigatory programme, as teams on the ground were not supplied with radiation meters able to detect alpha radiation, and a lack of basic equipment such as disposable gloves increased the chances of cross-contamination of samples.

Despite these drawbacks, and the three year gap between the invasion and site visits, the team were able to confirm DU contamination at Az Zubayr where UK Challenger II tanks had been active. Amongst UNEPs recommendations for future work was a call for the international community to fund future projects by the Iraqi Environment Ministry, a call which appears to have been ignored in London and Washington.”[19]

Both the World Health Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency state that DU risks can be controlled with simple countermeasures conducted by national authorities.

The IAEA states that the risks can be controlled with simple countermeasures. Although elsewhere the IAEA also argues that radiation protection norms require that:

The prime responsibility for safety must rest with the person or organization responsible for facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks.   

An effective legal and governmental framework for safety, including an independent regulatory body, must be established and sustained.

Facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks must yield an overall benefit[20]

These norms – which underpin the Basic Safety Standards – which are a balancing act between acceptable exposure and society’s use of radiation, sit uncomfortably with the use of DU. They seem to suggest that, even in the case of DU, the prime safety responsibility lies with the MoD; that the lack of an effective regulatory authority in post-conflict states following warfare would breach radiation protection norms, and that the use of DU – and any subsequent radiation risk, must yield an overall benefit; presumably these benefits should be felt most keenly by the civilians as they may be the ones most at risk of exposure.

It is unsurprising then that the MoD’s advisers, when considering this disparity, argued that standard radiation protection norms were not applicable to DU because its use and acceptability should be seen in the same light as a nuclear accident[21]. This seems hard to support when an active decision has been taken to use DU. 

Meanwhile the WHO seem to agree that DU is incapable of discriminating between civilian and military targets:
“People living or working in affected areas may inhale re-suspended contaminated dusts.”[22] They also issued the following recommendations in 2003, the last time they published anything substantive on the issue:

In order to protect against significant exposure, WHO recommends that:

  • exposure to DU of young children be monitored and preventive measures are taken, as children might be at particular risk of exposure because of the way they play;
  • heavily affected DU munitions impact zones be cleaned up and treated in the same way as if any other heavy metal waste had contaminated the soil. Such sites should be cordoned off until clean-up takes place. Disposal of DU fragments should come under appropriate national or international recommendations for disposal of radioactive materials;
  • drinking water and food, if contamination is suspected, be monitored and appropriate action is taken;
  • individuals who believe they have been exposed to DU and are concerned see their medical practitioner. However, general screening of populations living in areas where DU munitions were used is not called for.[23]




[1] BBC Children protest over cluster bombs

[2] Minister welcomes the Convention on Cluster Munitions entering into force


[4] Kellay, A. Managing Acceptability: UK policy on depleted uranium weapons. pp14

[5] Zwijnenburg, W. Hazard Aware.

[6] MEPs hear criticism of EC risk assessment:

[7] DU Firing programme at Eskmeals - As Low As reasonably Practical?

[8] P6_TA(2008)0233: European Parliament resolution on (depleted) uranium weapons and their effect on human health and the environment – towards a global ban on the use of such weapons.

[9] UNODA Follow-up of resolutions and decisions adopted by the First Committee at its past session / Presentation of reports, 14 October 2008.

[10] The Guardian: Armed forces minister sorry for misleading MPs over depleted uranium

[11] CADU challenges flawed UK legal review of depleted uranium munitions

[12] British jury rules that DU was likely cause of dead Gulf Veteran's colon cancer:

[13] The Response of the National Radiological Protection Board to the Report of the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE);

[14] Gulf War Illness and the Health of Gulf War Veterans. Scientific Findings and Recommendations Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses.


[15] Smith, D, Brown, R. DSTL, Radiological Assessment of Depleted Uranium Impact Locations in Iraq,
via source:

[16] Smith, D. UK Ministry of Defence Environmental Monitoring in Bosnia August 2002 Survey Report,



[19] UK Uranium Weapons Network submission to the Chilcot Inquiry on the UK’s use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq, pp7.

[20] Fundamental Safety Principles IAEA Safety Standards Series No.  SF-1:

[21] Brown, R, DERA Radiation Protection Services. Notes of a presentation to the UK Royal Society Depleted Uranium Working Group on 19 January 2000.

[22] United Nations, Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium. Report of the Secretary-General, A/63/170, 2008.