Heavy Metal: The Radioactive Ammunition Headed For Ukraine – Analysis


By Amos Chapple

(RFE/RL) — After U.S. President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on September 21 that a new shipment of arms would arrive in Ukraine “next week,” Zelenskiy replied that the package has “exactly what our soldiers need now.”

Headlining the new delivery is the first shipment of U.S.-made Abrams tanks, which will presumably arrive with their controversial ammunition of 120 mm depleted uranium rounds.

Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of the process to enrich uranium for use in nuclear fuel or weapons. The United States has vast stocks of the material, which is essentially nuclear waste that is 60 percent as radioactive as raw uranium. Beginning in the 1970s, the material began to be tested in sabot rounds — dart-like projectiles fired from tank cannons designed to pierce the solid slabs of frontal armor used in Soviet tanks of the time.

The advantages of DU as an armor-piercing projectile are many, as are the controversies that have persistently surrounded its use.

Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth. A 10-centimeter cube of the metal weighs around 20 kilograms, giving it virtually unstoppable momentum and, when alloyed with small amounts of titanium, DU acquires steel-like strength.

Unlike tungsten projectiles, which squish or “mushroom” when they strike steel, DU anti-tank darts “self-sharpen” by shearing off their sides as they slam through armor. A final, macabre characteristic of the material is its propensity to vaporize into a superheated aerosol that explodes into a fireball after penetrating the target vehicle.

It is this toxic, radioactive aerosol especially that has led to decades of research, activism, and fears for what DU does to the environment and to people. Following the first Gulf War, the metal was blamed for the serious health issues suffered by veterans of the conflict that became known as “Gulf War syndrome.”

A 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found no link between DU exposure and widespread health issues, and NATO concluded the same in 2005. Later research, however, has linked wartime DU exposure to extensive health problems including surges in cancer rates among soldiers and civilians exposed to the metal.

Britain has been supplying Kyiv with DU munitions to be fired from its Ukrainian-crewed Challenger tanks since early 2023.

In March the Kremlin responded furiously to the news that the shells, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed had a “nuclear component,” would be supplied to Ukrainian forces.

Putin claims Russia has “hundreds of thousands” of DU projectiles in its armory and that “Russia will have to respond accordingly” to the munitions being supplied to Ukraine.

  • Amos Chapple is a New Zealand-born photographer and picture researcher with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

One thought on “Heavy Metal: The Radioactive Ammunition Headed For Ukraine – Analysis

  • September 24, 2023 at 3:55 am

    This article is written by a biased author with a “particular interest in the former USSR”. What it says is the US is going to start supplying Ukraine with anti-tank ammunition which use depleted uranium penetrator rods a small amount of which vaporizes and may cause a health risk to people who breathe it. The vaporized health risk when breathed is a unique point of in view of the fact in that the projectile is designed to kill the tank crew instantly – breathing any particles of anything when dead. But the suggestion is the US is “bad” – not for giving Ukrainians tank rounds that kill Russian (invaders trying to kill them) but for giving them rounds that create a small amount vapor the killed Russians won’t be breathing. A twisted article that makes no sense, written by an author biased in favor of the deceased “USSR”.


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