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Managing acceptability: UK policy on depleted uranium weapons

This report critically assesses the methods that the UK has used to defend its development and use of DU weapons since the 1960s.
3 October 2012 - Aneaka Kellay

A PDF version of the report is available at the end of this article. Paper copies of the report are available on request.


Executive summary and recommendations

Depleted uranium (DU) is used in armour piercing tank shells and bullets because of its high density and because it burns upon impact. The use of DU munitions results in the uncontrolled release of chemically toxic and radioactive particles of respirable size and can lead to the contamination of soils, infrastructure and groundwater; DU particles are carcinogenic and genotoxic.

In Iraq and the Balkans, numerous reports from medical staff have noted rising rates of cancer and birth defects. Though these may be linked with the use of DU weapons,  to date there have not been any large scale epidemiological studies on exposed civilian populations that can confirm this. Countries that use these weapons claim that this lack of evidence means that DU does not pose a significant risk to human health.

This report argues that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been aware of the intrinsic public unacceptability of DU weapons since their initial development in the Cold War. In order to overcome this, the MoD has consistently sought to manage the public and political debate over the weapons, a process which continues to the present day.

The MoD developed DU munitions on the basis of a perceived military need and continues to stubbornly defend their use, largely on the basis of the difficulties they face in replacing them. In spite of a growing understanding of their potential humanitarian impact and increasing international pressure for a ban on their use, the MoD has stuck to what amounts to a public relations campaign to deflect public and parliamentary scrutiny.

The MoD’s strategy raises issues of both democratic accountability and institutional transparency; it has also necessitated the politicisation of scientific research and the active dismissal of the concerns of civil society and parliamentarians. While this report focuses on DU munitions, the lessons drawn from its analysis of the MoD’s behaviour have wider implications for the MoD’s accountability.

Politics of early DU research & development
DU munitions were researched and developed in the Cold War era between the 1960s and 1980s. Throughout this period it is clear that DU was seen as contentious by cabinet ministers and the public.

Issues of contamination and the health hazards posed by inhaling DU dust were brought forward by safety officials and early consideration of these issues was requested. This request was deferred until after DU’s military utility was assessed. When a percieved advantage became apparent during trials between 1975-6, MoD staff focused on managing the concerns around DU rather than assessing the risk they posed to civilians and personnel. This tactic of managing public and political acceptability ensured that the proposals for DU development in the UK were accepted.

The MoD’s strategy for controlling the terms of the debate developed during this period – selective openness, managing the framing of DU’s hazards and undermining public opposition – formed the basis for the UK’s policy on DU. The policy paid little regard to the effect that their weaponry might have on veterans, civilian populations, and the environment in post-conflict states.

DU used in the Gulf War      
The Gulf War (1990-1991) marked the first significant use of DU munitions by the US and UK in a conflict. On returning from the Gulf, a number of veterans subsequently reported a range of illnesses and, as concern grew, questions were raised over the use of DU weapons.

The MoD’s attitude toward public concerns over DU at this time was one of denial and non-engagement. Despite indications to the contrary, it was claimed that no evidence showed DU to pose a health or environmental risk. This claim was made even as the MoD stated that no further research would be commissioned and in the knowledge that very little research had yet been done.

DU was framed by the MoD as innocuous, effective and necessary to protect UK troops. The need and performance of DU weapons was overstated which, alongside a troop protection narrative was used to distract from DU’s humanitarian consequences. No attempts were made to take responsibility for contamination - despite calls from Iraq and Kuwait and warnings from the UK’s adviser on nuclear safety.

DU used in the Balkans      
The controversy over DU grew considerably in the late 1990s during the Balkan conflicts. As a result, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UK Royal Society and the MoD conducted their own research programmes.

Though well conducted, this research encountered a number of limiting factors: a lack of data (for example on civilian and troop exposure), a lack of US firing coordinates - which prevented the majority of DU sites in Iraq from being assessed for contamination, the collapse of institutions in affected states and the impact of a lack of funding and the volatile security situation on fieldwork.

International organisations broadly concluded that DU did not present as large a risk as the media had presented. However, DU contamination had been identified in hotspots around targeted sites, and DU had been found in drinking water in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
UNEP, WHO and the Royal Society made recommendations for the long term monitoring of the environment, clean up and decontamination of polluted sites and awareness raising among local populations. In addition to this in 2010, citing scientific uncertainty over the long term environmental impact of DU contamination, UNEP called for a precautionary approach to the use of DU.

The MoD responded by taking up some of these recommendations, though the extent of this remains severely limited. The MoD has cherry picked research outcomes that maintained a view of DU as acceptable, whilst failing to adequately acknowledge uncertainty and appropriately fulfil the recommendations of expert bodies.

The underlying policy that DU weapons will be used and their acceptability managed remained largely unchanged, in spite of a growing body of scientific evidence that highlighted uncertainty and recommended precaution.

DU used in the invasion of Iraq
The decision by US led Coalition Forces (CF) to invade Iraq in 2003 was met with massive domestic opposition and renewed scrutiny over the use of DU. In response the MoD publicly stated that they had a ‘moral obligation’ for the post-conflict clean up of DU in Iraq.

The stated ‘moral obligation’ for clean-up ultimately comprised of: the removal of eight military vehicles, an undisclosed quantity of surface-lying DU fragments as part of standard ordnance clearance work, and the dissemination of generic information warning Iraqis to stay away from battlefield debris.

Funding was made available via the Department for International Development (DfID) for a UNEP-run capacity building programme to train Iraqis to assess DU contamination. To help facilitate this, the UK released its DU firing coordinates to UNEP, although the US did not.

On examination, the MoD’s clean-up efforts were not sufficient to the task at hand. The removal of eight vehicles remains a token gesture given the extent of contamination that the 1,900 kgs of DU fired by the UK would have caused. Iraqis were not given any DU-specific hazard awareness information, and UNEP’s programme was severely hampered by lack of funding, the refusal of the US to release its firing coordinates and the lamentable security situation.

The MoD’s announcement of a ‘moral obligation’ for clean up has been shown to be a façade, enabling the MoD to maintain an air of respectability and political support for the controversial weapon.

DU politics post 2003
Two themes that have influenced the developing politics of DU since 2003 are explored here: the MoD’s own research programme and the resurgence of international pressure for a ban on the weapons. This section will also review the UK’s current policy on DU weapons.

MoD DU research programme
Following public pressure, the MoD instigated a major DU research programme. The programme was monitored by an independent review board and though commendable for furthering research on DU’s environmental behaviour, was heavily skewed. Only one of the 12 research areas focused on the health effects of DU.

The programme revealed a number of knowledge gaps and, as was noted by the review board, this research should have been done prior to the weapons entering service and certainly before they were used.

Significantly, the research programme also marked the beginning of research into less toxic alternatives to DU weapons. This shift was a tacit acceptance that radioactive and chemically toxic conventional weapons are unacceptable.

International concern
While previously driven primarily by media coverage of DU’s use in conflict, sustained pressure is now being applied through civil society initiatives in cooperation with states and parliamentarians.

Since 2001, DU weapons have been the focus of three UN General Assembly resolutions (2007, 2008, 2010), four resolutions in the European Parliament (2001, 2003, 2006, 2008), a resolution in the Latin American Parliament (2009), and the subject of domestic bans in Costa Rica (2011) and Belgium (2007).

An outcome of the political attention in Europe has driven a tactical shift in the language the MoD now use to justify DU’s acceptability. A new risk/hazard discourse has emerged which acknowledges DU’s hazardous nature but notes that the likelihood of exposure to DU is low and thus the risk is non-existent. This assumption is based on the results of troop exposure studies. There remains no data on levels of civilian exposure, whose long term exposure scenarios are different to those of military personnel.

Current position
The UK is in a problematic procurement ‘impasse’ thanks to short-sighted development decisions dating back to the 1960s. Export options for the UK’s only DU round, CHARM3, are limited and the round is no longer manufactured.

Investigation into an upgrade has revealed that a tungsten round combined with a German smoothbore gun barrel is more effective than the current CHARM3 round, however for reasons of cost and the toxicity of the tungsten round, replacement plans have been shelved. The MoD response to the toxicity of tungsten is another acknowledgement of the problematic nature of chemically toxic conventional weapons.

The MoD continues to maintain poorly supported arguments of ‘the MoD does not recognise there is a risk to health and the environment from the use of DU ammunition’ to deflect public and parliamentary opposition to a highly controversial weapon, which the MoD needs to fulfil a perceived capability requirement. By refusing to recognise the potential risks from DU weapons, the UK government is also able to evade responsibility for costly decontamination and the potential humanitarian impact of the weapons.

The UK’s use of DU weapons has raised several key issues:

The MoD’s negligent attitude toward humanitarian concerns
During the 1970s, the MoD’s attitude sidelined concerns from safety officials to gain approval for the development of a weapon they perceived as necessary. Only after heightened public concern did the MoD make efforts to investigate the impact of DU weapons.

Significantly, the issue of civilian exposure to DU remains under-researched. As was noted in 1971 and again in 2007 the health and environmental consequence of DU weapons should have been considered prior to their development and use.

The limited extent of the UK’s post-conflict obligations
The official government line has remained throughout that post-conflict remediation work is the responsibility of the affected state.

The public outcry that arose around DU’s use during the Iraq invasion in 2003 forced the MoD to recognise a ‘moral obligation’ for clean-up. However in practice the UK failed to sufficiently fulfil this obligation. International and domestic organisations’ recommendations for post conflict clean up, hazard awareness and environmental monitoring are yet to be fulfilled.

At issue is state responsibility for the post-conflict management of toxic remnants of war and whether the domestic environmental norms that apply to parties to a conflict during peacetime, such as the polluter pays principle, should apply after conflict.

The MoD’s ‘transparent’ public relations strategy
Since 1979, the MoD has attempted to manage the public and ministerial perception of DU with an aggressive public relations strategy. Public statements during the 1970s downplayed DU’s hazards and avoided the key issue of the hazardous dust generated by DU use, despite acknowledging in private that DU would not be fired in training due to health and environmental concerns.

The 1990s blanket dismissal of the risks changed during the early 2000s and was followed by a strategy of ‘selective transparency and openness’ after numerous reports highlighted that DU was problematic.

The current justification for DU use now utilises scientific uncertainty as a justification for inaction. This new discourse, which recognises that DU is a hazard, but argues that there is insufficient evidence of risk is at odds with UK and EU environmental protection norms. Calls from UNEP which have cited scientific uncertainty as justification for a precautionary approach continue to be ignored.

MoD influence highlights a democratic deficit
The MoD has a vested interest in ensuring the ongoing use of DU munitions. In the debate over their acceptability they have sought, and still maintain, a highly influential role in the framing of UK DU policy. But is this morally acceptable?

To what extent should the MoD’s interests be balanced with humanitarian and environmental considerations and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the policy shaped by the MoD is properly scrutinised?

The MoD’s current and historical strategy suggests that DU munitions are intrinsically unacceptable to the British public. Similarly their use clearly runs counter to our domestic environmental and health protection norms. Yet on this issue the MoD remains largely unaccountable, both to parliamentary and civil society scrutiny.

The use of DU weapons has raised questions of moral and political acceptability; questions that those with a vested interest are poorly placed to answer. A formalised mechanism through which humanitarian and environmental concerns over new weapons technologies can be raised and scrutinised as a counterbalance to military interests is urgently required.  

This is an issue that is wider than the question of DU weapons; it relates to the numerous controversial weapons and military strategies that the UK Armed Forces employ. This must be addressed by government and civil society.


It is pertinent that the UK government:

Accelerate efforts to remove DU munitions from the UK’s arsenal.
The UK should take the opportunity to display international leadership and set a date for the removal of CHARM3 from its arsenal. It should accept that DU’s use runs counter to civilian and environmental protection norms and has no place in contemporary conflict. 

Assess the potential humanitarian and environmental impact of toxic munition components.
This should begin at the earliest stage of development or during procurement and remain an ongoing requirement throughout the lifespan of the weapons. Assessments should be undertaken in a transparent manner to facilitate the input from academia and independent experts. Where components are found to be potentially hazardous, steps should be taken to identify less toxic alternatives.

Extend its precautionary approach to encompass civilian risk reduction and decontamination.
The MoD should seek to bridge the gulf between the precautionary approach it takes to the protection of its own troops and the management of DU contamination on its own properties and its obligations for assisting communities affected by the use of DU weapons.

Reassess its approach to managing scientific uncertainty.
Domestic environmental and health protection norms stemming from UK and EU environmental law  uphold the precautionary approach which entails that due  care  and  attention should be taken  in  the  face  of  scientific uncertainties.  The MoD must pay heed to this principle in considering the effect of its weaponry on civilian health and the environment during conflict. The claimed utility of munitions should not be employed by the MoD as a means of overruling this principle.

Create formalised mechanisms to provide greater scrutiny over MoD weapons policy.
Increasing focus on inhumane, indiscriminate and controversial weapons during the last two decades has underlined the need for more balanced debate over how the MoD chooses its methods and means of warfare. New technologies such as drones and autonomous robots will again test the responsiveness of the MoD to humanitarian concerns, even as criticism grows of the lack of scrutiny over MoD policy for the assessment of the legality of new weapons. Parliament and civil society should have a stronger, more formalised role in these debates in order to add a democratic counterbalance to the interests of the MoD.