While the UK’s decision to send depleted-uranium shells to Ukraine is unlikely to prove a turning point in the war’s outcome, it will have a lasting, potentially devastating, impact on soldiers, civilians, and the environment. The controversial deployment of DU doesn’t pose faintly the same risks as the actual nuclear weapons Putin and his associates have hinted they might use someday in Ukraine or as would a potential meltdown at the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in that country. Still, its use will certainly help create an even more lethal, all too literally radioactive theater of war — and Ukraine will end up paying a price for it.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that American forces fired more than 860,000 rounds of DU shells during that 1991 war to push Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military out of Kuwait. The result: a poisoned battlefield laced with radioactive debris, as well as toxic nerve agents and other chemical agents.
In neighboring southern Iraq, background radiation following that war rose to 30 times normal. Tanks tested after being shelled with DU rounds had readings 50 times higher than average.
“It’s hot forever,” explains Doug Rokke, a former major in the U.S. Army Reserve’s Medical Service Corps who helped decontaminate dozens of vehicles hit by DU shells during the first Gulf War. “It doesn’t go away. It only disperses and blows around in the wind,” he adds. And of course, it wasn’t just soldiers who suffered from DU exposure. In Iraq, evidence has been building that DU, an intense carcinogenic agent, has led to increases in cancer rates for civilians, too.
Both Russia and the U.S. have reasons for using DU, since each has piles of the stuff sitting around with nowhere to put it. Decades of manufacturing nuclear weapons have created a mountain of radioactive waste. In the U.S., more than 500,000 tons of depleted-uranium waste has built up since the Manhattan Project first created atomic weaponry, much of it in Hanford, Washington, the country’s main plutonium production site. As I investigated in my book Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, Hanford is now a cesspool of radioactive and chemical waste, representing the most expensive environmental clean-up project in history with an estimated price tag of $677 billion.
Uranium, of course, is what makes the whole enterprise viable: you can’t create atomic bombs or nuclear power without it. The trouble is that uranium itself is radioactive, as it emits alpha particles and gamma rays. That makes mining uranium one of the most dangerous operations on the planet.Will the West Turn Ukraine Into a Nuclear Battlefield? – Global ResearchGlobal Research – Centre for Research on Globalization